Volume , Issue

Background

The death of George Floyd and the subsequent increase in support for the Black Lives Matter movement have inspired both individuals to reflect upon their own biases, and institutions to scrutinize practices and policies that perpetuate racism. While a “national awakening” has undoubtedly sparked important discussions in nearly all sectors of society (wilderness medicine included), a major question remains: How do industries and organizations commit themselves to acknowledging and dismantling racism in a meaningful and sustained fashion? While there is no definitive answer to this question, I believe that centering the voices of individuals affected by racism - mainly Black, Indigenous, and other Persons of Color (BIPOC) - is absolutely essential.

To that end, Jenny Jensen, a second-year medical student at the University of Washington, and I organized “Community Triage: a Panel Discussion on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice in Wilderness Medicine” to center the stories of BIPOCs involved in wilderness medicine in hopes of advancing conversations about race. Our intentions were three-fold: To uplift the voices and experiences of BIPOC members of the wilderness/austere medicine community, discuss the barriers of entry to wilderness medicine for BIPOCs, and to identify potential ways the wilderness medicine community can be equitable and inclusive.

About the Virtual Panel

The virtual panel was held in January 2021 and brought together more than 80 participants from across the U.S. Five panelists were featured: all were healthcare professionals involved in wilderness/austere medicine and all identified as Persons of Color (POC). [Note: Despite a three-month-long search for panelist candidates, we were unable to find an Indigenous or Black member of the wilderness medicine community to join the panel. We initially used the term “BIPOC” in our advertising, however, it is important to acknowledge that the panel only consisted of Persons of Color (POC).]

Attendees included members of the WMS as well as wilderness medicine educators, search and rescue volunteers, outdoor guides, and healthcare students and professionals. Many who signed up expressed an interest in educating themselves more in issues relating to DEIJ; some were seeking to be better allies to members of the BIPOC community while others were looking to provide more inclusive outdoor programming. Several self-identified POC attendees expressed a desire to hear about the experiences of panelists and learn about how they navigated the world of wilderness medicine.

More than half the panel was dedicated to questions written by Jenny and myself while the last 30 minutes was reserved for audience Q&A. The conversation ranged from panelists’ stories of entering and navigating the field of wilderness medicine to envisioning a future in which the outdoors are accessible to all.

Below are the major themes, lessons and recommendations distilled from the panel.

Visibility

“Wilderness, in theory, is [the] great equalizer... Trees don’t know anything more about you. The animals don’t know who’s white and who’s brown.”
- Dr. Avinash Patil


Not seeing others that look like you and having the experience of being seen as “different” can affect an individual’s sense of belonging in a community. The lack of visibility of BIPOC’s and the sense of feeling out-of-place was a major theme identified by panelists.

Several panelists admitted that being one of few, if not the only, POC in outdoor spaces or wilderness medicine functions was commonplace. As Dr. Roople Unia noted, “When I started going to [WMS] conferences, I began to notice that there were not a lot of people who looked like me. And you know, there are a lot of brown doctors out there.”

The experience of appearing different from the typical outdoor recreator or trip leader was also discussed. Dr. Avinash Patil shared several thoughts; while the wilderness may be the “great equalizer,” several of his experiences working as a river guide indicated otherwise. “I’ve had National Park Service in the Grand Canyon not talk to me even though I’m the trip leader and instead talk to a customer on the trip as the guide.”

In addition to the lived experiences of panelists, there is also a lack of visibility in regard to the history of BIPOC communities in the outdoors. As Dr. Patil observed, entities like the National Park Service often focus on the lives of white settlers and downplay, or altogether omit, the histories of indigenous people.

Responsibility

“There’s a whole conglomeration of factors [affecting access] . . . financial, social, access to gear. There’s so many different things that play into it. I think that by creating personal connections with people we can really work towards making our wilderness medical community more diverse and inclusive."
- Dr. Roople Unia


The panel also hosted a discussion regarding the responsibilities of the wilderness medicine community and the outdoor industry at large to support DEIJ initiatives. While many organizations have publicly announced their commitment to racial diversity within the past year, are public acknowledgements enough? What does a long-term commitment to equity look like? Both a commitment to creating access and actively seeking ways to diversify an organization’s membership were at the forefront of this discussion.

Access takes many forms, but as Vanessa Castro noted, it often hinges on time, money and social connections. The cost of gear and transportation can be prohibitive, making activities like hiking or camping a luxury that most can’t afford. Castro also pointed out how “doing advanced [outdoor] activities requires a certain degree of mentorship, and that’s all dependent on your circle of friends and acquaintances.”

Panelists also discussed the responsibility for organizations like the Wilderness Medical Society to address the issue of diversity in its membership. Dr. Unia shared her perspective:

“In terms of various organizations who should be taking responsibility, to me the number one is the Wilderness Medical Society. . . it’s up to us to make it happen, people are not going to come out of the woodwork to find us and so we have to find them. To say, this is where you should be, this is a cool thing you’re missing out on, we want you here, we need you here. We need your experience and expertise.”

Other panelists voiced similar sentiments -- envisioning a future in which organizations invest in outreach and actively work to lower barriers to access.

Moving forward

“There’s a huge difference between ‘all are welcome’ and ‘this was created with you in mind.’ ”
- Rachel Sapp shares a quote by Dr. Crystal Jones


Of the conclusions drawn from the event, perhaps the most important is that talking about diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice is not enough. Panelists agreed that individuals and organizations share a common responsibility to regularly reflect and act.

“Whatever we can do to help our communities, even if it’s one or two people in your sphere of influence, I think that can really make a big difference,” said panelist, Elis Salamone, in regard to an individual’s responsibility. Inviting community members, especially youth, to recreate in the outdoors or providing mentorship are just a few ways to propagate change locally.

Organizations, like the Wilderness Medical Society, also have a responsibility to increase both visibility and access. Triaging the situation is the first step. Listening to the experiences and perspectives of members and identifying barriers to access for non-members is essential. Finally, action items like expanding entry-level outreach to spread the word, providing financial aid, and uplifting the achievements and perspectives of the underrepresented through social media and other news outlets are much needed.

There is much more work that needs to be done on an organizational and individual level, however, it is important to recognize the work has been done. The Wilderness Medical Society’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee is taking steps towards addressing these issues. This committee was founded in Fall 2020 with the intention of assessing the Society’s policies and procedures, organizational goals and strategic plan in order to cultivate a more inclusive and equitable culture.

More information about the DEIJ panel

The recording of the panel is available to the public online at www.pnwmed.org/deij. To learn what audience members think are the greatest barriers to wilderness medicine, check out the results of the post-panel survey here.

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