Introducing the keynote speaker for the 8th Biennial Grassroots Advocacy Conference and Wild Weekend: James Edward Mills

James Edward Mills, the keynote speaker for the Grassroots Advocacy Conference, holds skis and walks over snow

Photo Credit: Courtesy James Edward Mills

A freelance journalist, James Edward Mills tells stories that often fall at the intersection of “outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving, and practices of sustainable living.” The author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, Mills is a strong voice in our community and he’s written often about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoor industry. 

“When I started my career, the industry’s images, ads, stories, and videos were almost completely devoid of people who looked like me, and diversity was rarely, if ever, discussed,” wrote Mills in an article published on SNEWS in June. “Today the issue is recognized as one of the highest priorities we face as an industry and has not one but two acronyms (DEI for diversity, equity, and inclusion and JEDI for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion). Corporate leaders uniformly agree: The business of outdoor recreation must adapt to the country’s changing demographics and culture.”

We want to continue the conversation at this year’s Grassroots Advocacy Conference with the theme: “Growing Equity in the Outdoors.” Following Mills’ keynote speech on Thursday evening, panels on Friday and Saturday will press into questions we need to address together. How do we make room for everyone in the outdoors? How do we empower grassroots people to make the changes they want to see in public lands? What can we all do about overtourism, the impacts of recreation on wildlands, and climate change? 

You don’t want to miss this conversation. James Edward Mills is the keynote speaker for the Grassroots Advocacy Conference and Wild Weekend. Buy tickets to see his talk on Thursday, October 24, at the Basque Center in Boise, Idaho. Register for the Grassroots Advocacy Conference now. 

Before we gather in Boise at the end of October, here’s some advanced reading. This is an excerpt from Mills’ blog, the Joy Trip Project, about the questions we can ask right now to make the outdoors more inclusive. 

James Edward Mills, keynote speaker of the Grassroots Advocacy Conference, wears a fur-lined snow jacket for protection from the cold

Photo Credit: Courtesy of James Edward Mills

This excerpt from Mills’ blog has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How do YOU make the outdoors more inclusive? 

By James Edward Mills

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For more than 50 years, with periodic amendments and additions of protected classes, discrimination in the workplace on the basis race, gender, age, sexual orientation, military service or disability has been probibited in both private and public institutions. For the lifetimes of most working adults, just about every job or profession has enjoyed the legal protection of being “an equal opportunity employer.”

And yet, a generation after this landmark initiative was signed into law, there are still wide disparities in the makeup of the U.S. workforce. In many professional environments—including banking, engineering, architecture and computer science—there remains a dearth of people of color, women, the disabled, and those who identify as LGBTQ as rank-in-file employees, middle managers, or senior executives. Though many sectors of our economy are making positive strides toward improving the diversity of job candidates, interns, trainees and permanent staff members, at least one major employer lags woefully behind.

The Outdoor Recreation Industry still has a lot of ground to make up in its ability to engage, recruit, and retain a workforce that reflects the demographic reality of the American public. 

Recognized as an annual contributor to the Gross Domestic Product in excess of 2 percent, the Outdoor Industry remains reliant upon both customers and employees that skew toward a constituency that is mostly male, white, college-educated, socially mobile, and middle to upper class. These companies and organizations are dedicated to providing goods and services to those who play outside, and yet they are failing to connect with an emerging population that is increasingly more brown, gender neutral or non-conforming, time-constrained, lower-income, and urban.

If the Outdoor Industry is going to survive this cultural shift of the American economy, most institutions will have to change their way of doing business. Though few, if any, have deliberately discriminated against under-represented members of the communities they serve, the time has come to actively reach out and embrace these minorities groups. Because in the foreseeable future, they will become the majority.

Many in the Outdoor Industry are now aware that they have a diversity problem. Retailers, manufacturers, outfitters, environmental nonprofits, and land management agencies have an interest in finding solutions that are substantive and sustainable. However, most are struggling to find best practices that are authentic and genuinely reflect their sincere desire to be equitable and inclusive of all people. Though some are doing a better job than others, there should be a few abiding principles upon which everyone can agree to begin and continue this very important work.

How do you make the outdoors more inclusive? What are we doing to make DEI in the outdoors a reality? I’m interested in hearing your stories. Share with me your struggles and challenges, your failures. What are your hopes and ambitions? How are you achieving them? What are your best practices? What does your success look like? 

James Edward Mills, keynote speaker for the grassroots advocacy conference, hikes across snow on backcountry skis

Photo Credit: James Edward Mills

Here are a series of questions to individuals and executives across the outdoor industry. I want to know what is actually happening beyond the desire to change the face of the outdoors. I hope this can be a framework for broader discussion from which we can create real solutions. Let’s just have a conversation.

Start with a declaration of intent:

  • Why is DEI important to the long-term success of your business or organization?
  • What are your goals and aspirations? Not vague notions of an equitable work environment, but what your real quantifiable objectives?
  • How will you monitor and affirm your progress?

How do you reach and engage with your customers, members, or audience?

  • Where do you advertise? Who are your ambassadors?
  • Does your outward appearance reflect your intentions as an institution that values DEI?
  • Are you sensitive to the interests and values of all the people you aim to reach?

How do you recruit new hires and develop a workforce?

  • Where are you looking for new customers and new employees?
  • Are you presenting your organization with language and culturally relevant messaging that your target audience understands and embraces?
  • Does your internal culture reflect your intention to create a professional environment where everyone is welcome and encouraged to participate?

How do you retain employees?

  • What are you doing to keep the new customers and employees you have engaged?
  • Is your internal culture supportive of an individual’s ability to thrive and grow?
  • Do your customers and employees imagine a future with your organization? How are you helping them to secure that future?

How do you help employees and community grow?

  • Do you encourage mentoring?
  • Is there a clear path of matriculation from one rung of the career ladder to the next?

To read more of James Edward Mills’ work, check out his blog, The Joy Trip Project. And don’t forget to register for his keynote event at the Grassroots Advocacy Conference, part of our Wild Weekend, on Thursday, October 24, in Boise, Idaho.