In the spring of 2021, NIU Outdoor Adventures staff began an initiative that we hope will outlast every member on staff here at NIU. As a graduate assistant of NIU Outdoor Adventures, I took the lead in organizing what was to become the Outdoor Leadership Series or OLS. This series was based on a final project in my Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice in Higher Education class that I completed in NIU’s Higher Education and Student Affairs Master’s program.
What I had envisioned in that project was just a stand-alone event where a group of people would gather around a campfire to discuss equity and access obstacles for underrepresented and non-dominant populations in the outdoors. This idea became a seven-part free series where NIU Outdoor Adventures staff welcomed anyone interested in learning new outdoor skills and desired to work to support better representation for all in the outdoor recreation environment.
It was a challenging (COVID) but very relevant (BLM) time for this initiative to be highlighted with our program. We reached out to many student organizations and resource centers to encourage students, faculty, and community members to participate. In the end, we had around 29 unique participants join one or more of our events that culminated at the end of the semester in an overnight camp out at Shabbona Lake.
That's all great. You know now what we did. Why it is important. How it went.
But what did I learn?
Here is what I learned from putting in the effort to start an initiative like this at NIU:
1. Its all about the team.
Collaboration and representation are your best tools for promoting diversity in the outdoors. I knew this from the feedback I received from my HESA 502 professor Dr. Gyant after I submitted my final presentation. However, I experienced how vital these connections were when I connected with my classmate Gaylen Rivers with the Center for Black Studies as she provided feedback on our program’s messaging. This feedback was critical to our ability to communicate our initiative’s goals correctly. Likewise, the collaboration and utilization of the Outdoor Adventures staff who had a passion for this work was essential. Getting the support of people who are willing to speak openly and publicly about equity issues is not easy, so you need to know it is important to them to be seen as genuine by participants. Finally, our program was lucky to find an outside ally in Samantha Pinnock. She was willing to go out of her way to collaborate with us on this initiative because of that same passion and love of the outdoors. I am not sure this program would have had the success we had without her and this team.
2. Putting in the time and the work
It takes a lot of work to support something important like this initiative, and the work likely may not attract the engagement, response, and quick fix that you want after all that work is completed. However, that does not make that work any less important. We started something; there is a foundation, now it is up to us to pass it forward to those who can carry the initiative forward as many members of our team graduate. We may not have had as many participants as we would have liked, but the ones who came expressed gratitude and learned why access issues are worth talking about in the outdoors. This is a start.
3. There is not an ‘ideal’ participant
It was more complicated than we thought to connect directly to the underrepresented students that we wanted to attract with this program. At times I know myself and the team were bummed to see predominantly white faces at our series because one of our goals was to increase the outdoor knowledge base for future outdoor leaders from underrepresented populations (specifically, students of color). However, what I began to realize as this series developed is that every participant could learn from us how to better advocate for equity and access for underrepresented students in the outdoors…. especially those with white faces. This realization changed my perception of our efforts and my attitude about ‘the ideal’ participant for this series. Every participant now became the ‘ideal’ participant.
Those are a few of the things I learned. I am confident that I (and we at NIU Outdoor Adventures) will continue to learn as we fumble our way through these efforts to make the outdoors a better and more inclusive place. It is not always easy, immediately rewarding, or precise work, but it is important… so we will continue.