Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Embracing Diversity in the Great Outdoors

May 25, 2018
Embracing Diversity in the Great Outdoors
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Nailah Blades (center, in blue) founded Color Outside to create "a community of black women to build each other up.” Photo courtesy of Color Outside
Minorities who hike, bike and climb had long been ignored by retailers and brands. Thanks to the growth of support groups, that’s starting to change.

When Nailah Blades moved to Salt Lake City from sunny Santa Clarita, California — a suburb about 20 miles outside of Los Angeles, where she would often go hiking — there was one thing that didn’t change as she walked the nature trails: Everyone around her was very, very white.

“Being outdoors and hiking, and exploring the outdoors and paddle-boarding, is one of those realms where you’re just not expecting a ton of black women to be, or really any people of color,” she tells NationSwell, adding that even women-specific meetup groups she joined also lacked people who looked like her.

“It was intimidating,” recalls Blades. “The lot of groups I saw were women’s groups, but all white women or all women who had been doing this since forever and were experts in biking, hiking and rock-climbing. I did not want to go into that world as a beginner.”

Blades, originally from Montreal, had always been surrounded by people of various backgrounds. But the dearth of diversity she encountered in the great outdoors inspired her to start her own adventure club, called Color Outside, last year.

“I thought it was important to create a community of black women to build each other up,” Blades says.

She’s not alone. There are scores of clubs and communities around the nation — Brown People Camping, Unlikely Hikers and Outdoor Asian, to name a few — that focus on getting underrepresented groups out in nature. Diversify Outdoors, a coalition of like-minded nature lovers, highlights the recent boom, with a reach of more than 150,000 followers on Instagram alone.

But the swell in diversity-focused outdoors groups highlights another issue — namely, that retailers have failed to market premium outdoor products to a portion of society that has seen massive jumps in salaries over the past few years.

One of Diversify Outdoors’ affiliated groups is Sending in Color, co-founded by Justin Forrest Parks (yes, that’s his real name) and a fellow mountain-climber friend in Chicago. The outdoor enthusiasts had noticed that rock-climbing gyms in their city had grown in popularity — one location multiplied to four in a matter of a few years, Parks says — but almost all of the climbers were white.

Justin Forrest Parks co-founded Sending in Color in Chicago after noticing that almost everyone in the city’s climbing gyms was white.Photo courtesy of Sending in Color

“So here was this massive expansion of climbing in the city, but then we started looking around and seeing that there weren’t a lot of black or Latino individuals here,” says Parks, who is African-American. “And so we decided to create a group for meetups for people of color in a space that would feel welcoming.”

Sending in Color’s first gathering, last November, drew a few people. Now as many as 80 people attend the group’s monthly meetups.

But feeling welcome in the world of outdoor recreation isn’t always something that comes easy. Both Parks and Blades point out that activities like camping, rafting and hiking have long been marketed as “things only white people do.”

That argument doesn’t come out of nowhere. In 2016, environmental-advocacy nonprofit The Outdoor Foundation found that nearly three-fourths of those who participated in outdoor recreation were white; less than 10 percent were black. Similarly, a 2011 National Park Service survey reported that only one in five visitors to a national park is nonwhite, and one in 10 is Hispanic. The stark difference in participation by race earned a name among activists, who started referring to it as the “adventure gap.”

Historically, outdoor retailers and brands have reflected this gap in their advertising and branding materials.

“There’s this thought, in terms of race, that [being] black means being low income. But if you look at studies of who’s spending money on vacation, typically communities of colors are spending more,” Parks says. “It’s a narrative of ‘We’re not seeing you out here, you don’t want to be here,’ when in reality most probably just don’t know there is a ‘here’ to go to.”

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Advocates like Nailah Blades (right) are looking to change the narrative about outdoor recreation in the U.S.Photo courtesy of Color Outside

According to the Mandala Research firm, African-American families were likely to take two or more international trips per year, which amounts to $48 billion spent. They’re also responsible for more than half of total spending in certain categories domestically, according to a Nielsen consumer report published this year.

And as other minority groups continue to make up more of the market share, smart retailers have adopted new strategies to include more diverse faces in their branding and advertising.

REI is one example. In 2014, the retail and outdoor recreation chain began to tailor its advertising to minority populations, in part by sponsoring the American Latino Heritage Fund’s American Latino Expedition, which awarded three Latino adventure groups with tours of national parks.

There’s a market for brands looking to be more inclusive in their messaging, says Becky Arreaga, president of the marketing firm Mercury Mambo in Austin, Texas.

“For brands looking to connect with multicultural communities, the timing couldn’t be better. I am very excited to see the groups and nonprofits emerging from the shadows,” says Arreaga, whose firm focuses on helping brands work with diverse voices. “Groups such as Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro have been leading the way, and this year I’ve seen a surge of other organizations becoming visible on social media.”

In a 2017 interview, Arreaga expanded on the benefit for brands to go outside — pun intended — their usual demographics.

“The point is to bring people into the conversation that represent this market and know the ins and outs,” she said, adding that the Latino and Hispanic communities, for example, are a growing and influential demographic that will need to be front and center for brands. “So what we are doing as an agency is creating these network of [social media] influencers, so that when brands are looking for that authentic voice, we’ve got the connections to help them do that.”

It’s something that Parks and Blades have been eager to see, as their own organizations have focused on an Instagram-first strategy of inspiring more people of color to get outdoors, share photos and spread a message of inclusion.

“There’s a lot of importance in feeling like you’re taking up space, wherever that space is, whether it’s outdoors or inside the boardroom,” Blades says. “I think it’s important for people of color to co-occupy this space, now, and traditionally be where we haven’t been able to do that.”