People of color are finally getting the chance to tell their unique stories of outdoor adventure. These narratives will create an industry able to introduce and learn from a a more diverse point of view.
By James Edward Mills
Without apology or explanation, there is a growing number of professionals, once on the margins of creative expression in the outdoor industry, who are changing the face of adventure. In spaces once predominated by white athletes and media producers, we are now seeing the emergence of talented artists and creatives that identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of color. Now as their stories are beginning to take center stage, the industry can better address the cultural interests of a much more diverse audience. Today these creatives of color are leading the way toward expanding the representation of many different identities in adventure sports through storytelling and popular media.
The subject of a short film called Born Curious, James Robert Harris appeared as a guest speaker at the 2023 Environmental Film Festival in Washington D.C. As he regaled the audience with inspiring stories of his adventurers over more than 60 years, J.R. reminded us of the most essential truth of life in the outdoors.
“Mother nature does not discriminate. Mother nature doesn’t care if you’re Black or white or rich or poor or conservative or progressive,” he said in the film. “It doesn’t care who you are or what you believe. Mother nature is for everybody. And mother nature treats everybody the same.”
“Mother nature does not discriminate. Mother nature doesn’t care if you’re Black or white or rich or poor or conservative or progressive.” —James Robert Harris
A 30-year member of the Explorer’s Club, J.R., 79, author of the book Way Out There, now leads the organization’s efforts to improve its diversity, equity, and inclusion. His story as a Black man hiking solo in the most remote corners of world for over half a century helps to ground modern audiences in the long-standing presence of non-white adventurers in outdoor spaces. Through the lens of storytelling from a broader more inclusive perspective we can introduce infinitely more new characters and points of view.
Creatives of color like photographer Stan Evans believe that now is the moment to promote equality in the outdoors by emulating the success of other industries such as entertainment, art, music, and fashion. “Where are the diverse creators, the leaders of styles and trends? What if we studied those spaces and mixed that ethos with the outdoor business,” he said in an email exchange. “Understanding that value and what it can bring to the outdoor industry allows us the confidence to sit equally at any table and then add our own cultural and artistic narratives.”
“For a long time, this industry has had its stories only from a particular perspective. I didn’t even see myself.” —L. Renee Blount
With so many ways to present the outdoors to this expanded audience, the outdoor industry can only grow larger and more innovative. “For a long time, this industry has had its stories only from a particular perspective. I didn’t even see myself,” said media producer L. Renee Blount. “And there are so many stories that need to be retold. By inviting more people to the party to tell it, the narratives will get so much richer— more flavor, more sizzle, more examples of what’s possible.”
At the head of their own production companies, creatives of color are now in the driver’s seat to manage not only the scope of their visions, but also their budgets. As project leaders, they tell more stories, but also support the production crews and athletes from the communities they aim to serve. “We try to make sure our film teams are reflective of the folks in front of the camera and as diverse as they are talented,” said adventure film producer and director Faith Briggs. “When I look at my collaborators, I feel very proud of who I’ve been able to hire and the projects I’ve been able to assist others in making.”
James Edward Mills is the founder of the Joy Trip Project, a contributor to National Geographic magazine, a Fellow of the Mountain & Wilderness Writing Program of the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada and a recipient of the Paul K. Petzoldt Award For Environmental Education.
Creatives of Color: Stan Evans (left) L. Renee Blount (upper right) Faith Briggs (lower left). Photos by James Edward Mills