It took me quite a long time to develop a voice
and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.
– Madeleine Albright
I sat scanning the ballroom of the Oregon Convention Center as it filled for the opening keynote address on social justice. A sea of weathered outdoor clothing, beards and notebooks made it impossible to distinguish prestigious researchers, educators, mental health professionals, field guides and students from one another among the crowd at the 43rd Annual International Conference of the Association for Experiential Education (AEE). This was my inaugural AEE Conference, and the only thing I knew for certain was my intimidation being a graduate student among some of the most esteemed individuals in experiential education. I was determined to keep my ears open and my mouth shut.
That evening I had the honor of sitting with Dr. Christine L. Norton, LCSW, Associate Professor of Social Work at Texas State University in San Marcos; founder of FACES: Foster Care Alumni Creating Educational Success; and one of the leading research scientists with the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center – the research division of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH). She also spent ten years working with Outward Bound, a prominent organization in experiential education and wilderness therapy. While the sun went down over Portland, we sat cross-legged and shoeless on a window ledge chatting about Dr. Norton’s history as a mental health practitioner and her involvement in outdoor experiential education – what is often regarded as a “male” field. Dr. Norton is an inspiring storyteller with a contagious smile and an enchanting personality the size of the Lone Star state. Needless to say, I was enthralled.
LC: How do you define Adventure Therapy?
Dr. N: The definition that I am really comfortable using for Adventure Therapy, is the prescriptive use of outdoor experiences for therapeutic purposes that engage the client affectively, behaviorally, cognitively, and kinesthetically. The caveat of that definition is that if it is Adventure Therapy – vs. Therapeutic Adventure – it is facilitated by a licensed mental health professional and is aligned with the client’s treatment goals. That’s where the word “prescriptive” comes in. Some people don’t like the word “prescriptive” because they think it sounds too medical model-ish. So I say, if you don’t like the word “prescriptive,” use the word “intentional”. But we’re not just going out and playing games, backpacking or doing a climbing day. We’re actually using that activity and the outdoor context to really enhance and empower the client, and to align the goals with their treatment goals.
LC: What about your own journey, as a woman in Adventure Therapy?
Dr. N: My journey started formally when I was nineteen years old and I was a college student. I did an Outward Bound course and one of my instructors was a woman – and actually, ironically, her name was Christine, which is my name. On the course I turned twenty so it was like this important rite of passage where I was no longer a teenager. I was doing a climbing day and it was just really challenging. I experienced a lot of success through the challenge and at the end of the day, Christine and my other instructor said to me, “Hey you know you could do what we do, if you ever wanted.” They literally just planted a seed. I had never thought about a career in Outdoor Education and Adventure Therapy. They planted a seed that other experiences in my life kept watering and it just kept growing. It wasn’t until I was twenty-eight that a professor of mine, Dr. Jasper Hunt, said to me: “You really need to go back and work for Outward Bound.”
I finished both of my grad degrees in Social Work and Experiential Education, and I went up to the Voyageur Outward Bound School in Ely, Minnesota. What I encountered there were a lot of really strong women. It was the first time in my life that I had female, professional mentors who I could have relationships with – friendships with – but also they were teaching me things about the field of therapeutic adventure that I had never learned.
LC: Who were these women mentors, and what did they teach you?
Dr. N: A couple of women in particular: my mentor, Jessie Kushner, Penny Jeffers, Amy Saxton Mason, and other staff – many strong women – who were in leadership roles at Outward Bound. I think that makes a difference. When an agency has these women in leadership roles, it’s like: “Wow. The Director is a woman.” That’s awesome because it bursts that glass ceiling. I think it helps me believe in what’s possible. What I’ve noticed about those female trainers and supervisors was that they always gave me a little more than I thought that I could handle. I don’t want to say that male supervisors haven’t done that or wouldn’t do that, but I feel like when that happens in the field of Adventure Therapy – when women in leadership roles mentor other women by giving them challenges and responsibilities that are just outside of what they think they can handle – I’ve never grown more.
LC: How did you first come to have a relationship with the Association for Experiential Education?
Dr. N: After I worked at Outward Bound, I went to a community-based agency that did outdoor experiential therapy with youth and families involved in the juvenile justice system. I worked with (pretty much) all men. The very first thing that happened was that some of my ideas were not valued. I was excited and really passionate, and I came with these experiences that I wanted to integrate with what they were already doing, and it was like, “That’s not how we do things.” At the time, I don’t know if I viewed that as sexism. I think the questions I ask myself about my experiences as a woman in the workplace are “Would that have happened if I was a man?” or “Would they have said that to me if I was a man?” In that work environment that felt very toxic, even though it was hard, it gave me an opportunity to figure out how to use my voice.
I didn’t feel supported by that agency in terms of being able to grow and develop as an Adventure Therapy professional. I’m not saying that was because I was a woman, but it was a very male-driven environment. It was right then that I got involved in the Association for Experiential Education. I went to my very first Heartland Regional Conference and I decided “I’m going to present on the work that I’m doing.” I invited other people to come with me and some of them said “No – we don’t want to go to AEE.” I remember at the time they said, “They’re not clinical enough.” This was in the mid-90’s. A couple of staff said, “Yeah we’ll go!” and we went and presented. I’ll never forget, we met the most amazing professionals who we learned from in exchange. It was then that I knew I had met my people.
I’ve just really maintained the connection with this Association, which is filled with a lot of strong women and, as a matter-of-fact, has the Women’s Professional Leadership Group. Women like Denise Mitten, Nina Roberts, Jude Hirsch, Pam McPhee, Bobbi Beale, Binky Martin-Tollette, Laurie Frank, Karen Warren – there are really too many to name – have helped nurture me as a woman in this field and given me the courage to face the things that I have been socialized as a girl to avoid – not just things like knots and navigation, but more important skills, like speaking my truth, engaging in conflict when necessary and using my voice in male-dominated settings. Now I’m a research scientist for the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center which is co-led by another strong woman, my colleague, Dr. Anita Tucker. She has been a mentor to me – but as a peer – where she and I just constantly walk next to each other with a hand on one another’s back, saying “You’ve got this. You can do this.” We help one another use our voice.
Certainly there have been many, many men that have been strong allies on my journey and I value them just as much because I think it takes courage for them also. Actually, one of them just asked me, “How can I be a better ally?” and I was thinking in terms of for women in particular, but also for other populations that might experience “-isms”. I said, “There are two things that I need: 1) I need you to create space for, and embrace, vulnerability; 2) I need you to stay engaged; I need you to stay connected even when it gets uncomfortable. If you can do that then I think you can be a good ally.”
LC: We’ve talked a lot about voice being a concern for women in this field.
Dr. N: Even on a micro level, like if a man and a woman are facilitating together – not to be gender binary about it, so it could be a man and transgender person – if that person is facilitating with a woman or someone who is transgender, and they are talking more and overshadowing [the other], to me that’s an issue because it mirrors oppression. What you want is for the actual facilitation of the activity to mirror equality.
LC: Why has this been a predominantly male field in the past, and where do you think it is headed?
Dr. N: I think it has to do with gender socialization around being active and being strong. When people think of who’s going to climb a mountain, the image is this mountaineering man with a big, furry beard and an ice ax. We’re gender socialized but I think that’s really changing, and we have amazing women in our community here in the Association for Experiential Education (that have climbed Mount Everest, [for example]). I think part of the reason it is changing is that we have a strong social justice orientation in the field, driven by the Association for Experiential Education. We’re all about creating space, access and connecting with capacity. Where it’s heading is to be a really inclusive and empowering community.
LC: What changes do we need to embrace for a healthy future?
Dr. N: We need to create more access at an early age and to encourage girls to get out there: to be outdoors and to experience challenge and adventure, but also know how to live in the woods. I’ve led all-girls Outward Bound courses and also all-girls outdoor experiential therapy programs. One of the most empowering things for them to know about is how to practice good hygiene in the wilderness. How do you stay clean and not be stinky without using deodorant, which is going to attract bugs? How to deal with having your period in the wilderness and learning how to pack everything out without having it be smelly and messy in your backpack. All these things that people are like, “Ooh I don’t want to talk about that.” It is absolutely critical to talk about with girls and women in the backcountry so that they feel empowered to care for themselves, and then they don’t have to spend their mental energy wondering, “How am I going to keep myself clean down there?” They can just do it, and focus on climbing and backpacking and building relationships.
Another thing, it is important that spaces are safe enough that you can be transparent with your female and male coworkers about these same types of issues. For example, a woman may have a really heavy cycle, be working with a man, and out paddling in the backcountry where her crotch is wet 24/7. She needs to be able to talk about that with her coworker because he’s going to be like, “Why are you going off into the woods again?” She needs to be able to say, “Because I have to change my tampon. Again.” Or if a female co-worker needs to cry, she needs to know that a male co-worker won’t judge it as a weakness or try to fix it. Just throw some chocolate her way (in both of these situations) – ha!
Being straight-up, this is actually not just an issue for women. We all need to be able to say: “What level of physical and emotional support do I need in this experience?” I think men need to get over themselves and also ask those questions. We are having more and more transgender folks come into the field. We’ve been talking about issues concerning men and women, but gender is a non-binary issue. If you have a transgender woman coming to your program how do you support her? How do you honor space for her? We have a lot of big issues now, but also a lot of opportunity. What we know about our outcomes in Adventure Therapy is that without physical and emotional safety, there are no therapeutic gains. Dealing with all of these things that we have been talking about – whether it’s bodily hygiene or emotional support, or safe space for gender non-conformity – then that is all directly related to how the client is progressing on their treatment outcomes, whether substance abuse issues, depression or anxiety. I love that it is all related. ◊
I began the AEE conference determined not to be heard. When I returned home that evening, Dr. Norton’s words were still fresh in my ears and on my heart. I understood that experience is precious, but the act of sharing makes it invaluable. It doesn’t matter if we think we’re not qualified to contribute. There is power in the discourse, and voice is both a privilege and a responsibility that should not be wasted. Silence is simply not an option.
For more information on the Association for Experiential Education, the Women’s Professional Group, and the 44th Annual International Conference, October 27-31, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visit http://www.aee.org/
For more information on the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, visit https://obhcouncil.com/. To learn about the research performed by the OBH Center, a development of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative (OBHRC), visit http://www.obhcenter.org/