How Social Media is Making the Outdoors Inclusive

Training for the next project on Lake Winnepeg, Manitoba/ Photo credit: Polar Explorer Eric Larsen

Writer/Producer James Edward Mills

So far, 2018 has been a year a social change. From the headline-making, career-busting #metoo movement to the awakening of the outdoor industry to be more inclusive of underrepresented groups, the dialogue is changing and new voices are telling their own stories—and being heard.

“I think it’s important to understand that the diversity we’re seeing today in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation has been going on for a long time,” says writer/producer James Edward Mills, who has been a stalwart advocate for years and wrote Outside magazine’s current cover story on this issue. “People of color, the disabled, members of the LGBTQ community, and women have always been part of the world outside. In my opinion, what has changed is the ability of these specific affinity groups to control and share their own narratives through social media.”

We caught up with James about people to follow and what’s (finally) changing to make the outdoors more inclusive.

Why does it matter if outdoor recreation is diverse or not?

James Mills: Diversity in outdoor recreation matters because our public lands are supported and protected by the American people. I think that if we are going work toward a sustainable system of public lands management, we’ll need to include the interests of as many people as possible. A constituency of environmental stewardship that is as diverse as the U.S. population as whole means that we are much more likely to defend our public lands, especially our recreation areas, for future generations.

It seems like 2017 was about diversity awareness, now 2018 is about taking action to celebrate a broad range of new people and stories. What happened to bring about this change? 

James Mills: I think it’s important to understand that the diversity we’re seeing today in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation has been going on for a long time. Under-represented segments of the population—people of color, the disabled, members of the LGBTQ community, women—have always been part of the world outside. Perhaps what has changed is the ability of specific affinity groups to control and share their own narratives through social media.

You credit social media for being a vehicle for under-represented people to tell their own stories. Share some examples of this?

James Mills: Organizations such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Natives Outdoors, Flash Foxy, and many others are building community around visual images and story-sharing platforms such Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. By creating original content online that is genuine and authentic to their cultural experience, these groups can raise awareness and inspire their members to unapologetically engage in the natural world as their complete selves, without having to conform to the normalized behavior of a dominant culture (namely white men) that is too often foreign or even hostile to their identity as anything else.

You’ve been working on this message of diversity and inclusiveness for a long time. Where did the fuel for the fire come from? Is it satisfying that people are really taking action now?

James Mills: I think I was primarily inspired by my parents who were Civil Rights activists in the 1960s and 70s. The disparities of access to outdoor recreation seem to fall along many of the same racial and socio-economic lines that divide most aspects of modern society. Truthfully, compared to what my mom and dad had to endure to give my generation the many privileges we enjoy today, this effort has been fairly easy. I can take some satisfaction in the progress we seem to be making, but I know we still have much further to go before all is said and done.

How do you hope things will change for people and for the planet?

James Mills: I mainly hope that we can come to an understanding that our individual desires to spend time recreating in nature are dependent upon the ability of everyone else to do the same. If we keep consuming our natural resources at the rate we are now, while depleting the planet’s ability to replenish itself to sustain human life for generations yet to come, we won’t be talking about recreation anymore. Our primary focus will be survival.

What factors prevent the outdoors from being more diverse?

James Mills: That’s a hard question to answer in simple terms. We’re still feeling the effects of racial segregation that continue, either deliberately or incidentally, to this day. Though most, if not all, of the legal and physical barriers have been removed, there are still many cultural constraints that prevent certain segments of the population from spending time in nature. There are those who still have difficulty imagining themselves as “outdoorsy.” Until they can be encouraged past that perception, there is very little we can do to make the outdoors more diverse. It’s not like we can force people. They have to come to it on their own terms

What are some steps we can all take to make the outdoors more inclusive?

James Mills: I believe that each of us can a lot to welcome people into the outdoors and encourage them to participate in the activities we enjoy. The best way we can do that is to share stories and experiences that are socially and culturally relevant to the interests of those we want to attract. Often that means having to abandon our perceptions of what we think it means to be an outdoors person, and help others discover what it means to them.

Who is your outdoor hero?

James Mills: Anyone who is willing to help facilitate the outdoor experience of someone other than themselves. The best way to save the natural environment is to make it more accessible to others.

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