Bridging the adventure gap: minorities in outdoor adventure

Thursday , October 16, 2014 - 6:03 AM

In Utah, we’re lucky to be surrounded by many mountains, lakes, rivers and deserts open to all as an outdoor playground. As journalist and mountaineer James Edward Mills points out, however, not all Americans use these recreational resources equally.

It’s a nationwide problem. Studies by the Outdoor Foundation have found, year after year, that participation in outdoor recreation is much lower among Hispanic and African-American populations compared to Caucasians across all ages and incomes.

Mills tackles the issue in his new book, “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.” Part adventure story, part social commentary, part chronicle of the forgotten history of minorities in the outdoors, Mills’ book also profiles a diverse range of people of color doing extraordinary things outdoors.

“It’s not just the altitude and low temperatures they had to get past, it’s also the 100 years of people telling them they can’t do something.” Mills said. “That’s as significant a barrier as a headwall, crevasse or avalanche.”

Like the wage and achievement gaps in our nation, the lack of diversity in the outdoors is an issue we should all be concerned about, regardless of our race. Minority groups are expected to become the majority in just a few decades, and they could be the key to whether the environmental ethic and outdoor industry endure.

Mills shared his insights on the adventure gap in an interview with the Standard-Examiner. 

How did you find your own passion in the outdoors?

I started getting into outdoor recreation at 9 years old, when my brother and I asked my dad if we could join the Cub Scouts. Almost every month for the next 10 years, we were involved in spending time outdoors, whether it was camping, skiing, snowshoeing, climbing or backpacking. 

What, in your mind, is the “adventure gap?”

It’s the divide between peoples’ aspirations and interests, anything they want to do in life, and whether or not they achieve it. Categorically, today, there are no barriers to the outdoors for minorities. There are no armed gunmen in front of parks and there are no signs like there used to be saying ‘whites only.’

The adventure gap, in many ways, is defined by ourselves, in our own heads. Not everyone wants to spend time outside, but everyone should if they want to. The last thing I want is for young people today to say, ‘I don’t spend time outside because that’s not what I do as a person of color.’ I’ve had kids tell me ‘that’s not what black people do.’ But the reality is, I do, my brother does. People have for hundreds of years.

You go beyond outdoor sports to talk about gaps in the outdoor industry and in outdoor careers. What issues do you see there?

It’s a combination of many things. The environmental movement, I think, has been looked at as a charitable operation as opposed to a driver for commerce. It hasn’t been something very many people of modest means have seen as a viable career option. Many African-American and Hispanic people in this country are still the second or first generation to go to college. If you’re seen as perhaps the most successful member of your family, the last thing you’re going to do is get involved in a dead-end industry without opportunities to make lots of money. Instead, you might look at careers in medicine, law or business. Even environmental and life sciences, I would argue, are lacking in terms of African-American and Hispanic student participation.

So there are not many attractive gateway opportunities to have worthwhile and viable career in outdoor recreation. I don’t make a ton of money, but I have made successful careers in the outdoors, originally as an industry salesperson, then as a guide and outfitter, now as an outdoor journalist. Whether it’s a park ranger, a forester, an environmental scientist of some kind, or someone who will create a line of clothing, a backpack, a sleeping bag, or some type of commercial product, there are ways to successfully become involved in outdoor recreation as a career.

You’ve done a lot of research on minorities in mountaineering and the outdoors throughout history. Do you have a favorite historical figure you find particularly inspiring?

One that impressed me most was Charlie Chrenchaw. In 1964, he became the first African-American to summit Mount Denali, right at the time of the Civil Rights movement. Unfortunately, he died in obscurity. It took a long time to dig his story out. It’s a perfect example of a person of color who achieved one of the highest aspirations in North American adventure, only to have his story be untold for almost 40 years.

In your book, you acknowledge that overt racism and barriers to equality are gone, but social cues and unwritten expectations remain for what people of color do as part of “normal behavior.” Can you explain these “social cues” and how they relate to participation in the outdoors?

What’s interesting is that those cues, unfortunately, were born out by past legislation and past history. I should preface first this is my opinion and theory, not necessarily something born out by scientific data. But if you go back prior to the Civil War, African-Americans were sent outside to work in a form of forced labor. So you have this negative connotation of the outdoors as a place of physical hardship. When slaves would run away, they’d get chased into woods, hunted by dogs and guns.

Several decades later, and during the Civil Rights era, the woods were a place where African-Americans were taken to be hanged from trees. Those negative connotations build and become these cultural cues of what you can or can’t do.

There was a certain amount of legal codification in this as well. We all know about the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, but what I hadn’t heard of was the Fair Housing Act of 1965. There were places all over the country, even in north, where people of color couldn’t live, not just by custom, but also by law. So if a black family was affluent and successful, they still couldn’t get a mortgage in a white suburb. You had a forced urbanization, where African-Americas were required to live in cities.

The Fair Housing Act of 1965 was supposed to fix that, but it was not enforced until the Reagan Administration. While generations of young people went to swim in open lakes, walk hiking trails or see the sunset from a distant bluff, unfortunately, African-Americans were compelled to live and stay in the city for almost 30 years after the Civil Rights movement.

Did you learn anything surprising while writing and researching your book?

What I continue to find surprising is all this hidden history that should’ve been told along with every other story we’ve been told about recreation. The first successful expedition to the North Pole happened in 1909, but very few people know an African-American named Matthew Henson was the first person to stand on it. He was an equal partner in the expedition, but was not given recognition for his role until about 50 years after.

I also experienced utter and complete shock when I interviewed Ken Burns about his 2009 documentary on our national parks. He was the one who told me the African-American Buffalo Soldiers were directly involved with the formation of Yosemite as our second national park. I grew up in California, I’ve been to Yosemite hundreds of times, but I had no idea African Americans had a significant role in it.

Just in 2006, Sophia Danenberg became the first African-American to climb Mount Everest, but it didn’t make national news. An African-American man has yet to summit Everest. You’d think there would be a race on, but there are so few of us in modern mountaineering that there’s no line to form.

Are there any changes you’d like to see in the outdoor industry to make it friendlier to minorities?

Frankly, what I’d really like to see is outdoor companies and retail stores going specifically after people of color as a market the way other industries do. The consumer electronics, alcohol and designer fashion industries, for example, all target people of color. The outdoor industry doesn’t.

What were some of the motivations to participate in outdoor activities among the minorities you’ve interviewed and profiled?

At the core is the escape, the freedom, the ability to have an alternative to daily life. A lot of people enjoy altitude and speed, and the feeling you get when there’s a little element of fear. I think the motivations for people of color are identical to everyone else. But for some, it can be more specific.

For example, I profiled a young man named Kai Lightner, who just recently became a world youth climbing champion. His mother is his biggest supporter. She hates the outdoors, but spends time outdoors to support her son’s career. She’d much rather be in a hotel room than camping, or by a pool than at a climbing area, but she recognizes this is a clear pathway for her son to be successful. For many parents, one thing that motivates them to get outdoors is creating better, healthier lives for their kids. That’s slowly starting to happen among communities of color.

Income often comes up in articles and discussions about why minorities don’t participate in outdoor recreation as often as white populations. Is the expense of outdoor activities really what’s turning off many minority populations?

That’s such a hard question. Initially, I want to say no, it doesn’t play a significant role. But, frankly, what things cost will always be a determining factor in anything anyone does. It all boils down to a question of priorities. African-Americans as a demographic have billions and billions in spending capacity. It’s not that they don’t have money. The question is, what are their priorities in term of spending it?

I can imagine spending 80 bucks a month on cable, rather than spending that same $80 to buy a national parks pass that lasts a year. I can imagine a family of four spending $1,500 on a vacation to Disneyland for a weekend rather than same $1,500 on a vacation to a national park. It boils down to what’s important, and what’s valuable to any individual. I don’t think money in particular is the main reason.

One thing we get caught up in in this country, is when we talk about a person of color, we assume the person is poor, which is not always the case. We also assume if someone poor, they can’t spend time outdoors. In reality, outdoor recreation is the most cost-effective way to spend your leisure time. Entrance to a state or national park is still less expensive than a theme or amusement park. I think the cost aspect is a red herring, and we get unnecessarily caught up on that issue.

For someone looking to get into outdoor activities, but might not know where to find a mentor or how to get started, what do you recommend?

It’s often one of those situations where once the student is ready, the master will appear. Especially in urban places, there is always a green space, and there’s a lot to be said for kids being able to tap into their natural curiosity, to look at the outdoors as a place to play. Once that interest develops, they will often find people they’d like to emulate. They’ll find careers they admire, and at some point, it’s entirely possible they’ll find themselves in an institution of higher learning, where there will be environmental or outdoor recreation organizations, where role models will present themselves and allow them to pursue their interests.

For more information on Mills’ book, “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors,” visit his website. Books available at

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