Molina: The character hole — out of doors recreation lacks inclusion | Opinion

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Opinion: Historically, natural public spaces in the United States have been – implicitly or explicitly – reserved exclusively for whites. This is no simple coincidence; it is the result of systematic racism.

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In recent years, the words “diversity” and “inclusion” have become buzzwords. They have become a tool for industries and companies to look more progressive. Unfortunately, the reality is that many industries have not addressed the diversity issues that have historically impacted and excluded people of color. The outdoor industry is no exception.

In the United States, and particularly in Oregon, outdoor recreation and whiteness go hand in hand. Although the outdoors is a space with numerous physical, mental, and emotional health benefits, it has historically been the exclusive preserve of white populations. This diversity gap in outdoor recreation is no simple coincidence. It is systemic and has been perpetuated by false narratives and prejudice.

The diversity gap in nature has been perpetuated by a combination of centuries of economic inequality, legalized segregation, and other forms of historical and contemporary racial violence. According to the National Health Foundation, “Statistics from multiple government agencies have shown that although people of color make up 40% of the US population, 70% of the people who visit national forests, national wildlife refuges and national parks are white.” The most underrepresented minority in these Rooms were blacks.

One could easily dismiss these findings by attributing them to cultural differences—with slogans like “Blacks don’t migrate.”

But the truth is that systemic racism and the institutions that perpetuate it are the ones to blame. Historically, people of color have been deprived of racist economic policies, unequal access to quality education, discrimination in the workplace, and other basic tools that contribute to a person’s financial standing. Therefore, activities like camping, hiking, and similar ventures become inaccessible. The cost of camping gear, entrance fees, unpaid leave, and other factors make it difficult for individuals and families to participate in outdoor recreation. People of color are more likely to face these economic obstacles.

However, the underlying factor is race. It is important to recognize that the inaccessibility of outdoor spaces for people of color is due to laws that exclude and forbid people of color from public spaces such as national parks and forests. It has only been 58 years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act enacted, outlawing segregation and racial discrimination and finally ending the racist lie of “separate but equal” treatment. The violence and trauma that people of color have faced in the past is relatively new.

The UO Outdoor program, a student-run organization that facilitates outdoor excursions for students, is a great example of the initiative that needs to be taken to bridge the gap between people of color and the outdoors.

The Outdoors program has partnered with various groups on campus, such as the Multicultural Center, the Native American Student Union, and the Black Cultural Center, to organize trips and outings with them and their communities. “We’ve tried to work with groups that have built trust and an established relationship with the communities we want to work with,” said Matthew Katz, the director of the outdoor program.

“We try to remove as many financial hurdles as possible by offering free, fully funded travel for students. All they have to do is show up, have fun, learn about nature and create a community,” Katz said. “If we don’t address the issues in these communities, we’re not serving all of the students. It’s really important to us to take steps to actively reach out to communities that often feel excluded from outdoor spaces and our program.”

If we want to see real inclusion in this industry, we need to push groups to put more effort into diversifying outdoor offerings. These efforts are not just about fostering community engagement. It is also about breaking the systemic cycle of discrimination. We must urge that more people of color be hired into positions of power and that their contribution to the cultivation of the great outdoors be recognized.

Perhaps then the “nature” of the great outdoors could change for good.