Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and AHS: Update on Our Journey

On May 30, in the midst of national protests against systemic racism and police brutality against Black folks, American Hiking Society released the following statement on social media, with a #BlackLivesMatter graphic.

“American Hiking Society believes that the outdoors should be a place of healing and enjoyment for all. Yet people of color, especially Black folks, continue to be unsafe from microagressions, harassment, violence, and even murder, simply for being outside. Make no mistake, our mission, ’empowering ALL to enjoy, share, and preserve the hiking experience’ will never be fulfilled until systemic racism is erased and Black bodies are safe outside. We resolve, every day, long after the current news cycle has moved on, to re-commit to doing what we can as American Hiking to root out racism in the outdoors.”

Numerous comments were submitted to the effect of, “Why are you talking about racism on a hiking page? I hike to escape politics.” It’s not the first time we’ve heard that and not the first issue about which we’ve gotten similar questions.  

American Hiking isn’t just a Facebook page or Instagram account, and isn’t just a forum for talking about which trail is the most scenic or which boot gives you the fewest blisters (though we do plenty of that too!), nor is it a hiking club. Our mission is “Empowering ALL to enjoy, share, and preserve the hiking experience.” We are a national nonprofit that represents a movement of more than 40 million hikers, whom we directly engage in advocacy and trail service to preserve, protect, and promote hiking spaces and trails and to build a more inclusive hiking community. Our mission isn’t just to chat about backpacks — we’re out advocating for the preservation and expansion of trails and quality green space and facilitating trail work across the country so that you can hike in peace.

But here’s the thing about racism in the outdoors . . . . People of color cannot always “hike in peace” or go for a hike to “forget about politics or racism.” Being able to do that is a luxury afforded to those with the privilege to be able to turn off and ignore it all for a while because it isn’t a deeply ingrained part of their existence and their ancestry. There’s a long history of racism in the outdoors, from the conservation movement that built the national parks system to microagressions and worse out on the trail today. We encourage you to read  Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney, Dispossessing the Wilderness by Mark Spence, and the online Public Lands in the United States Curriculum by The Wilderness Society and The Avarna Group as a great place to start.  See other suggestions on our Racism in the Outdoors Resources page.  We also encourage you to follow organizations led by people of color on social media.

We also fully acknowledge that AHS, as a predominantly white-led organization, has been both a direct contributor to racism (and other forms of bigotry) in the outdoors and a passive bystander in failing to be anti-racist and anti-bigotry.  And, in many ways, we have failed to foster an inclusive hiking community and to engender a sense of welcome for all peoples into our programs, advocacy, and social media discussions.  

So, we stand by our May 30 social media statement and its direct relevance to AHS and, as we’ll discuss below, we are committed to doing what we can as American Hiking to take a more active role in rooting out racism in the outdoors.  We also know where our sphere of influence lies and that we can only affect change within that sphere, our mission scope (i.e., we must legally stay within our 501(c)3 IRS designation boundaries), and our budgetary and staff capabilities. Let us start by freely admitting that we have a lot of work to do; that we are constantly learning about how to be better and more effective at dismantling racism and bigotry; and that we have made, are making, and will make mistakes along the way.  What we want to do here is give a quick overview of where we’ve been, what we’re doing, and where we’re headed. This is not meant to be an exhaustive accounting of everything, nor is it meant to be a one-off check-and-done. We will continue to hold ourselves publicly accountable.

We do not have a long and illustrious history of prioritizing Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI). And one may wonder, “Why now?”.  When new leadership came on board in June 2017, American Hiking’s Board of Directors and staff took that as an opportunity to make critical changes that should have been made long ago.  We began preparing for what became a two-year process over 2018 and 2019 of creating a 2020-2024 Strategic Plan. We had a number of existential discussions about the organization — who are we? Who do we want to be? And how do we get there? We knew we needed to step up and start using our platform, our space, and our influence to be an active anti-racist, anti-bigotry organization, not a passive bystander, and to be a more effective JEDI champion, building a more inclusive hiking community. Our advocacy and our trail service were only weaker without that. We knew we wanted our focus to be about the millions-strong hiking community and engaging and empowering them in advocacy and stewardship. We wanted to be the “voice OF hikers,” instead of the “voice FOR hikers,” as we’d previously touted.

We completely reworked our mission, vision, and values statements with these discussions at the forefront, we worked JEDI into and across the Strategic Plan, and we were an early signer to the In Solidarity Project Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, initiated by Teresa Baker.  Having signed that pledge creates a constant reminder to us that we must live up to it and be transparent about how we are attempting to do so, holding ourselves publicly accountable.  Our aim is to make JEDI an integral part of our DNA in everything we do, not to create specific programs that “check a JEDI box”. While our post on May 30 was specifically about #BlackLivesMatter, “diversity” in our overall plan covers a wide range: age, ethnicity, gender expression, sexuality, religion, ability, body type, etc.  

We are working to diversify who represents AHS, participates in our programs, and is part of the extended AHS family. In 2018, we launched the NextGen Trail Leaders program. That program features five outdoor leaders per year that become advocacy ambassadors with AHS, receive advocacy training and other professional development opportunities, and join us for our Hike the Hill advocacy week in Washington, D.C., where they meet with their elected officials and high-ranking members of the Executive Branch. We recruit as far and wide as we can so that the group is as representative as possible of the broad hiking community. This program helps to diversify the voices and opinions that AHS projects to the world in its advocacy and to bring a broader diversity of new advocates, through following these leaders, into the hiking community. Of the 15 participants so far, nine are people of color, nine are women, two are gender nonbinary, five identify as LGBTQIA-2, and one is an active advocate on breaking body-type stereotypes in the outdoors.  As we continue to raise more funds for the program, we are working to further deepen the reciprocity for the Leaders and increase their professional development opportunities.

In 2019, we launched a scholarship for our Alternative Break program. Alternative Break is a long-running, week-long trail service trip for college students during their spring break. Most of the participants are brand new to trail service, and many even to hiking at all. We realized that it takes privilege to be able to participate in such programs, so we created a scholarship in 2019 to go to a group whose participants may not otherwise generally have such opportunities. The 2019 and 2020 scholarship groups  were selected from Rowan University in New Jersey and Oakland University in Michigan.  We hope in the future to broaden and deepen the scholarships and to create service projects in partnership with JEDI-focused organizations, as we raise more funds.  In addition, while this may seem small on the surface, we have made a considerable investment in a new data management system that allows us to collect better demographic data from our program participants.   These improvements include allowing them to choose from multiple gender and ethnicity options, something the previous, antiquated system did not allow, making some potential participants feel unwelcome from the moment they tried to sign-up. 

AHS recognizes the importance of recruiting a broader diversity of board members and staff by spreading beyond our usual circles in our recruitment and by posting a permanent, open call for self-nominations to the board on our website, which we also advertise on social media. We still have a long way to go in diversifying our board and staff.  Currently, we have 15 board members and seven staff (six full-time and one part-time). We have three people of color on our board and none on staff, two LGBTQIA-2 members of the board and one on staff, seven women on the board and four on staff (including all three senior leadership positions), and no one on board and one on staff who identifies as disabled.  A small staff size means that positions don’t open up very often, but when they do, limited recruiting and salary budgets are always a barrier to us in staff recruitment, so we rely heavily on the platforms we can afford (like Idealist.com and the free Pride Outside jobs listserv) and on social media and email lists, which we try to ensure include a broad diversity of groups and individuals.  Now that Camber Outdoors membership (and hence the job posting board) has become free for nonprofits of our small budget size, we plan to utilize both it and the new In Solidarity Project job board, whose postings are affordable for small-budget non-profits. 

Our advocacy and policy focus has also evolved to meet our Strategic Plan objectives.  While legislative vehicles that impact public lands and funding for trails, like the Great American Outdoors Act (which will permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, address the public lands maintenance backlog, and help fund more local parks, including in areas that have traditionally lacked access), are an integral part of our focus, we have broadened our advocacy attention to more directly address JEDI issues and opportunities. We want our direction in this effort to be led by groups that represent and have expertise in JEDI in the outdoors, so we administratively support and participate in the JEDI in the Outdoors Recreation Policy Working Group. This national group of organizations, thought leaders, and activists has come together to write joint letters to Congress, introduce each other to contacts on the Hill, promote each other’s campaigns, and jointly endorse certain legislative vehicles. The Working Group currently is endorsing the Outdoors for All and Transit to Trails Acts, which will help improve equitable access to public lands and recreation space across the country. 

We are also committed to using our space and platform for continuing to share the work and priorities of outdoor organizations led by and supporting people of color, LGBTQIA-2, people with disabilities, and other groups. We’d love to partner on joint, synergistic projects as well, where our strengths are complementary.   To that end, when we realized that promoting our flagship program of over 20 years (a major source of funding), National Trails Day® (June 6, 2020), would have distracted from the much more important discussions and protests taking place nationwide concerning #BlackLivesMatter, we made the decision to suspend our promotion of it this year and instead promote the voices of Black outdoor activists and groups on our social media accounts and publish a Racism in the Outdoors resources page.  We have been concertedly working to diversify our social media platforms for the past year or so, and we will continue to do so going forward, in an ever-more purposeful way.  With a small staff, it will take some time, but we also plan to further build-out the racism resources page (e.g., potentially with paid guest blogs) and to create similar resources pages for other aspects of JEDI, including but not necessarily limited to LGBTQIA-2 and disability.  

There is still so much more work for us to do, and we used a generous gift from a donor to hire, in early 2020, after an open call-for-proposals, The Avarna Group, a minority and women-owned JEDI consulting firm that is helping us flesh-out our action-oriented JEDI plan across the organization to meet our Strategic Plan objectives, surveying constituents about AHS culture with respect to JEDI so that we can learn from those surveys and take corrective actions, and training staff and board on JEDI in the outdoors and how to be an effective anti-racist and anti-bigot. We are energized and ready to bring our work with them to life, to stay in this for the long-haul, and to keep growing and learning and improving.  We are also always eager to receive feedback, and the virtual door of Executive Director Kate Van Waes is always open at kvanwaes@americanhiking.org.

Kate Van Waes, Executive Director
Libby Wile, Senior Director for Programs
Heather Klein Olson, Senior Director for Development
Tyler Ray, Director for Policy and Advocacy
Josh Bruegger, Finance and Office Manager
Wesley Trimble, Program Outreach and Communications Manager
Allie Killam, Development and Marketing Coordinator
Saveria Tilden, AHS Board JEDI Committee Chairperson
Bradley J. Ellis, Esq., Board Chair
Sarah Baker Morgan, Board Vice Chair
Jeffrey P. Senterman, Board Secretary
Maria Betancourt, Board Member
Dennis Crowley, Board Member
Marinel M. de Jesus, Esq., Board Member
John W. Hess, Board Member, Past-Chair
Matthew Griffis, Board Member
Michelle Jackson-Saulters, Board Member
Fred Leffler, Board Member
Sally Kidd, Board Member
Bruce E. Matthews, Board Member
Wendy McCormack, Board Member