Our Pledge to Do Better
Inequality and the outdoors
During a time when society can’t agree on the shape of our planet, not even the most conspiracy-minded would argue that the outdoors is a diverse space. Our 2019 AT thru-hiker survey, which had 365 respondents, our largest response rate in the five years we’ve organized the survey, had a total of zero Black respondents. Since this survey captures only a fraction of those who actually hike the trail, this does not mean there were zero Black thru-hikers. But whether looking at this data or simply spending any amount of time on any of our country’s long trails, it’s quite obvious that people of color are not well represented.
To those readying their retorts of “the outdoors is free and open to all!” or something to the effect, this is the part where we are encouraging you to employ some empathy.
There are countless examples of Black people being harassed or attacked during activities White people consider simple recreation. Last week, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy highlighted this point this point quite well:
We have seen, not just in the past few weeks but throughout the history of outdoor recreation, black men and women try to enjoy the outdoors only to have the police called on them while birdwatching (Christian Cooper), to have a gun pulled on them while picnicking (Jessica and Franklin Richardson) or to have been shot while going for a run (Ahmaud Arbery). We know these are only a few stories among many where black men and women have been systematically marginalized and targeted.
Similarly, we ran a post earlier this month (an immense shout-out to Effie Drew for spearheading this incredible resource) that highlights a long list of media pieces and personalities who’ve been brave enough to share their struggles with racism in the outdoors, among many other resources for further education. Claiming that the trail is free of racism without taking the time to listen to their experiences demonstrates an utter lack of empathy.
And know this—for every POC who’s willing to share their encounter with racism, there are many others who opt to remain silent. As the Editor in Chief of this site, I’ve seen numerous instances of people attacking, downplaying, or diminishing someone’s negative experience, whether it be on race, gender, sexual preference, or otherwise. It’s not hard to imagine how someone speaking up about their accounts with prejudice would be a futile effort.
My first interaction with a Black person in the backpacking community happened roughly 500 miles into my hike of the Appalachian Trail. He and his wife hosted me and a fellow thru-hiker for two days. He was an AT thru-hiker himself, having completed the trail twice.
During an evening of trading trail stories over a couple of beers, I asked how he got the trail name “Cereal.” He explained that a local from one of the southern trail towns, a total stranger, approached his group, singled him out, and accused him of being a murderer. It was not until that moment that I realized his trail name was not a breakfast reference.
“Serial” just so happens to be one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know in the hiking community. His passion for the AT, thru-hiking, and the hiking community overall is palpable. However, when conveying the story about how he got his trail name, Serial’s sadness was unmistakable. This experience was a stain on his hike. He held onto the name as a reminder of the bleak reality that he cannot escape.
A couple of years back, I reached out to see if he was interested in sharing his experiences on The Trek. It didn’t happen, and it wasn’t hard to imagine why.
Needless to say, while your experience may indeed feel like “the outdoors are open to all,” there are many in this community whose experiences tell a different story.
Actions speak louder than words
We need to do better. The outdoors industry. The Trek. Myself.
Let me first address that there is a 100% chance that what follows will not be perfect. This is true for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, the below outline is my take on what steps we can take to improve Black representation on The Trek. But I am a white person from an upper-middle class background. I cannot fully understand the plight of the POC community. Please know that I am trying. I welcome and strongly encourage voices from the POC community to voice suggestions on how we can do better. Leave a comment. Send me an email. Slide into my DMs. The doors of communication are open.
Also, The Trek is not Nike. We have one full-time employee aside from myself, and even that is growing increasingly less stable in the face of a pandemic that has upended the economy and all but canceled the subject that we cover. What we can do to help from a financial standpoint right now is sorely limited, albeit not eliminated (more on that below).
Lastly, our Blogging / Vlogging platform, which accounts for the bulk of our content (pre-pandemic anyway), is a volunteer operation. A necessary pre-requisite for joining is a desire to do so. A diversity of voice has always been a consideration, but perhaps not surprisingly, the demographic breakdown of applicants has historically tracked the demographics on the AT at large. That doesn’t let us off the hook, but it does mean that some help from our community will go a long ways toward helping us achieve this goal. If you know of anyone thru-hiking in 2021 (god willing) who could help us expand our range of voice, we would be very grateful for you to spread the word. Here’s our application.
With that said, here is Our Pledge to Do Better. This is and will continue to be a work in progress.
Our Pledge to Do Better
- The Badger Sponsorship, our annual gear giveaway to benefit those lacking resources the opportunity to experience the beauty of thru-hiking. This year, we changed the format of the precise goal of rewarding the most needing applicants as opposed to the most creative. We got eight very deserving winners, three of whom were POC. Their hikes were to be prominently featured through our social channels as well as the channels of the participating brands. For obvious reasons, that didn’t happen. In 2021, we will make a pledge to ensure that diversity is an explicit cornerstone of this sponsorship.
- Featured Content. We pledge to reach out to more Black people in the backpacking community to join our team of Writers, those who are paid to produce featured content. If you know someone who might be a good fit, here’s our Writer application.
- Highlighting Outdoor POC Organizations and Hikers. We will make a concerted effort to shine a spotlight on organizations that are working toward getting more POC in the outdoors, as well as highlighting POC hikers through our content.
- Merchandise Proceeds. No fewer than three items of Trek merchandise will dedicate a percentage of proceeds to organizations that promote greater diversity in the outdoors, with an emphasis on Black hikers. As a start, we are currently donating 100% of the proceeds of Backpacker Radio’s newest shirts to Greening Youth Foundation, as well as 100% of the proceeds of The Trek’s Cloth Face Masks to Outdoor Afro.
- Backpacker Radio. We will reach out to more POC in the thru-hiking community to be featured as guests on our flagship podcast, Backpacker Radio.
- Instagram Content. We encourage POC to get involved with our Instagram photo features. To those who would like to be featured, please tag our accounts (main account, AT account, PCT account, CDT account) or use the appropriate hashtags (#thetrek, #trektheAT, #trekthePCT, #trektheCDT) to showcase your interest and consent.
As a closing thought, I urge everyone on all sides of the infinite amount of arguments penetrating our world right now to please try to default to love when communicating with others. Evils are the result of bad ideas, which good people are not immune to.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
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