Taking the Stance on DEI: The Inclusion Problem in the Outdoor Industry, Part II

Diversity, equity and inclusion, also known as DEI, is not a buzz term.  It isn't just about visibility and branding. It isn't merely a business model concept in the form of marketing. DEI is a social justice issue, first and foremost.

When you don't make your position clear or known, the rest of the industry will in one way or another make note of your stance even if based on circumstantial evidence, with only two underlying outcomes: You’re either an ally or an adversary.

In my research on DEI and how to approach it within the outdoor industry, I had to resort to my profession as a lawyer and the legal industry for guidance. Here's where I think the problem lies:

The outdoor industry is working in a fragmented fashion towards DEI, and not collectively.  To say the least, this phenomenon frustrates progress tremendously.  There has to be a means to create a collective approach with a specific entity leading the industry or at the very least a means of creating real partnerships among entities that are working independently of each other.  So, I wonder, if an industry wishes to truly embrace a culture shift and a complete overhaul of the industry's best practices, which entity in the industry holds the strongest voice to lead the way?

Why do I ask?  In the legal profession, the industry changed because everyone worked collectively on the issue with the major stakeholders explicitly advocating for the change. As in any industry that is experiencing a major shift, it's important to identify the entity that holds the potential for unlocking the door towards a collective approach in addressing the DEI issue.  I have attended the Outdoor Retailer show twice and in both instances, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) caught my attention.

I learned that OIA 's pillars of work include "sustainability" in addition to policy and participation.  DEI is an important means for outdoor companies to thrive in this highly competitive space because we all know that the demographics of the target market is changing rapidly given the anticipated increase in the number of racial minorities within the industry’s consumer base.  DEI clearly falls under the realm of sustainability.  It is also associated with policy given that the very nature of it has to do with social justice in which institutional racism and inequality are the underlying characteristics of this phenomenon in the outdoor industry.  Participation also is a key component of DEI and out of all three pillars, this is the one that OIA seems to have acknowledged the most. Unfortunately, in practice, it appears the work on DEI is being overtly spearheaded by various entities other than OIA, mainly by the targets of DEI themselves – e.g., people of color and the LGBTQ community.  I noticed that none of the talks about sustainability at the OR show addressed DEI.  DEI is also absent on any policy work being done by OIA.  On OIA's website, any type of language to demonstrate efforts towards DEI appears to be lacking.

OIA is the trade organization. It presumably works to benefit the outdoor industry as a whole. OIA does that partly through advocacy.  In fact, it has taken a stance on environmental and social issues related to the outdoors but then inexplicably it shies away from openly and fully touching the issue of diversity, equity and inclusion in the industry.   On OIA’s website, there’s no page dedicated to advocating for DEI nor any written statement or a pledge in support of it.  DEI without a doubt can be deemed as one of the means to achieve OIA's goals - i.e. sustainability in the industry and increase participation in the outdoors.  This is an opportune time for OIA to become a part of a movement towards changing the industry culture and policy, creating sustainability and increasing participation of diverse individuals in the outdoors as, fortunately, alongside of it are a number of strong voices already working on OIA's three pillars.

The vastness of OIA's influence and relevance in the industry can easily be observed through its ability to bring organizations, individuals and all major stakeholders together.   Its ability to hold the biggest trade show in the industry demonstrates its level of power and ability to persuade and create impact. It’s the entity in the industry that has the most extensive network of outdoor companies and organizations. It has the resources to conduct research, initiate workgroups, campaigns and other measures towards DEI.  With OIA's important and powerful role in the industry, it's therefore logical to assert that OIA’s involvement on DEI issues is highly critical.

OIA's slogan is "Together We Are A Force." On its website, it repeatedly declares its mission to solve industry problems collectively. But, where's the force with respect to the DEI issue/aspect of the industry?  OIA must make use of its role as the parent organization of the industry to innovate in an industry that is experiencing inevitable shift in the market for the best interests of its members.

Despite my skepticism, I do give OIA credit for diversifying its organization and choosing Rue Mapp to become a part of its leadership team while also acknowledging Teresa Baker’s work vis a vis the Together We Are A Force award to celebrate her contribution to the increased participation of women in the outdoors at the opening session of OR this past July.  And yes, the panels, I've been told by veteran OR attendees, have now become more vocal about DEI issues which appear to focus mostly on creating visibility for people of color on ads and social media, as well as, their increased participation in the outdoors.  But let's not get too excited because one aspect of DEI is lacking in this scenario which happens to be the most fundamental of all. What is missing from the last two OR shows is the lack of discussion on how to address the hiring, retention and promotion of people of color in outdoor companies and how to create a more equitable and inclusive upper level management within the industry.   

With the fragmented approach that is happening within the industry in terms of addressing DEI, there's no better time for OIA as a leader and a parent organization in the industry to step in and initiate a collective approach to the DEI problem in the spirit of its mission, "Together We Are A Force."  By doing so, OIA can make use of its influence and strong presence in the industry to create a sense of accountability and oversight that is sorely lacking in this industry.  It can set the precedent for best practices in the realm of DEI work.  It can assume the role of a resource and an overseer of DEI efforts among its member companies/organizations and perform regular monitoring of the progress being made in the industry as a whole.  It can provide the much needed guidance and direction that most outdoor companies are seeking at this moment to launch their respective DEI work. With OIA's ability to sustain itself as an industry leader, similarly, it can also likely sustain all DEI initiatives and programs under its management on a long-term basis which will allow the industry to thrive permanently.  

So, I ask the following:

Will a major stakeholder like OIA in this industry take a stance on changing the management, leadership and hiring practices of outdoor companies?

Will OIA initiate workgroups, campaigns, surveys and other measures to address DEI?

Will OIA act as a resource and platform for companies that are on the verge of changing their respective cultures and policies on hiring, retention, promotion, etc. of diverse individuals?

Will OIA provide mentoring and support to diverse individuals to create a sustainable and positive office environment?

Will OIA make explicit efforts to render management and leadership in the industry to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive?

Will OIA lead the way to combat this social justice issue by vocally making its position known to its member companies?

In all of the above, OIA should.  But will it?

OIA’s effort towards DEI is simply not enough.  If the existing power dynamics in the industry continues to favor and serve only a select group of individuals while at the same time causing detriment to the rest of us, then the DEI issue remains unresolved.  

Law firms have been dominated by white men for so long until finally the industry itself openly acknowledged the lack of diversity and equity in the profession. It was unprecedented for the major stakeholders to take this bold step.  And yet, in the end, admitting such injustice in the industry became the starting point for the change in the legal industry.  Those stakeholders who summoned the courage to speak up became pioneers and icons of the DEI movement, thereby thriving in the flow of innovation; while those who chose to be silent were left behind by the changing times.  The shift required a courageous stance.

So, the question remains,

Will OIA take an explicit and unequivocal stance on DEI?  OIA is a leader.  Its members look up to it for guidance, leadership and direction in this complex multi-billion dollar industry.  Hence, OIA taking a stance in support of DEI will send a powerful message to the entire industry.  It will normalize DEI in the industry much more expeditiously and in a more meaningful manner.  It will lessen the discomfort and fear among outdoor companies to take the risk and come out into the open with their stance on DEI.  It will make the words race, racist, racism, people of color, women of color and all else less of a taboo, and instead, a normal part of the everyday business language in the industry so all stakeholders can name the problem as is and thereby find a real solution in the process.  The point is that OIA by itself is a force in this industry.  Should it decide to use its voice to speak out fully on the DEI issue, the industry stakeholders and leaders will undoubtedly listen to it intently, and as a whole this can lead to the solidarity that the industry needs to affect real change at a faster rate.

Those who are working on this issue such as myself will only gain the momentum we need to create an impact if the industry decides collectively to want the change and act upon it.  Anything short of that would likely constitute a mirage version of DEI.  Having strong allies adds to, rather than, subtracts from the progress that is underway.  Therefore, OIA's participation in this advocacy work is highly welcome.  The potential mishap in the outdoor industry is not too far off from my own experience as a lawyer – I, along with many racial minorities and women, in the legal field were convinced that progress was made via DEI initiatives that were initiated decades ago because we witnessed an increase of women and POCs entering law schools at the peak of affirmative action in academic institutions.  However, soon after graduating, we all found out the harsh truth - despite the increase in visibility of minority groups, people of color (and women) continue to face significant disparity in salary compared to their white male counterparts, and discrimination persisted as to promotion or advancement towards management positions as partners or supervisors, not to mention sexual/racial harassment which demonstrates lack of a healthy DEI culture within the organization.  In that sense, the DEI progress in the industry failed to fully address equity and inclusion.  The outdoor industry can prevent such scenario from happening.  Thanks to the outdoor industry lagging behind with DEI - now its stakeholders have an advantage – they can learn from the shortcomings of other industries with respect to DEI work. 

The reoccurring theme at the last OR show centered around the need to work together.  Although that's a lofty notion, I won't deny that I agree with it fully.  And so, don't be misguided.  This isn't just about OIA. This is about everyone of us in the industry taking an explicit and unequivocal stance on DEI.  Let's collectively speak and act to advance DEI in this industry.  After all, together we are a force. 

Read Part 1: When Money is the Bottom Line: The Inclusion Problem in the Outdoor Industry

Author's note: I know this is a controversial issue and discussions can turn negative quickly.  I am always happy to hear comments and do listen to them as objectively as I possibly can. But do note that if your comment turns into a personal attack or lacks kindness and respect that every human deserves, I will take the liberty on my end to delete your post. Freedom of speech is a privilege; let's not misuse, abuse or use it unwisely.  Rather, let's bridge the imaginary gaps and have a productive conversation.  

Marinel DeJesusComment