Professor digs into stories about diversity and equity outdoors

UO professor Sarah Wald hasn’t gone down the TikTok rabbit hole, but she’s explored just about every other storytelling medium to examine issues of equity and diversity in outdoor recreation and public land use.

Wald, who is affiliated with both the Environmental Studies Program and Department of English, is working on a new research project that will explore how different narratives address inequities and diversity in public land use and outdoor recreation. She’s looking at everything from documentaries about the first all-Black ascent of Denali to a graphic novel about bird watching and Black Lives Matter to blogs and Instagram posts about Latinx identity and nature to probe this question.

“I want to look at who’s using public lands? Whose stories are told? Who’s employed by public lands groups?” Wald said. “And storytelling is such an important way that we think about nature and how people spend time outside.”

She is especially interested in exploring the racial equity, diversity and inclusion efforts that have stemmed from the outdoor equity movement that arose during the Obama administration. The movement spurred many federal agencies, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, and organizations like the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, and outdoor recreation companies including REI and Patagonia to increase their efforts to diversify outdoor recreation and expand access to public lands and nature.

Wald is examining how those groups, alongside individual writers and artists, have worked to shift the narrative around who belongs in the outdoors and challenge the way outdoor recreation has been racialized as a white activity. She is drawing from film, poetry, creative nonfiction, novels, news articles, policy documents, advertisements, blogs, organizational websites, Twitter feeds and other social media posts for her research.

“These organizations represent access to nature as an environmental right,” Wald explained. “They counter popular visions of people of color as unlikely environmentalists and instead recognize their long-standing relationships to nature, outdoor recreation and public lands.”

But while Wald commends all of the work on diversity and inclusion as incredibly important, she believes there’s also a critical underlying question about whether it goes far enough.

“Does this effort address how settler colonialism contributed to the emergence of outdoor recreation and public lands, and to the erasure of Indigenous claims to those public lands?” Wald asked. “I want to understand how these organizations are reshaping definitions of wilderness and nature. Do they expand access to them in ways that challenge or leave intact the fundamental troubles with wilderness, outdoor recreation and public lands?”

She stresses that increasing access is a critical step, but she also hopes to see more of a fundamental change in how settler colonialism and white supremacy are incorporated into narratives about the outdoors and recreation.

Many problematic narratives about the wilderness and outdoor recreation advance white nationalism and settler logic, Wald explains. She points to how the wilderness is often discussed as a sublime and romantic space, which promotes a right way and a wrong way of interacting with nature.

Similarly, the culture around adventure and backpacking is centered on masculinity and prioritizes able white bodies, she said. And the history of public lands often highlights a colonial narrative of discovery.

“The fundamental contradiction of the outdoor equity movement is reckoning with the fact that public lands are stolen Native lands,” she said. “Until that is addressed, it prevents any easy resolution of environmental justice, even if outdoor recreation becomes more equitable.”

The project is rooted in a long-standing interest in justice-oriented forms of environmentalism. Wald wrote her undergraduate thesis on the problematic ways that public lands are discussed as “Western” or “wild.” And she went on to work in public lands advocacy, serving as a staff member, volunteer and board member for organizations working in that space.

She remembers doing an interview about a logging project and making a reference to “our” public lands. While she intellectually knew that was problematic language, she found herself still needing to reckon with the use of the phrase.

“Who’s the ‘our’ in public lands?” she asks.

Her research is continuing, but one of her initial takeaways is that the movement is not new. People of color have a long history of fighting for access to public lands, just as Indigenous people have for pushing for rights to their lands.

She also sees the need to consider a much more far-reaching definition of public land use, one that considers labor activities in addition to leisure.

“Environmental justice means redefining the environment as a place we live, play and work,” Wald said. “We need to reimagine public lands in the same way, as not just place we play but as a place that includes way more than recreation.”

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