Why representation matters in outdoor spaces 00:00

Sports in Society Diversifying the great outdoors

Why representation matters in outdoor spaces

Nature is often seen as an equalizer because it’s available for all. However, people of color have long been underrepresented in the outdoors industry. Photographer/filmmaker Samantha Isom shares how she tries to break the narrative with her online journal and travel show, Brown Passport.

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Black Americans represented 12.4% of the U.S. populace ages 6 and over in 2019, but only 9.4% of outdoor participants. Source: Outdoor Industry Association 2020 report

Clip from Samantha Isom’s show “Brown Passport

Jennifer Sánchez: That’s Samantha Isom, a photographer, and filmmaker of 31 years. This is a clip from her online journal and travel show, which she’s coined as Brown Passport. This is from when she covered the National Association of Black Scuba Divers Annual Summit in 2019.

Samantha Isom: I felt like I have to do this kind of how you’re like, I’m thirsty, I gotta drink water. I’ll pass out or die. I felt like I had to do this hell or high water and go for broke or not. I did it, and created Brown Passport and one of the biggest things in it was busting the stereotype or changing the narrative that we don’t do these things. These stories need to be shared. I’ve been doing it for about four years now. And whether you see the story from a few years ago, or from today, it’s all relevant. 

Jennifer Sánchez: Samantha’s outdoor endeavors have taken her all over the world. But growing up, things were very different. 

Samantha Isom: That mindset of just “you’re outside in a neighborhood, playing with your friends.” You’re outside. You don’t stay in the house. You were outside all the time with people. But that doesn’t mean camping and that didn’t mean surfing, and it didn’t mean hiking. I promise you that. We didn’t grow up doing that. It didn’t happen until I was almost 30. I actually didn’t know anybody doing that where I grew up. At all. And that’s crazy because we were near the Pocono Mountains. I grew up near Philadelphia. 

Scuba diver Deborah G. Peterson, a member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, is photographed in the Red Sea, Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Isom)

Jennifer Sánchez: Although people of color have long been underrepresented in the outdoors industry and its advertising campaigns, platforms like Instagram have slowly become places where they feel seen. 

Samantha Isom: But things are different now. You know, with Instagram, it’s like people are seeing others doing it, no matter what demographic. Even if you didn’t grow up in an area or your family didn’t take you to these places or introduce you to that, you’re seeing it through other people. And that itself is a huge influence. And then on top of that, if you’re seeing that with people that may be of your demographic, then that’s a double down influence. So that’s great, but we have a long way to go before we won’t even need that anymore. And the day we don’t need that anymore is a blessing. Until that happens, I feel like we need to inspire, somehow, each other to continue to go out there.

Jennifer Sánchez: In her travels, Samantha has worked on fashion and advertising shoots. And she’s seen firsthand the ways that people of color aren’t given as many opportunities as their white counterparts. 

Samantha Isom: People wanna cast people that look like Chads. If you’re shooting an ad campaign, they go, “Let’s get a skateboarder.” Before Black Lives Matter protests, I promise you, they weren’t looking for a Black kid. They were not. Right, they were looking for Chad. And people are, like, sailing. What do you see? You see Chad and his beautiful blonde wife, right? And it’s like, first of all, not all Black people are broke. It doesn’t mean they can’t sail, you know? That’s not always the thing. But if there’s no representation — sometimes it just might mean, “Oh we don’t do that.” And you keep yourself from doing a sport because it’s not on your radar. Because they don’t see themselves in advertising, they don’t see themselves represented anywhere. And that’s a crime. 

Surfer Adrian Alston is photographed surfing at Ekuhai Beach (Bonzai Pipeline) in Oahu, Hawaii, in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Isom)

Jennifer Sánchez: According to a 2021 report, 66% of new outdoor participants were Caucasian, meaning that less than 35% were people of color. But why? According to Samantha, the answer is deep-rooted and has to do with trauma passed down through generations. 

Samantha Isom: After Jim Crow, this is where a lot of those things are born from, right? You still may have memories of — or residual memories through your parents — of, you’re the only one, or the only Brown person and you’re kind of like, “Damn. I’m getting looked at like I’m some kind of Martian, first of all.” And B, now I feel like I’m on stage. If I fall. It’s like, I can’t do anything. I can’t mess up. I gotta be the best of the best while I’m out there. So at least if you have a large group of folks that are looking just like you, you feel like a little bit you’re coming in strong.

There used to be a book in the states called the Green Book. And it was a book circulated among black families. Maybe not all, but many. That would at least tell you, “Hey, I know that this hotel is safe. I know this restaurant is safe. I know that this public restroom is safe. And I know this gas station is safe. At least it was safe last time I checked.” For you to be able to take a road trip because before that taking a road trip was like going to a war zone potentially. You might not be able to do that. That was a very real scenario, no matter how much money you had or how well your family was to do. That transcends down for generations. This is not just something that sticks with the people that actually experienced that. But parents that experienced that, pass that experience to their children. And the children can be scared. Now they may be less scared or maybe their kids are just bold and they go out like, “I’m not like you.” That’s great, but that’s also breaking off. That’s not really the norm. It’s hard to do that. It’s just passed down and they don’t even don’t understand why you can have a hard time breaking that cycle. But then when you start seeing other people doing things and you go, “Oh, they’re safe. Well, I can do that too.” That’s cool. 

Skier Ruth Cauthen, a member of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, photographed in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Isom)

Jennifer Sánchez: As more conversations about diversity continue to happen in the outdoors space and beyond, Samantha hopes that people of color will remember to be responsible. 

Samantha Isom: We have an extra duty to try and represent and encourage other members of our demographic to come out and break free of these stereotypes and break free of these things.

Jennifer Sánchez: If nature really is a great equalizer because it is available for all, the numbers and faces should reflect that. For iPondr, I’m Jennifer Sánchez.

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