In 2005, shortly after moving to Seattle, Angel and I attended a training for an AIDS organization called Multifaith Works, which recruited volunteers from communities of faith to partner with (primarily) people who needed support due to issues related to HIV/AIDS.
At the training, we participated in the activity described on this page as "Crossing the Line". In short, everyone got together in a circle, and was cued to take a step towards the center, identifying themselves publicly if they'd had a range of experiences, or identified with a range of statements. This was a training on diversity, so many of the cues were related to race, class, sexuality, and other identifiers that tend to divide us. "I have made a racist joke", "I have been pulled over because of my race", "I have used a homophobic slur", etc. The activity cuts both ways - so participants are asked to identify both when they've experienced some form of discrimination, and when they have been the perpetrators themselves.
The activity is relatively standard at anti-racism and diversity trainings, but for me, it was the first time I'd identified many of those parts of myself publicly. Having been raised in a small, conservative, white rural community, it had only been a few years prior that I'd decided (stated roughly) that it was okay to be gay, and I was just at the beginning of the process of wrestling consciously with issues of bias, discrimination, race, class and sexuality. So, stepping into the circle was painful every time, because of what it forced me to admit to myself, and to the people in the room. To this day, it's one of the most viscerally uncomfortable experiences of my life.
(If you're interested in more information on the resource, check out the Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege, created by the University of Southern California's online MSW program.)
I thought about that activity yesterday when I read the recent National Geographic article that's been circulating, where they own up to the fact that for the bulk of their history, much of their work ranged from covertly to overtly racist. While that idea isn't news to anyone whose parents kept around old issues, publishing the article felt a lot like National Geographic publicly stepping into the circle. It wasn't coerced by scandal, it wasn't self-hating or guilty - it was just a statement: "We've been racist, and we're trying to do better".
While there are clearly a huge number of people who are declining to participate, and actively trying to get others to stop, the article felt significant because, in many ways, it seems like much of American society is beginning to engage in an extended game of "Crossing the Line". Major social movements like the It Gets Better Project, Black Lives Matter, and MeToo have felt like people stepping into the circle to say that they've experienced various forms of injustice. And the National Geographic article was one signifier, among others, that some number of people are stepping into the circle to take responsibility for the fact that they've been a part of the problem.
Both types of public statement require some degree of bravery. But both types are also transformative individually and collectively. One of the most notable dynamics in "Crossing the Line" was that, when one person stepped forward, it made it more comfortable for others to as well. And after you had stepped into the circle once, it was much easier to do so again. By the end of the activity, it felt both safe and important to be honest, and pretending that you don't have problems seemed less appealing than admitting, with everyone else, that you do.
Personally, while it had taken some level of development even to put myself in the position of going to that type of training, and the activity itself felt like an important step forward in dealing with my issues, in retrospect it was only the very beginning of a process that I'm still working on - which is, acting like an adult, and taking responsibility for the way my own issues impact the world around me. In a similar way, I think the best way to think about the National Geographic article, and other statements like it, is as a fulfillment of what should be a baseline expectation for businesses and world citizens in 2018, and the first step in a long process of transformation rather than a goal in itself.
I don't want to take a dig at National Geographic in any way. On the contrary, I’m stoked that they stepped forward, because it’s going to lead other people to do so as well, and I'm stoked that the article was published by one of the most influential magazines in the adventure community. (I, for one, wouldn't be writing on this if they hadn't published the article.) The reality is that most organizations (let alone individuals) haven’t taken that first, baseline, step. But I also think it's important to be clear that they aren't heroes for doing so. They're like the first person to speak up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They're brave, and a crucial icebreaker, but they're someone who’s also there because they have a problem.
But it's true, the more people step into the circle, the easier it becomes for others to follow suit. And eventually, it will seem more awkward to pretend that you don't have issues than to admit, with everyone else, that you do.
Our little business is new, and as such, we're lucky that we don't have much of a sordid past to own up to. However, it is our baseline goal not to have to look back in 20 years and say, "Crap, we were terrible".
To that end, we don’t want to be another tepid endorser of diversity for the sake of sales, or another white-owned organization using black voices (or any other voices that aren’t our own) for our own benefit. So our primary goal is to figure out how to make ourselves useful for the variety of voices in the outdoor community. We believe that maximizing representation at our events and on our podcast is crucial, but we also believe that the more important focus for us is to figure out how to make ourselves useful to groups like Outdoor Afro and Unlikely Hikers, who are doing the core of the work of getting a broader population involved in the outdoors. We believe this is the right thing to do, as well as a good business practice because we think that ultimately, organizations that people find useful are organizations that people support. And we think that if we keep the focus on being useful to those types of groups, the other stuff will fall in line.
Whatever the case though, we're happy to see that National Geographic stepped into the circle, and we're happy to step into the circle ourselves and own that we are part of the problem that's trying not to be. The hope is that as more companies and individuals follow suit, in 20 years it will seem unbelievable that owning your race issues ever seemed like an act of bravery or leadership.
Whoever you are, we hope you'll step into the figurative circle as well, and own up to the systemic and individual issues related to race that have historically existed in the outdoors community. Your influence will make it easier for the people in your circle to do the same.
And if you're looking for next steps beyond admitting we have a problem, in addition to Outdoor Afro and Unlikely Hikers, we're big fans of the work being done by Queer Adventure Storytelling, Black Girls Run, Outdoor Women's Alliance, the Alpenglow Collective, and Brown Gal Trekker. Check them out, support what they're doing, and throw some money their way!
If you like what we're up to, and want to get more involved, consider becoming a part of our community of supporters on Patreon.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.