Start with Silence: Improving Equity in the Outdoors

A few members of our staff recently attended a regional summit of outdoor environmental educators. The topic was how to create better equity in environmental and sustainability education. Hint: it starts with silence.
Becca Polglase Becca Polglase
Education Director
March 07, 2016
Start with Silence: Improving Equity in the Outdoors

We hear about it all the time. National Parks visitation is becoming less diverse as our nation is becoming more diverse. The lack of diversity on our trails, at our crags, and on our rivers is profound, and it’s a problem. If you’ve spent enough time in the Outdoor Industry, you’ve likely sat at a table with well-intended, mostly white, predominately middle-aged male educators talking about a shared passion for changing this demographic imbalance in the outdoors. Last week, there was a new kind of conversation.

The Mountaineers attended a regional summit of outdoor environmental educators at Islandwood. The topic:  Equity in Environmental and Sustainability Education. Katherine Hollis, our Conservation Director, and I attended, as did two of our Tacoma Mountaineers who attended on behalf of the Puyallup Watershed Initiative.  

A wonderfully diverse group of educators engaged in rich conversation, drafting action steps in small groups.  We all learned a lot.  Something new to me - so perhaps it's also new to you - was the concept of  Progressive Stack.

It goes like this:  all of us have not just a lifetime, but generations of conditioning informing the way we engage in conversations.   Young people are conditioned to listen respectfully (even make themselves invisible). Seniors are conditioned to be ignored. Middle-aged adults are conditioned to make themselves heard – especially men, and especially white people. Women and people of color have been told for centuries that they have no voice - speaking out-of-turn risks punishment or death. People who identify as LGBTQ risk marginalization or death for speaking openly and honestly.

This conditioning is not something that can be erased with new legislation or with open, well-intended people (although those things are still very important). Progressive Stack is a concept that helps to bring equity to the conversation, which is the only way we will discover ways to include a broader demographic in the outdoor and environmental movement.  The idea is to very intentionally give a voice to those who traditionally have not had one and for those who speak freely and often to stop and let others speak first.

Why is this important to The Mountaineers?

Our natural places are where we go to recharge, to challenge ourselves, to feel whole.Our natural systems are the reason we have clean air, clean water, and basic survival needs. If the majority of our population does not have access to environmental education or feels unwelcome in our natural spaces, they will not vote to protect them, and we will lose them (note: outdoors people thinking we are welcoming does not always translate to others feeling welcome). 

More immediately, emotional safety is also important to  ensuring an effective learning environment and preventing mishaps in an outdoor environment. The effectiveness of our program is dependent on all participants feeling safe and welcome.  Therefore, this issue directly affects our programming, not just the reach of our impact on the world. 

Why is this important to everyone?

There’s plenty of research showing the health benefits of time spent outside. And not just in the mountains.  Time in a park, time gardening, time in urban nature. All of it is preventative health care – physical, mental and emotional. People who are connected to their environment are less stressed, less obese, better able to learn and interact with others, more likely to understand and eat healthy foods, and more likely to take care of their neighborhoods

I believe that connecting people to their environment is one of the key components to reducing health care costs, addressing our mental health crisis, improving access to healthy foods, reducing crime, and increasing high school and college graduation rates. I could provide even more links to further evidence (than I have already). 

Put it into practice

It's simple:

In your next meeting or trip, allow space, and encourage others to allow space. If there are participants who haven’t said much, invite them to share. That’s it. Space and invitations.

It’s also not that easy: 

If you know me, you know I have lots of opinions and a lot to say. I think I’m a good listener (mostly), but I like to voice my opinion. At this summit, our small group of about 10 was comprised of women, men, young people, middle-aged adults, people of color, white people, people who identify as LGBTQ, and people who identify as straight. We started the meeting by discussing Progressive Stack and committing to using it to shape our dialogue. All of us had it in the forefront of our minds. 

Do you know how hard it was for me to keep my mouth shut?  As a white, college-educated, middle-aged educator, I am conditioned to speak up. Always, without exception the first to speak in our group were men and white people. “But,” I thought, “I waited! No one else was speaking.” 

About half-way through the day, our facilitator asked us how we thought we were doing with Progressive Stack, and she looked at one of the quieter participants who is a young woman of color, soliciting her reflection. The woman shared that she thought we were actually doing pretty well, but we still weren’t allowing enough space for others to speak up.

Unbelievably, at that moment she was literally interrupted (interrupted!) by a white, middle-aged woman who said that she thought it wasn’t a problem because we’re all educators and that’s just the nature of educators to want to share opinions.

In those two minutes I saw first-hand how deep our conditioning is. I learned that what I thought was “waiting” was really just restraining my ideas inside my head until I heard a punctuation mark at the end of someone’s thought.  Allowing for true space (silence) is important for allowing those voices conditioned to remain quiet to have a chance to speak. An invitation “You look like you have something to share” or “Do you have any ideas to add?” is also a good idea.

My challenge to you: 

At your next meeting or on your next trip, give Progressive Stack a try. Share the concept with the group, and ask them to simply take note of what’s happening and try it out. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, then just quietly make note of who speaks first, most, least and last. Often our trip leaders and committee chairs aren’t comfortable “imposing” a cultural shift on their people, so if you are not the committee chair or trip leader, talk to the leader and offer to be the one to suggest it to the group. The idea can be more powerful if it comes from “within the ranks”.

I am proud to work for The Mountaineers because I am surrounded by good people, smart people, welcoming people. People who want to make a difference. This is our opportunity to listen, to learn about the biases we all bring to what we do, and to start to undo the systems that are getting in our way of being who we want to be.

I also give a lot of credit to the summit “design team,” which included IslandwoodNatureBridgeNorth Cascades Institute and Seattle Parks/E3 for bringing together the most wonderfully diverse group of people to engage in these discussions, and for recruiting dynamite facilitators to help us identify collective action steps.

One last note

Be gentle as people learn.  Know that some of us have degrees in topics like this, and for others, this is brand new awareness.  Create a safe space to learn, and allow people to make mistakes without feeling like their character is being judged.  As with all things Mountaineers, teach and learn with compassion.

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Chris Williams
Chris Williams says:
Mar 09, 2016 02:19 PM


Lace Thornberg
Lace Thornberg says:
Mar 22, 2016 03:13 PM

Thanks for sharing this, Becca.

Anita Cech
Anita Cech says:
Mar 30, 2016 08:25 PM

This is wonderful, Becca. Thanks for sharing this most important concept--such an important step for inclusivity.