Inviting diverse audiences outdoors one selfie at a time
I wanted to sit outside and listen to the roar of the ocean, but I was afraid.
I wanted to walk through the redwoods, but I was afraid.
I wanted to glide in a kayak and feel the cool water splash in my face, but I was afraid.
— Excerpt from “Black Women in the Wilderness” by Evelyn C. White
“It took me until I was almost 35 to experience the outdoors because it was a world I knew nothing about, and one that I thought was closed off to people of color,” says Will “Akuna” Robinson, military veteran and outdoor enthusiast. “Growing up, I never heard of black people camping or hiking, never saw people who looked like me in gear commercials or ads.”
Feeling comfortable and welcomed in the outdoors doesn’t come easily for everyone, especially those from diverse groups. Historically, white males were most of the outdoor adventure seekers and nature protectors. Currently, minorities make up more than one-third of the U.S. population, and it is estimated that by 2044, the country will be a minority-majority. However, only 22 percent of visitors to national parks in 2014 were a minority, and 26 percent of participants in outdoor activities in natural areas are non-Caucasian.
Diversity in Media and Advertising
Our media outlets still depict a white majority in outdoor environments, be it in advertising or social media. According to Diversify Outdoors, “People of color and other diverse identities have long been underrepresented in the outdoor industry and its advertising campaigns.”
When media does include diverse groups, the result isn’t always positive. “I remember a post that recently went viral on Facebook of a store using a plus-sized mannequin to model leggings and a sports bra. It was amazing to see that kind of representation from a huge sportswear company, but [there were] hundreds of awful comments. They made me feel so bad about myself,” says Kaila Walton, adventure and landscape photographer, and plus-size woman. “We are told to go exercise and lose weight and then, in the same breath, we are told ‘don’t wear those pieces of athletic wear, that’s disgusting — skin-tight clothes don’t belong on fat people.’”
Behind the scenes, there’s a grassroots movement happening in social media that’s changing the face of outdoor recreation. Across social media platforms, individuals from around the world are highlighting their outdoor adventures and, in turn, are motivating and inspiring others. These individuals aren’t the typical white, middle- to upper-class outdoor adventurer. They are from minority groups; they have disabilities, they are LGBTQ+ and they are plus-sized.
For Walton, seeing others like her on social media is a turn in the right direction. “There are a bunch of great inclusive Instagram pages related to the outdoors, as well as body-positive outdoor influencers that I have been following. They are making great steps toward an inclusive outdoors for all, no matter a person’s physical size, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity. I find that when you surround yourself with like-minded people, especially ones who look like you or are similar, even if it is just on social media, it absolutely helps your mindset when it comes to feeling like you belong in the outdoors.”
Seeing others like her on social media has allowed Walton to also feel comfortable posting pictures of herself there. “I am slowly trying to post more and more photos of me, because I have found that a lot of my followers like when I am authentic about the issues when it comes to fat people in the outdoors. I would like (them) to see that anyone can be in the outdoors, hiking, camping, backpacking, biking, kayaking or whatever sport they are into, no matter their size. If I can inspire someone who looks like me to get outside and enjoy what the outdoors has to offer, then I have done my job.”
For Corina Newsome, her social media presence came as a college class assignment. As part of a graduate seminar course, students were asked to use social media to engage in science communication. Newsome chose to create a blog, and later Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, to highlight her life as an inner-city-raised black biology graduate student, who was spending much of her time outdoors conducting research. It didn’t take long before it took off. “I was contacted by people from across the country and world because of my blog. I realized this is a very effective medium for communicating content, but also making valuable connections.”
From there, she began to focus her social media presence. “I became very intentional about what I posted, addressing systemic issues in the field that relate to my life experiences, such as being a woman, being African American and being from the city. I’ve been able to meet other black people with the same kinds of passions and concerns and motivators as me — both around the country and very close to me. It has allowed me to forge friendships and partnerships, as well as to connect with people who I have admired for a long time.”
Robinson’s journey into the outdoors came as a way to handle his PTSD that resulted from his military service. “In 2016, I took a chance and got out on trails because I needed some healing in nature and just hoped for the best. Almost 8,000 trail miles later, here I am.” Today, he is a long-distance hiker, has completed the Appalachian Trail and is currently hiking the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. He is sharing his story on social media and uses it to connect with others and to reach out to other veterans. “I try to stay active on my Instagram account to let other veterans with PTSD know that they can find healing in nature," Robinson says. "Also, [I do it] to be visible to other people of color who might want to explore the outdoors. Hopefully, by seeing my journeys, they feel more comfortable getting out there.
“I think my journey is showing veterans with PTSD that there are other options that can help them manage their symptoms. Medication and counseling are resources that work for some; others need more to get back on their feet,” he adds. “I’m constantly contacted by other veterans who have been using the outdoors for therapy for years. Others have started because they have seen my journeys. It lets me know that I’m doing some good for people who truly need it.”
Diversity in the Nonprofit Sector
The Las Vegas-based Get Outdoor Nevada foundation is working hard to get people of all types outdoors. Social media is a large part of its promotion. “Our mission is to connect the community to outdoor spaces in Nevada,” says Bertha Gutierrez, volunteer program director. Gutierrez, who is from El Salvador, promotes diversity in the outdoors whenever she can. “People of color in the outdoors is something I am passionate about, and long-term, I want to make an impact in that area — to get more people outdoors.” She says that at Get Outdoors Nevada, “even our team is diverse. We have 12 staff members, and seven are people of color.”
Gutierrez grew up playing outside — going to the beach, playing in the ocean and visiting parks in El Salvador. She didn’t feel comfortable at first hiking here in the United States. “Usually, I was the only person of color outside. When I first started hiking, it was hard for me to feel like I belonged. I felt like ‘I’m not supposed to be here.’ But it was such a wonderful experience. Walking in nature for just a little bit melts stress away. You feel so wonderful afterwards," she says. Eventually, hiking became a regular activity for her.
In her work, Gutierrez strives to make others feel comfortable outdoors as well. “I feel like everyone should feel like they belong. There are so many health benefits from spending time outside, and it doesn’t have to be rock climbing or hiking. It can be [as simple as] going on a picnic, but that time outdoors is important for health. To have the outdoors be an inclusive space is important; we need to make sure that people have an opportunity to experience nature.”
The Role of Business
By promoting diversity in advertising and social media, outdoor recreation businesses not only can market their products, but also can share the story of diversity for others. GRIT Freedom Chair does just that by sharing stories and posts of users and community groups that use its all-terrain wheelchair. “The power of social media is that whether through images or video, we have the power to show people who need it the most that there is a way to regain some independence and enjoy the outdoors,” says Adrienne Ritchie, GRIT’s director of marketing.
“It is our belief that we can truly be more and do better when we partner together, which is why we like to promote these partnerships through social stories and testimonials. We not only want others to go ‘aha, this is how we can better our adaptive/accessible programming’ and use a current partnership as a blueprint, but also get the word out about organizations that are doing really great work to make their communities more accessible," Ritchie adds.
Just Get Outdoors and Take a Selfie
Today, our local park and recreation agencies are working hard for inclusion of minority and other diverse audiences. According to NRPA, almost half its member agencies have adopted formal inclusion policies, and a large number provide programming for those groups. Incorporating diversity into social media for programming campaigns can be a useful tool to invite diverse groups to attend.
“Social media is an amazing tool because it helps you see yourself in ways that you never would. It helps you see people who look just like you, doing something you didn’t even think about doing,” says Claudia Patterson. Although she always liked the outdoors, her love of hiking came later in life. While attending a plus-size yoga class, she connected with a fellow class member, who asked her to join a small group of women on a hike to Kilimanjaro. “Honestly, I had no idea of the magnitude of Kilimanjaro, but I said, ‘OK.’ Later, I realized what I had gotten myself into, but the training for that hike was some of the best times ever.” During the trip, the group documented their journey via social media. After they returned, Patterson continued hiking and posting to her social media accounts. She now leads monthly hikes in Northern California’s Bay area for plus-size hikers.
“For those of us on social media, we contribute in a way that lets people see that whether you’re fat, whether you’re brown or in any way not typical, the outdoors is for everyone,” contends Patterson. “It doesn’t matter if you have the right hiking boots or the perfect backpack. Put your leggings on, put your sneakers on and get outside and enjoy it.”
Here is a handful of selected Instagram accounts, blogs and websites that focus
on diversity (*highlighted in this article):
Websites and Blogs
- Disabled Hikers
- Diversify Outdoors
- Get Outdoors Nevada*
- GRIT Freedom Chair
- Hood Naturalist*
- Unlikely Hikers
- Outdoor Afro
Paula Jacoby-Garrett is a Freelance Writer located in Las Vegas, Nevada.