By Christian Beckwith, Executive Director, The Emerging Leaders Program
I started The Emerging Leaders Program in 2015 to try to bring a diverse group of early career leaders together to work on issues they had in common at the intersection of outdoor recreation and conservation. The thinking behind it was simple: unless we include the voices and priorities of a demographically representative cross-section of people in our efforts to protect the natural world, we will not be strong enough to succeed.
My intent in developing The Emerging Leaders Program was good. The impact it had on participants in 2018 was not. With minimal understanding of the lived experience of people of color who have been the victims of historical trauma, violence, racism, and aggressions at both the macro and micro level, I contributed to a space at ELP that reinforced attributes of a culture of white supremacy that has affected some of the participants for much, if not all, of their lives. I’d like to apologize to them with this letter, and provide some background as well.
I began SHIFT in 2013 to address conservation issues in a way that honored the legacy of Jackson Hole, the so-called crucible of conservation. By 2014, with the help of people who had spent much more time working in the field than I had, we’d refined the focus to address issues at the intersection of outdoor recreation, conservation and land management. In 2015, we started a non-profit organization, The Center for Jackson Hole, to execute our work.
Our efforts led to the realization that the conservation movement was in trouble. Young people were not joining mainstream conservation organizations, and if they did they were not reflective of the breadth of the country’s demographics, which meant they were not reflective of its perspectives or priorities. The same factors were true for land management. And while young people participated in outdoor recreation—it is, after all, fun—they tended to represent a similarly narrow perspective.
This left the movement in a precarious position.
We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history. The past five have wiped out up to 90% of the planet’s species. Today, species are disappearing 1,000 times faster than in pre-human times. 60% of vertebrate animals worldwide have been wiped out since 1970.
Technology has also sparked what author Florence Williams calls the “biggest mass migration in human history”—a migration indoors, behind screens. This in turn has led to a population that simply doesn’t care about the future of the natural world. Why should it, if it doesn’t go outside?
It quickly became clear that if we were to help alter the planet’s current trajectory, we needed to develop a way to invest as many people as possible in the outcome.
Outdoor recreation, conservation and land management are dominated by white, straight male voices, perspectives and priorities. The Emerging Leaders Program represented an attempt to create a pathway for people who have historically been excluded from the space so that their voices and experiences could become part of the dialogue, the movement and the solution.
I’m white. I grew up on a farm in Maine, went to college in Vermont and England, and have lived in predominantly white communities for most of my life.
I’m straight. I’ve been married for eleven years to a wonderful, caring, brilliant physician who devotes the majority of her time to family planning and women’s reproductive rights. We’re blessed to have an eight-year-old daughter who is healthy, funny, fun, and the most important person in our lives.
I’m a middle-aged man. I turned 51 in April. I got my first letter from the AARP last year. Though I continue to run around in the mountains as much as time and good conscience permit, my physical ability to do so is beginning to decline. Anyone under 30 who sees the font size on my phone laughs.
The extent of my experience of marginalization is from what friends made through SHIFT and The Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) have shared with me. I can’t change that. I can, however, engage in these issues by listening, learning, and seeking to uplift people, voices, and experiences that have been historically and continue to be marginalized.
This is what I have sought to do with SHIFT, and even more with ELP.
With ELP, we intentionally bring together a select group that represents the diversity of the country at the Teton Science Schools here in Jackson, where we prepare them to participate in SHIFT as panelists and keynote speakers. We do this so their perspectives can inform the proceedings, as well as to provide them with opportunities to advance their careers. The program also fosters friendships, alliances and networks between folks who might otherwise never meet.
The friends I’ve made and colleagues I’ve met via ELP are some of the most cherished of my life. Among other things, I’ve learned from some of them is that it is not enough to have good intent. The impact we create with our actions must take precedence over the intent, because the recipients experience the former, not the latter.
This had been shared with me by past participants in earlier ELPs, but this year, for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ll get to below, it exploded. Seventeen people, the majority of them participants in this year’s ELP, wrote a letter to our board requesting my resignation because of the impact my ignorance of the lived experiences of people of color had on them, on our programming and on the program’s environment.
It is tempting to do so. I want SHIFT and ELP to be a force for good. Hurting anyone is the furthest thing from my mind. And I know that I have, and that is crushing.
There are things I’m quite proud of about the past few years. SHIFT has helped state leadership positions of outdoor recreation center conservation—and, in 2018, public health—as a core part of their ethos. In 2016, Colorado Parks and Wildlife adopted the so-called “SHIFT Principles”, which balance the interests of outdoor recreation, land management and conservation, and created the SHIFT-inspired Executive Summit Coalition to help address increased pressures on their public lands.
At the 2017 SHIFT Festival, we developed playbooks for State Offices of Outdoor Recreation and Outdoor Business Alliances to provide industry support for public lands as well. In 2018, we focused on the health benefits of recreating outside, connecting the health care community with the work being done by the outdoor recreation, conservation and land management communities for one of the first times.
Outcomes such as these have made the experience rich and fulfilling. There have been plenty of missteps, mistakes and failures, too. The experience with the 2018 ELP was one of them.
During ELP, I sat at a table with five or six of the program participants. They asked me about the diversity, equity and inclusion (“DEI”) training I had done prior to starting the program. Though I have brought cultural relevancy workshops to SHIFT, convened our board and staff in the Navajo Nation at the invitation of a member of that community so that we could begin to include indigenous knowledge in our efforts, and worked diligently for the past three years to engage a breadth of experience into our proceedings, I had not done any formal training in DEI. Most of what I know about the matter I have learned via SHIFT and the Emerging Leaders themselves.
When I said this, a woman at the table—brilliant, passionate, good—gasped, and then began to tremble. Then she began to cry. She had put her faith, wellbeing and a week of her life into the hands of someone who knew almost nothing about what it was like to grow up as a person of color in America, where micro aggressions are the norm and where the current political climate has made it clear that the system that has dominated the country since its inception was intent on retaining power on behalf of the people who run it. People, in her eyes, like me.
I cannot undo the impact my ignorance has had on her. My remorse for causing her harm is profound. She is committed to making the world a more equitable, just place, and I hurt her. I will carry that injustice with me forever. I expressed my apologies to the Emerging Leaders as a group shortly thereafter, an apology I repeated during my opening at SHIFT a few days later. I express it again, with the entirety of my being, now. I own the impact I had on her and her peers, and for that I am deeply sorry.
I was informed that the authors of the letter did not want me to contact them. Our board decided not to publish an earlier version of this letter, or the letter they had written in response to the calls for my resignation, because they did not want to cause more pain. We’ve published them now, and I hope that those who were affected by my ignorance are able to read this and recognize the sincerity of my words: I’m sorry.
I would also like to express that the depth of my remorse is matched by my commitment to ELP alumni and future participants to create a better, safer program, one that helps us develop a movement of people working in concert to protect these places we all love and need so dearly. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to work with Dr. Morgan Green, a 2018 ELP alumnus and now the Director of ELP. He’s awesome: brilliant, thoughtful, funny, with an emotional IQ matched only by his empathy. It’s an honor to work with him, as it is with the other members of our team, all equally talented, all in their own ways.
On a personal level, I have also committed to doing the work that will help me understand, as much as is possible given my identity, the lived experiences of people who have been and continue to be targeted in this country, and to make way for them to occupy their rightful places in this space, so that the experience of growing up oppressed in an inequitable system is improved for future generations.
I’m also committed to working myself out of a job. By the end of this year, I hope to transfer the Executive Director position to new leadership. I hope the next Executive Director is an ELP alum. Most of the rest of our organization already is.
The past six years have been some of the most challenging, satisfying years of my life. It has been a privilege to have had the opportunity to develop SHIFT and ELP. I recognize these sorts of opportunities are not available to everybody. I do not take them for granted.
I’m honored as well to work alongside the people in our organization, who are more than simply colleagues. They’re friends. They’ve held me when I’ve cried, taken me to task when I’ve made mistakes, and guided me toward solutions when I needed help. For that, I’ll always be grateful.
And I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from this experience. I’m also aware that my opportunity has come at the expense of people like the woman I mentioned above. Again, I’m sorry. I can’t ask her or her peers to accept my apologies, but I can commit to learning from my mistakes, and to continuing in my efforts to make outdoor recreation and its benefits accessible to all.