Is this real life?, I asked, arriving at the 2017 Women’s Outdoor Summit for Empowerment. Sunlight streamed in through floor-length glass windows, the Golden Gate radiant in the background, without a hint of fog in sight. Unzipped Patagonia puffies lay strewn about on this perfect San Francisco summer day.
Teresa Baker, founder of African American Nature and Parks Experience, took center stage first. She welcomed us, gave a round of thank yous, made a plea to save the National Parks, and shared an inspirational quote. While her speech was, as I said, inspirational, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out with that thing was. Dr. Carolyn Finney, the event’s keynote speaker, spoke directly to my uneasiness. For those of you who aren’t in the know, Dr. Finney is a badass—and her work is quickly becoming foundational. Author of White Spaces, Black Faces: Re-imagining the African American Relationship to the Outdoors, Finney calls out who has historically had access to the outdoors and who has been kept out. She does this through a necessarily racialized and class-based lens. I personally owe it to Finney for helping me realize that nature is not, in fact, neutral. And instilling the belief that if I want to be a white outdoor educator and enthusiast, I better be able to hold the ugly racist and neocolonial truths about my favorite outdoor spaces at the same time that I can hold their beauty.
Until Carolyn Finney spoke, everyone in the room was the “same”: we were women and we were here to disrupt the historically white and patriarchal space of the outdoor industry. No mention of intersectionality, of overlapping social identities, or making systems of oppression visible. Finney quickly pointed out that by ignoring the layers of identities in the room, we were operating based on assumption. Prior to this, as a queer person in the room, I was uncomfortably aware of the fact that others might not identify as cisgender women and therefore might not fit in the singular, classically liberal “women’s empowerment” discourse the Summit was built on and named for. Finney’s acknowledgement of that assumption opened up the discussion of inclusivity and changed the mood in the room to a much more open and welcoming one.
And this tendency to ignore intersectionality—race, gender, class, etc.—is precisely what leads to the erasure of stories when it comes to the land: “Once we make John Muir the center of the story, it’s hard to take him out” (Finney). It also erases stories of stewardship and relationships with natural spaces that are deliberately obscured in order to uphold systemic oppression and preserving the land for privileged folks’ use. Whether in mainstream media, history books, or daily conversation, this erasure of stories reinscribes who we come to believe belongs in the wilderness and who doesn’t.
In order to unearth these invisible stories, collectively we must consider the barriers to accessing the wilderness which are inextricably linked to racism. Pick up a mainstream outdoor mag, and look closely: Do we see women? Do we see women of color, immigrant woman, trans or genderqueer women? Is there any noted transportation from the cities to outdoor spaces? What counts as “the wilderness”? What role does historical trauma have in determining who feels safe and has a sense of belonging in the outdoors? Is there any mention of indigenous peoples’ history of the land that is being featured?
As Finney and others outlined at the Summit, answering these questions is uncomfortable. It requires us to confront our internalized oppression and take ownership of our respective relationships with power and privilege. But ultimately, it’s essential to unpacking the mythologies of ‘The Great Outdoors’ and challenging federal policies and private companies alike who profit from the dominant narrative that the outdoors are “available and accessible for everyone.”
The Women’s Outdoor Summit was a step in the right direction— we clearly labeled barriers to access and practiced how to have difficult conversations. Next year, I hope to see more people in power who are willing to start those conversations—even though many of us may find it uncomfortable—and reframe “women’s empowerment” and the outdoors in a truly radical way.
Olivia Bronson is a writer, outdoor educator, and activist based in California.