When the goal is making our shared outdoor spaces more inclusive for marginalized groups, there’s not always an obvious path forward. An open discussion can help clear the air and offer previously unseen solutions, especially for those who haven’t walked in the shoes of a person of color. On a rainy April morning, Public Lands gathered a few dozen business owners, volunteers, advocates and conscientious outdoor explorers in the foyer of its Pittsburgh-area location to participate in a panel discussion. The focus was finding ways in which to make the outdoors a safer and a less exclusive environment for people of color, specifically.
The panel, moderated by Sarai Exil, Manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at DICK’S Sporting Goods, represented a range of outdoor-industry perspectives, including: Jahmicah Dawes, founder and co-owner of Slim Pickins Outfitters of Stephenville, Texas, the first Black-owned (and women-run) outdoor retailer in the country; Shequaya Bailey, avid cyclist and Director of Operations for Grounded Strategies, an organization focused on identifying and rehabilitating vacant or underutilized land in and around Pittsburgh; and Marcus Shoffner, the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Venture Outdoors, as well as the founder of the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition (OIC), which seeks to broaden inclusivity for people of color in outdoor activities as well as build pathways to career opportunities in that space.
Each member of the panel established themselves within separate spheres of outdoor recreation. They each dealt with different challenges and opportunities, though, to a person, credited the influence of a specific, formative change-maker. That is, each panelist had someone or something that normalized the experiences for them, making lasting connections with the outdoors more salient.
In the case of Dawes and his introduction to fly fishing, that something was help with the appropriate gear and inclusion in an existing group. For others, it was hands-on training and access to gear through high school mentorship programs like Pittsburgh’s Student Conservation Association, which provided Bailey with the tools to succeed in the space. Shoffner experienced the outdoors initially in minor fishing excursions with family, later borrowing gear and gaining knowledge in a collegiate setting that led to his love of backcountry adventures.
Each of the panelists shared their personal experiences in the outdoors, and how they’ve each encountered some version of a negative encounter in the past, though ones that haven’t stopped them from continuing their journeys. They chose to positively frame their relationships with nature, in terms of its benefits to their lives and others—namely, a more healthy mind and body, and a sense of finding one’s place.
Attendees sopped up the abundant information and open dialogue, nodding in silent affirmation, occasionally tittering or applauding with respect. Each of the panelists had moments that elicited reactions that broke the rapt quiet, often providing a serious message in a funny moment.