Over the last few years, the outdoor community has recognised that it needs to work harder to become a more welcoming and diverse space. The more we unpick the challenges, the more we discover what we need to do to build an outdoors which recognises difference and acknowledges bias. As communities explore environments outside of the city into nature-based landscapes, diversity in the outdoors becomes an increasingly hot topic. Frustratingly, the incumbents, those with the power to open up the outdoors, often lack the tools to make a difference.
In the wake of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter movement, The North Face formed their ‘Explore Fund Council’. Unveiled in 2020 and coming with a $7m diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) pledge, it was a very visible commitment to ramp up their existing Explore Fund and to take in and learn from voices that have been traditionally marginalised in the world of outdoor sports. It launched first in North America, fronted by producer, writer and actor Lena Waithe and mountaineer, director and photographer Jimmy Chin. The following year it was followed up in Europe with seven members from the sporting, wildlife, activist and political worlds; a continent-spanning team that took in an array of lived experience, all united by their melanated skin. The aim of the Council was to discuss the challenges they faced in their outdoor lives, with a view to try and land upon an area in which The North Face could make a meaningful change.
For a brand such as The North Face, operating in this space is fraught with pitfalls. There’s a very valid argument that suggests that they themselves are partly responsible for the lack of diversity in the outdoors. A look at their athlete roster just a few years ago would be devoid of anyone of African heritage and any advertising featuring a Black or Brown face was more likely to be shot at the bottom of a housing estate stairwell than a mountain range. Yet this criticism should be levied industry-wide and as a leading brand, The North Face can be seen to, well, lead.
By listening to voices and ring-fencing budgets, The North Face can now try and open their world to those who have felt previously excluded, and in doing so encourage other brands to go on their own journeys.
One of the common threads within the Council’s conversation was the point of entry: how do you first go on a hike, climb, trail run or even a snowboard trip? It’s not uncommon to hear people scoffing when this question is raised. The old “no one’s stopping you” trope often gets rolled out around the same time. Yet making that first step is often the hardest. When feeling conscious of your lack of knowledge of the environment and the rules, being around people who look different to you and have been doing it all their lives is a huge fear to overcome, sometimes enough of one to not even try.
But let’s say you have made a commitment, that you decide the time is right to take the climbing lesson or to try kayaking. You invest the time and money, you do the research and find an organisation that can give you your first introduction to what has the potential to be a life changing moment, you turn up full of excitement and the experience is shit.
“But where are you really from?”
“Are you sure you can swim 50 metres?”
“Wow, your hair is amazing, can I touch it?”
“Can I just call you Jim? I can’t really pronounce your name.”
I can be reasonably confident that the majority of People of Colour reading this will have experienced some variation of the above and be able to rattle off numerous microaggressions. We navigate these incidents every day in some form – be it at the shop, the workplace or just going about our daily lives, but at such a pivotal on-ramping moment this added burden could make you call it quits. This is of course amplified if you are a child still trying to come to terms with how the world sees and treats you.
With this knowledge, The North Face’s Allyship Course was devised and platformed through the multi-brand diversity consortium OUTO. The four-part online module is designed to inform and educate coaches, organisations and service providers who are looking to offer marginalised participants instruction with more empathy and understanding. Peppered with video interviews from The North Face athletes and ambassadors, participants are led through the course by answering questions, with nudges and deeper explanation for incorrect responses. An ever-growing resource list supports those looking to go further in their search for learning. It’s currently available in English with translations planned in the coming months.
It’s hard at this stage to know if the course will reap rewards as large as its ambition, it can be completed in a lunch break (probably too short a time to give a 50-something climbing instructor from Northumberland the insight into the perspective of a young Hackney local), but it will definitely give them pause for thought. In its short existence, the sign-ups are already in the thousands, demonstrating an appetite from instructors to add another form of certification for their CV; the completion of the course is soon to provide valuable Mountain Training CPD points (continued personal/professional development).
In the short-term, it’s a beacon to individuals and community groups looking for a provider who has demonstrated their desire to connect more authentically with their clients. This is to my mind a move in the right direction and a statement that says The North Face are aware of some of the issues at play in this complex conversation. However, the goal must ultimately be not just to educate the incumbent instructors, but to encourage and facilitate those from marginalised communities to be instructors themselves. This obviously takes time as we need to bring people through the system and gain the practical outdoor experience that’s vital to keep people safe and happy. The process is difficult and the route uncharted, but the desire to explore a path to change is now clearly evident.