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‘Outdoors for All’: Summer course explores efforts to make recreation and conservation more diverse and inclusive

April 14, 2017

The nation’s wild places – from national and state parks to national forests, preserves and wilderness areas – belong to all Americans. But not all of us use these resources equally. Why?

A new three-credit summer-term course, Outdoors for All (Envir St 402, Section 2), will explore this question, examining historical reasons why minority populations are much less likely to seek recreation, adventure and solace in the nation’s wilderness spaces, and examine contemporary outreach and advocacy programs aimed at addressing this challenge.

Outdoors for All meets
Tuesday through Thursday
for four weeks, beginning
June 20 through July 13,
from 1-4:10 p.m. View
official class information
in the UW-Madison
course guide

Taught by journalist and producer James Edward Mills, who authored the 2014 book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, and Rob Beattie, a Nelson Institute faculty associate, the class will explore national efforts to make outdoor recreation and environmental conservation more diverse, inclusive and culturally relevant to the interests of all Americans. It will also share the often-forgotten heritage and legacy of non-white adventurers and explorers, and showcase a new generation of conservation advocates.

Below, Mills shares more about what students in the course can expect.

Nelson Institute: What inspired you to teach this class?

Mills: For many years now, I’ve put a great deal of thought into understanding why there is an apparent disparity between those who spend time in nature and those who don’t. The same racial divides that exist across so many areas of our society seem to persist most apparently in the world of outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. I want to explore this phenomenon in an academic setting with students. I hope that we can share our findings with others so that we can perhaps come to a better understanding of what I describe as “the adventure gap”.

You describe the course as a multimedia learning opportunity. What might the class entail from week to week? 

James Mills
James Edward Mills

As a photographer, I enjoy sharing stories through pictures. The visual narrative of the natural world, especially in our national parks and forests, is a wonderful way to become immersed in the material I aim to cover. In addition to my own photographs, I look forward to sharing the work of friends and colleagues in the field. I’ve also discovered many inspiring and compelling historic images that reveal the role that people of color have played in the conversation movement over the last century.

Are there other elements of the course that will make this an exceptional experience for students?

I especially hope that the students who take this course will welcome the opportunity to explore the prospects of the future. The outdoor recreation industry and the federal bureaus of public land management are doing a lot to change their cultural philosophies to become more diverse and inclusive. I want students to come away from this course with ideas for their own career development, as well as thoughts about what they can do personally to make the outdoors more accessible to everyone.

What do you see as the barriers to inclusion – currently or historically – that prevent people from all communities and backgrounds from experiencing the nation’s wilderness spaces? Why is it important to remove these barriers?

I think the primary obstacle to making anything, including the outdoors, more inclusive of underrepresented populations is a lack of cultural relevance. What makes something like the outdoors interesting and engaging to anyone? I believe that having an ancestral relationship to stories and experiences of the past is a great place to start.

If we can demonstrate that we all have a legacy and heritage of environmental stewardship, we can help everyone discover their relationship with the natural world. I believe that by helping people to appreciate the outdoors, they will come to love it. We tend to protect the things we love.

You've said that bridging the “adventure gap” requires role models who can inspire the uninitiated to seek recreation, adventure and solace in wild places. Have there been role models or organizations that hold special importance for you? 

Without a doubt, my primary role models are my father and mother. As civil rights activists in the 1960s, they created a social and cultural environment where I could pursue any career path I wanted. My love of the outdoors was fostered and encouraged through regular and profound experiences in nature.

There are many organizations now that are helping young people, especially youth of color, to have similar opportunities. Groups like the Sierra Club, Outward Bound, the National Outdoor Leadership School, Outdoor Afro, and Latino Outdoors are doing remarkable things every day to bridge the adventure gap and in many ways make the gap smaller and smaller.