To root out racial injustice, we studied the litany of structural barriers that impede the rise of racially inclusive and representative leaders in the outdoors.
Making Outdoor Education Available to All
Historical and systemic barriers to accessing the outdoors have kept many communities of color from the benefits of connecting with nature. Nowhere is this more apparent than in outdoor and environmental education organizations, where people of color occupy less than 12% of leadership positions.
Justice Outside is working to change that by supporting the leadership of young adults of color who want to work in outdoor education. With a vision that all young people have access to meaningful outdoor experiences, Justice Outside offers nature-based training to young people historically excluded from the outdoor movement, that emphasizes cultural relevance and equity alongside technical outdoor skills.
Creating opportunities for outdoor leadership development for young people of color is an important first step to increasing representation and urging the outdoor education field to become more equitable and inclusive. What happens, though, when the individual leaders grow and change, but the White-dominant organizations and field remain unchanged?
This was a persistent question as we learned about how Justice Outside’s program unfolded for participants. While skill development and personal growth were vitally important program outcomes, we knew that as evaluators, we had to shift the burden of proof away from individuals and instead call attention to the structural and cultural barriers that were impeding more inclusive and representative leadership.
To foster and measure progress toward truly inclusive leadership, we had to change the way we defined, captured, and reflected the truths and lived experiences of both early career outdoor educators and leaders of color already positioned within the field, and lastly, the organizations and structures they work within. This is the journey we embarked on when we first evaluated one of Justice Outside’s leadership development programs, the Outdoor Educators Institute.
In this evaluation, our survey revealed a striking set of data points: before OEI, 65% of participants thought their leadership style had a place in the outdoor education field. After OEI, however, that number dropped to 38%. Nonetheless, program participants reported gains in leadership skills, such as group facilitation, communication, and management.
Our interviews with program participants and sensemaking conversations with our partners at Justice Outside helped clarify the finding behind the data: White-dominant leadership norms and organizational cultures needed to change if leaders of color were going to have any hope of continuing within the field.
“I appreciated Informing Change’s expertise, especially in the team’s careful survey design, which brought layers of professionalism and validation. The intentional work Informing Change did upfront in crafting survey questions meant the data that came back was really valuable and interesting.” – Laura Rodriguez, Director of Programs
Justice Outside has built this systems perspective into subsequent leadership programs. For one of them, the Rising Leaders Fellowship, the core curriculum includes unpacking racist and colonial histories, norms, and vocabularies embedded in the organization and beginning to work toward a place of healing, inclusion, and transformation. Justice Outside sustains talented leaders of color by bringing participants into conversation with one another and creating a network of organizations focused on creating a more just and equitable outdoor sector.
Our most recent evaluation with Justice Outside included a deep-dive of the Rising Leaders Fellowship that focused on the organizational and field-level changes that are happening—and that work that still needs to be done. Our findings about the impact of the Rising Leaders Fellowship confirmed for Justice Outside that launching their 6th cohort of Rising Leaders was critical, despite the hurdles of moving it to a virtual space when Covid-19 hit.
“We knew that this program was important. Because the evaluation, data and responses confirmed this so solidly, we decided not to postpone the Rising Leaders Fellowship, in April, amid all of this [Covid-19]. Zoom fatigue is real, but experiencing fatigue as a person of color in the environmental field is also super real. So we’re moving forward.” – Laura Rodriguez, Director of Programs
Our learning is built on the intentional and deep partnership we’ve developed with Justice Outside over the past five years. Beginning first with a theory of change, and continuing now with three programmatic evaluations, our work with Justice Outside is a challenge to the status quo rooted in measuring and bringing to light how change happens in the outdoor sector. By measuring and documenting the inequities that impede the progression of talented leadership of color, collectively we are able to work toward an outdoor sector that is more equitable, inclusive, and culturally relevant.
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