Thriving Together: Diversity & Inclusion Panel Reflections

America Outdoors organized a first ever panel presentation and discussion on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at the virtual 2020 December conference.  The goal of the panel was, as its name implied: to share and gain insights into how diverse demographics offer new opportunities to thrive, engage, support, mentor, lead, and follow.

Thriving as an industry and community is not a new challenge. Whether facing economic downturns, regulatory changes, or the basic logistics of running a business at different scales, challenges are faced to thrive forward. Work on equitable and inclusive practices for a changing and growing demographic requires comparable preparation, adaptation, and innovation in ways that can be good for business while being authentic and meaningful in addressing historic injustices.

The panel was the brainchild of the new AO task force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.  The DEI task force has 10 members from the AO community and AO staff. Here is the DEI Internal Guideline Statement of our task force.

The America Outdoors Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) Task Force objective is to support outfitters, members, and organizational leadership to learn and grow their DEI practices and efforts. The Task Force works to facilitate opportunities for DEI education and resources to the AO membership community.

We were thrilled to have Jose Gonzalez lead this panel. Jose is the founder of Latino Outdoors and a partner in the Avarna Group. He is an environmentalist, activist, artist, speaker, and facilitator. His work focuses on Equity & Inclusion frameworks and practices in the environmental, outdoor, and conservation fields.  Joining Jose were three of our AO members, Valerie Pufahl, Executive Director of LEAP (Life Expanding Adventure Programs), Greg McFadden, owner of Canyons River Company, and Justin Salamon, Operations and Guide Manager at Canyon Explorations.


The Case for DEI Work in the Outdoor Industry

Jose kicked off the panel with a thought-provoking conversation about the trajectory of demographics, the roots and impact of racism, development of the field of DEI, and participation rates in outdoor activities by diverse groups. He challenged us to consider, reflect, act, and transform with regard to systems of racism, division, supremacism, and capitalism. He stressed our commonalities, the work we can do both together and apart, and the wins for all peoples when we do this work.


The demographics of the United States are shifting

As you can see in the graph from the Pew Research Center, the demographics of the United States will move toward a much more balanced and diverse representation over the next 30 years. See the Pew Research Report here.


Outdoor Participation Does Not Reflect Changing Demographics

Outfitters can help to positively impact these statistics. The participation rate of people of color in the outdoors in America, and especially of black Americans, is far lower than whites. The reasons for this low participation rate are varied, but just look at the non-intentional user groups. The transformational experiences and thrills of the outdoors should be available for all of us, of every background!



A Brief History of DEI Work

The Greenlining Institute connects the growth of the DEI field from the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, and in 2020, the twin scourges of the pandemic and black deaths at the hands of non-black policemen catapulted DEI to the forefront of American society. This framing helps to stress the point of the structural and necessary changes aligned to demographic shifts such that we are preparing for the future rather that reacting to what some may misunderstand as “trendy.” See the Greenlining Institute report here.



Systems of Change

To do DEI work, you must focus not just on tangible actions, but also on transformational and cultural changes. 

How many of us have unhelpful, unconscious mental models and relationships/power dynamics that support implicit biases that we may even be unaware of?




Considerations from the Panelists

Jose Gonzales - Latino Outdoors, Avarna Group: Two important things to consider are that fragility will come up in different ways and to not to misinterpret any discomfort as a threat to safety, nor should you allow it to lead to inaction. That only perpetuates current inequities, and we all have a role to play. The second, is that we will be on the spectrum of action. Some may be starting in awareness and need to know more. Others may be trying a variety of actions at the personal level and in their workplaces. Others may be ready to engage in systemic changes. And it’s not prescriptively sequential, it can vary depending on what we are doing. The important thing is that you are doing DEI awareness building and action as part of a plan, just as you would engage with any other work to facilitate change.

Valerie Pufahl - LEAP Adventures:   As a non-profit outfitter providing no-cost programs to groups of youth and adults who have survived and are integrating trauma and a spectrum of significant adversities, the individuals we get to take down the river are from very diverse backgrounds. Our learnings and growth in the last few years have focused on the inclusivity of our programming and expanding staff training to best equip our guides to not only run exceptional river trips but also offer deeply respectful and inclusive care for each individual. This has included supporting our guides to have interactive education that provides an understanding of how trauma is formed and the many life scenarios that can lead to trauma, including systemic racism and discrimination. Even with the folks we take down the river, we still only attract narrow diversity among our guide applicants, with the most diversity being in guides who identify within the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer) community. We are currently developing programming for past participants to have accessible training in outdoor leadership and guiding to support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & People of Color) young adults and the great diversity of our participant communities to be more represented in our staff and across the industry. We’re consistently reviewing our job postings and marketing to utilize language and images that are inclusive and authentic. As an organization, we are working to create more leadership opportunities through developing additional Board roles and expanding our committee membership, imagining with our Board of Directors what we want this leadership circle to look like to better represent our participant communities, and investing in DEI conversations consistently across all groups and committees within our organization. It takes constant vigilance until it becomes part of our constant awareness, but we are seeing progress within and great benefits in what we are able to offer directly on our programs. I think this work asks us to aim big while taking small, daily actions to create awareness and start to enact change within our operations, staff training, leadership, and across the industry. Being curious and leaning into courageous conversations with a lot of care goes a long way.

Greg McFadden - Canyons River Company:  It is important to recognize that when it comes to DEI work, inclusion is a great starting point. Just as we all feel “included” to be a part of something bigger than ourselves in our river connections, offering the experience of what we do to a broader base is a winning direction. At Canyons River Company, we have found that in our many years of offering our specialty LGBTQ trip each season, we have infused a “safe” and inviting pathway to diverse guests for all our river trips. We have grown this variety of guests every year. This did not happen overnight or even in one season. It has been an investment and dedication to make change happen. As an outfitter as well as personally being a part of the LGBTQ community, I have been able to give authenticity for inclusion in our company foundations.  This has helped fuse into a larger scope of diversity. As the BLM movement unfolded this year, it was important for me to realize what Canyons could do to help open more doors to more types of people. Being from Central Idaho, we do not have a largely diverse state populous, so I searched across the country and found a foundation that encourages young BIPOC adults to pursue careers in the outdoors. Canyons looks forward to hosting a charter trip with Atlanta’s Greening Youth Foundation in 2022. We also are offering some 2021 BIPOC scholarships for our September Yoga and Paddling trips this summer. Being creative, vulnerable, and unafraid to reach out is the best way to start the paths to finding inclusivity.

Justin Salamon - Canyon Explorations:   At Canyon Explorations / Expeditions, we approach our work to become more inclusive, diverse and offer a more equitable workplace and recreation space by raising our awareness to the areas where we have excelled and areas where we just haven’t figured out how to approach some challenges. On the awareness to action spectrum there are issues where we have made progress through action - gender equity on our crews (although not all identities are represented and our awareness is now less binary), LGBTQ affinity trips and a safe space for employees who identify as LGBTQ , and accessibility trips for those with disabilities. We also know that we have many blind spots and that we are just now able to be aware of the areas where we need to grow. Our workforce is predominantly white and so is our clientele. As we aim to attract more diverse identities, we are doing our best to educate ourselves and our guides to create an environment where all are welcome and safe on our trips.

We are informed by and support the voices of the eleven indigenous tribes affiliated with the Grand Canyon. There are several ways we do this including direct partnerships with members of specific tribes to create experiential education programs for our guides, supporting programs and outreach with partners like Grand Canyon River Guides whose programs help guides connect with tribes in educational settings like the annual Guide Training Seminar, developing trips with Native interpreters, and celebrating the efforts of the Grand Canyon Trust and the National Park Service in elevating native voices.

We have a long way to go but we are starting to map the road ahead of us. We are always learning and growing so please share your feedback, ideas and collaborate with us as we learn what it means to truly be diverse, equitable and inclusive.


2021 - Moving forward together!

We, the task force, are really encouraged about what’s possible in 2021.   Look for ongoing information and opportunities to get involved and thrive through DEI work.  We see all kinds of ways that AO members, our communities, and our customers can thrive together.

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Jeff Greiner
Asheville, NC
2/17/2021 10:56 AM

  Great stuff!! Very interested in following and learning from the DEI Task Force. I am not sure what the initials BIPOC stand for?

America Outdoors
Knoxville, TN
2/17/2021 12:06 PM

  Jeff, thanks so much for your comment. We apologize about the acronym-ing! Some clarification: DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer) BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & People of Color)