A Challenging Ascent: Overcoming Privilege in the Outdoors

When I told my friends at big state schools about the Orientation Adventure program at Pomona, they were in disbelief. They couldn’t comprehend the idea of a college paying to send kids on far-flung camping trips in the outdoors for four days. Being out in nature with so many new people from all different backgrounds and places was enlightening but so rare. Many people on the trip hadn’t been able to experience anything like it before, be it because of where they were from, their financial means, or simply not knowing opportunities like it existed.

The few outdoor experiences I or people I know have had, including OA, have been tremendously fulfilling. Not only did I learn about nature and appreciate it, as well as push my physical abilities to the limit; I also grew closer with whomever I was with during the trip.

My brother often talks about his one-month backpacking experience in the Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska. The stories he tells, both horrifying and awe-inspiring, changed his life and helped him grow to be more independent but also form lasting connections. However, it was his privilege that allowed him to fly across the country and take this trip. As amazing as the adventure was, he was surrounded largely by other white men with similar financial means. Even if it isn’t as extreme as a month in the wilderness, the idea that for so many people something as small as a day trip to a national park can never be experienced doesn’t seem fair.

On Friday, Sept. 23, the OEC showed the film An American Ascent in the Edmunds Ballroom. This film tackles the idea that mountaineering is something dominated by white males, showcasing the story of a team of nine black climbers as they take on Mt. Denali, North America’s largest mountain. Afterwards, there was a discussion session led by Grace Anderson, a former staffer with the National Outdoor Leadership School and currently the Sierra Club. She helped organize Expedition Denali, the subject of the film, and works relentlessly in the Sierra Club’s ICO (Inspiring Connections Outdoors) program to empower marginalized communities by introducing them to the transformative capabilities of nature. Anderson exemplifies the swiftly proliferating solutions to issues of privilege and exclusivity in outdoor spaces.

Kitty Young PO ’20 attended the session and said the discussion harkened back to experiences that she had both witnessed and experienced herself in her time in the outdoors, also providing her with a basis for finding solutions to these problems. She recalled a trip to Maine with her friend, who was black and had been involved in hiking and other outdoor activities his whole life, just as she had. On their trip, they only encountered one other person of color.

“He was glared at and made to feel like he didn’t belong,” Kitty said. “It made me realize that coming from a place of privilege makes all the difference in the outdoors.”

However, as a young woman, Kitty says there are other ways in which she is not privileged, such as her perceived vulnerabilities to threats that might arise when backpacking. This is largely because society’s prevalent stereotype of women being weak translates harmfully into the outdoor setting. Women are assumed to be unable to face common challenges on the trail, like difficult terrain, natural disasters, and dangerous animals. Another consequence of this is the domination of white males in outdoor leadership positions.

“This can create an image of the ideal outdoors-person as a Patagonia-wearing, white guy with a one-syllable name” Sam Betanzos PO ’20, another attendee of the event, said.

Kitty says they discussed several solutions to this problem. She highlighted a few big ones, like making “the outdoors more accessible by removing cultural barriers, providing role models for people of color, and creating a more welcoming space for everyone.” There is still a long way to go before privilege is eliminated from the outdoors, but having discussions like these is certainly a good start.

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