When I was first starting my journey as an outdoor educator and leader I had the opportunity to tour the Southwest headquarters of NOLS. It was during that tour that I heard about the various programs NOLS implements for people of color through affinity expeditions and the instructor-in-training programs. The moment it was mentioned I felt the familiar feeling of my already tightened breath hitch with a feeling of excitement and dread.
Photo courtesy Lauren Wong
As a queer person of color, who has a some amount of passing privilege in the cis white spaces of the outdoors, I am always on alert. I anticipate moments where I will be hurt, belittled or othered by those in the outdoor community due to the overwhelming witness and heterosexuality that continue to dominate outdoor spaces and particularly outdoor leadership. In spaces that were not built with me in mind I always notice that it is harder to breathe. It’s like bracing my body for a potential impact of feeling invisible in outdoor organizations, an assumption of my skill set because of my identities, or the slight comment that communicates to me that I am not welcome in the space as a women, or a person of color or a queer person.
I held my breath as I imagined navigating through spaces like NOLS because I know I have never had access to the time, money, resources or skills needed to be on an expedition.
I held my breath as I navigated the thought that I could never be on an affinity trip because is a mixed person even considered a person of color by NOLS’s standard?
I held my breath as the dream of working as an instructor passed because I needed to pay off the debts of a first generation college student who was told the loans would be worth it for a better life for me and my family. These are the all too familiar thoughts that I danced with as I tried to imagine myself on a trip that was not originally built with me in mind, but that is now trying to include, trying to lift up, and trying to make space for the diverse and complex “us”.
Photo courtesy Lauren Wong
The affinity group trips that NOLS provides were appealing to me because it offered a space with a lower risk threshold for me. It provided me an opportunity to engage in a NOLS course knowing that a large part of the psychological safety I sacrifice in predominantly white, heterosexual, cis gendered spaces would be mitigated slightly as the community was guaranteed to be curated to a certain identity.
Fast forward to the middle of a global pandemic and I finally got my chance to go on the NOLS Southwest Leaders of Color trip. By participating in the American Hikers Society’s Next Gen Trail Leader Program and navigating the very privileged world of outdoor advocacy on a national scale, I was granted a stipend that I was able to use to pay for my first NOLS course. After getting admitted to the affinity course, having the trip canceled, then rescheduled, and negotiating time off from work, the trip was actually happening. Now by this point in the pandemic, COVID-19 symptom tracking is pretty common, so when NOLS asked if I am experiencing difficulty breathing that they meant related to the virus, not the symptoms of being an unrepresented person taking risks to take up space for myself and others. I still had some fear in my lungs heading into my first course but the comfort of being amongst other leaders of color had me breathing just a little easier.
Photo courtesy Lauren Wong
What I did not anticipate from the trip is that I would get to experience a type of easy breathing that I had yet to experience in outdoor spaces. Even as our expedition was step-kicking our way to the summit on Basset Peak, gaining elevation with our packs and picking each other up after we slipped, we were all still remarking on how much easier it was to breath on a trip with all people of color, led by a team of people of color. The breath of a person who is seen, known, validated and celebrated for who they are and what they experienced is deep and life giving. It was healing to see people that held my own intersecting identities in guide roles, passing on the wisdom of NOLS while simultaneously honoring the wisdom that comes with being a person of color, or queer or feminine. It was comforting to sit on the trail for lunch and be able to swap stories of how white supremacy has impacted our outdoor journeys and exploration of our own leadership without the need to defend or explain the systems of oppression that are invisible to those with privilege. It was deeply celebratory to be amongst others who saw my identities, not as a deficit or something of difference, but of a wealth of power and a source of deep knowledge that helps me excel as an outdoor leader. The deep breathing I was able to do with my co-hort on the Southwest Leaders of Color Expedition will forever be my anchor and reminder of what is possible when we create environments where the symptoms of being: an organization's diversity can be eased and maybe even given a chance to heal.
Lauren Wong is an experiential educator that has blended the worlds of higher education, outdoor education, and QTBIPOC community organizing. Her expertise is in creating unique leadership experiences that are socially conscious and foster curiosity for self and others. Lauren is a recent graduate of The University of San Diego's Higher Education Leadership program, where she researched best practices for promoting gender equity in outdoor adventures.