Outside Insight | An Important How To: Create Inclusive Experiences

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we speak with Nora de Sandoval, Katja Hurt, Bam Mendiola, Sam Ortiz, and Debbee Straub about the importance of being inclusive and respecting differences in the outdoors.
Sara Ramsay Sara Ramsay
Mountaineers Education Manager
April 09, 2019

The Mountaineers annual Leadership Conference is dedicated to the ongoing development of our volunteer leaders. Discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have been incorporated since its inception in 2014, and we’ve strived to include a wide array of presenters and sessions centered on inclusive and equitable programs. At the 2018 conference, we chose to introduce a full track focused on DEI, an exciting first for this event.

Becoming a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive community is a key priority of The Mountaineers current strategic plan (Vision 2022), and we recently created an Equity & Inclusion Steering Committee - formally charted by the Board of Directors - to help guide this work. The Vision 2022 planning process included significant input from our membership, and DEI was consistently highlighted as a top priority. We know this is important work, and we’re investing to affect positive change.

Thinking about the road ahead, I’m heartened by the number of people in The Mountaineers who are willing and excited to volunteer their time and be part of our journey. Our DEI track presenters are members of our community. Students, instructors, and leaders. Participants who’ve experienced our organization’s cultural biases firsthand. I’m grateful for their courage and compassion in sharing their stories, education, and lived experiences.

In an effort to provide additional resources for our volunteer leaders, I debriefed with a few of this year’s presenters to understand why DEI is so critical to the future of The Mountaineers. Nora de Sandoval works for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington and has led several workshops around topics of DEI. Katja Hurt has a background in instructor development and curriculum design, and a growing interest in DEI. Debbee Straub is a yoga instructor and educator who practices and teaches mountaineering, yoga, and mindfulness. 

Why is an appreciation of diversity an important quality to foster in our leaders?

Katja: As leaders, we model standards with our attitudes and behaviors. It's important to be intentional about how we present ourselves around diversity and inclusion because others are looking to us as examples.

Debbee: As a leader, the ability to accept and include everyone is imperative to developing a sense of team and belonging.

Nora: I would argue that instead of "appreciating diversity" a leader should be committed to creating positive, inclusive environments and reflecting on how their own privilege helps them to feel comfortable in the spaces in which they move. It is difficult, reflective, and systematic work to create positive, inclusive environments. Leaders will need to approach the task with a humble acceptance of the mistakes they will no doubt make along the way.

The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) defines privilege as "an unearned advantage or right that a person is born into or acquires during their lifetime". What kind of privileges do you think our leaders unintentionally bring into their activities?

Debbee: Leaders may not be aware of what privileges they have. To bring an awareness of one's privilege is a huge first step in understanding others who may not have the same privileges.

Nora: Yes, most people with privilege are completely unaware of how their privilege makes it easier for them to move in spaces where they feel comfortable. It takes a lot of work for people to reflect on how their race, gender, sexuality, income, and education level contribute to their feelings of comfort in a place. The Mountaineers is a primarily white, comfortably middle class, educated group, and people who identify with this move more comfortably within the organization. Additionally, I've had older Mountaineers mention that they feel increasingly overlooked by younger Mountaineers, which I thought was an interesting dynamic (and change in privilege status).

Katja: The privilege of assuming that people can drive themselves to the trailhead, have money to contribute to a carpool or to spend on a post-hike meal, and have space/means to care for and store gear. People can feel excluded by financial situation, condition of gear, or means of transportation.

How can Mountaineers leaders become better allies to people from more traditionally marginalized communities?

Nora: Educate yourself! Attend workshops, conferences, watch Ted talks, and do a media audit. From what sources do you get your news? Add sources from people of color, LGBTQ communities, and other perspectives.

Katja: Look specifically for resources about things you aren't comfortable with or don't know much about. For example, several years ago I realized I didn’t understand the difference between homosexual, transgender, and bisexual (my privilege as a white, heterosexual, cis-gender female made it so I’d never felt the need to ask about or understand these differences). Setting aside time to search online helped me learn about my own blind spots. Tolerating differences is not diversity; we have to be willing to question our attitudes and beliefs and move out of our comfort zones in order to truly become inclusive.

What are simple things leaders can start doing today to foster a more inclusive and welcoming experience for participants?

  • Ask each person what they’re hoping to get out of the experience. This can highlight potential conflicts (ex: one person who wants to do a conditioner and another who wants to take lots of photos), foster communication and understanding between the group, and allow each voice to be heard equally.
  • Don't assume participants want to be coached or have advice doled out on trips. Work on getting to know them and practice active listening skills to help them feel like a peer rather than a subordinate.
  • Offer longer or more difficult trips at a slower pace so members get an opportunity to test themselves and experience something they’d otherwise see as “only for the fast people." Fitness is a huge point of tension for people interested in our activities!
  • Include introductions with pronouns, as well as why this is important and what it means.
  • Bring awareness to microaggressions and implicit biases. When you hear something that feels offensive, no matter how small it may seem, it most likely is - and it’s the responsibility of all to address, correct, understand, and share apologies.

At the surface, DEI work can sometimes feel top-level and strategic, but at the end of the day inclusive programs will start with you - our community. Virtually all of our outdoor education programs are driven by volunteers, and modeling inclusive behavior at all levels of our organization is an important step in our evolution. I’m not an expert on DEI, but I’m reading, asking questions, listening, and learning about the many different systems of oppression which shaped the cultural landscape we live in today. So much of this is new to me, and the work feels both daunting and exciting at the same time.

How Not To Be A Terrible Ally

By Bam Mendiola and Sam Ortiz

Leaders have the power to shape the framework that everyone else works within. When leaders believe in the value of diversity, we weave that value into every practice and model it in our choices and actions.

Don’t ask for emotional labor. People from the most impacted populations are often expected to engage in incredible amounts of emotional labor to educate and train others on how to confront biases and unravel problematic behavior. This often includes sharing and reliving trauma to offer concrete examples of the impact of behaviors. Before asking someone from an impacted population to spend time educating you, take the initiative to access the educational resources available on privilege, systematic racism, white fragility, and historical oppression.

Take up space with people in your own community first. If you’re wondering where to begin, have questions, or feel that you need to discuss an issue, ask for support from other people in your own community. This lessens the impact of emotional labor on the most impacted groups of society.

Hold space for feedback, center space around others. Imagine getting called out for using racist language – what would your first reaction be? When we feel uncomfortable, maybe even attacked, we center our own needs and discomfort. This can show up as getting angry, defensive, and argumentative, or reacting with guilt and expecting the impacted person to center (or focus on) your emotion. Try to step back and do your best to not to take up space because that moment isn’t about you, but the person impacted by your actions.

Center the most impacted. Center the feelings and safety of the people who have been the most impacted. Center the needs of those who have the least power. Consider the fact that sometimes, in speaking up, the most impacted have been ignored, punished, or on the receiving end of hate and violence.

Model self-accountability. Recognize when you mess up, acknowledge it, educate yourself, and don’t make the same mistake again next time.

All of us, no matter our upbringing, have learned biases that take conscious and intentional work to confront and undo. When we do the work to unpack our biases the impact can be remarkable.


Thank you to Nora de Sandoval, Katja Hurt, Bam Mendiola, Sam Ortiz, and Debbee Straub for sharing their insights, energy, and emotional labor in support of this article.


This article originally appeared in our Spring 2019 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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Mary Simpson
Mary Simpson says:
Tue, Apr 9, 2019 2:48 PM

This is an awesome read. I will continue to try to do my part in educating myself and doing the work, especially "Hold space for feedback, center space around others," & "Center the most impacted." Thank you for sharing this and to the DEI team for starting and doing this very important work.

Mike Kretzler
Mike Kretzler says:
Tue, Apr 9, 2019 9:35 PM

Thanks for this.