I wish I could report that I was shocked this spring when, while teaching my class “Talking About Diversity: #EquityOutdoors” at a state university thousands of miles away in New York, my hometown of Jackson emerged at the epicenter of the conservation movement and outdoor industry’s most controversial contemporary offenses.
But this is a story about inequity. And given that Jackson is one of the most inequitable locales in the U.S., our town has been long overdue for such a reckoning. Although we are woefully underprepared for it.
One semester earlier, in a course I developed celebrating the resilience that underrepresented outdoor recreationists display through digital storytelling that centers their experiences along the trail, at the crag and on the slopes, my students confronted a real-world example of white folx’s abysmal attempts at DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) work as it relates to outdoor recreation.
Specifically, they interrogated how these allied facets of the environmental movement — the conservation movement and the outdoor recreation industry — marginalize BIPOC (black individuals, indigenous peoples and other people of color) through Camber Outdoors’ theft of African American outdoorswoman Teresa Baker’s Outdoor CEO Pledge. But they were also afforded the opportunity to witness the early steps of reconciliation when Executive Director Deanna Buck resigned from her position as a result.
My spring semester students had a very different experience in “Equity Outdoors.” They learned to “talk about diversity” while intently watching and listening to the experiences of those at the helm of the #wewonttakeshiftanymore movement. As SHIFT Executive Director Christian Beckwith avoided accountability for the harm he did to the SHIFT 17, my students wondered why he and the Jackson community supporting him failed to adhere to one of our classroom ground rules: We must attend first and foremost to the voices of those who have been traditionally silenced and respond in ways that ethically center these individuals’ lived experiences. In the case of SHIFT, that means listening to and hearing the SHIFT 17.
Some wonder why critics of SHIFT, myself included, employ terms like “white supremacy culture” and “settler-colonialism” in our critiques. That is precisely because of how those in power are centering SHIFT’s white, male executive director in accounts of SHIFT’s 2018 Emerging Leaders Program disaster.
To be clear, white supremacy culture upholds whiteness as the default standard around which we center our institutions, structures and ideologies, while settler-colonialism connotes and celebrates a dominant, conqueror mentality. White supremacy and settler-colonialism are the two ideals at the core of manifest destiny, then the wilderness ideal, next Western notions of outdoor recreation and conservation themselves, and thus SHIFT.
The conservation and outdoor industries emerged from a 20th-century wilderness movement led by white male European decedents who defined wilderness for themselves as “unpeopled,” despite a vast history of peopled “wilderness” areas across Turtle Island (what we settlers know as North America) prior to first contact. Accordingly, these industries exalt white supremacist, settler-colonial figures like John Muir at every turn. Muir, in his “My First Summer in the Sierra,” writes of the Ahwahnechee peoples of Yosemite as “unclean animals that did not belong in the wilderness,” and “half-happy savages” living “[a] strangely dirty and irregular life.” Such wilderness ideals necessitated the violent removal of indigenous populations from valleys like the one we occupy today to make space for public lands such as Grand Teton National Park (on unceded Shoshone-Bannock, Cheyenne and Arapaho lands).
The ubiquity of these ideals today highlights how Euro-whiteness and maleness have historically excluded underrepresented identity groups from these realms and how hyper-present this exclusion remains. We see that when conservationists like Beckwith, who do not posses a holistic understanding of how white supremacist practices like gatekeeping underlie the core of U.S. environmental history, hurt underrepresented folx in the name of “saving the planet.”
We furthermore see in Beckwith’s actions the historicized, settler-colonial unwillingness to cede space, to even question whether one’s presence in an environment or at the helm of a nonprofit is appropriate or even right.
The social and cultural capital Beckwith enjoys as a result of his status as a prominent white male in a community that values whiteness, maleness and settler culture to the extent that ours does has afforded him the support of individuals who see him as the focus of this story and continue to affirm him at its center by co-opting the narrative.
But it is time to shift the narrative, which belongs to a cohort of bold individuals who are rewriting the story of what it means to belong in the outdoors in ways that are enhancing access to opportunities for the unlikeliest of hikers.
I encourage you, as I encourage my students, to center their voices, their experiences and their stories. You can access their SHIFT experiences via the group’s Medium site (#wewonttakeshiftanymore). Their resilience is also on display for all who choose to diversify their own outdoor experiences by curating more inclusive social media feeds.