Why I Do This Work

My work on issues related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), which is detailed here, began in earnest in 2016 as I recognized the need for a more diverse group of leaders in the outdoor recreation and conservation circles within which I moved. Because DEI work in the outdoor recreation community was relatively new to me, and because The Center for Jackson Hole was new to the space, I spent a good deal of time listening to colleagues, friends and subject-matter experts about the various challenges they were facing in their work. These conversations informed my considerations as they related to DEI. I am indebted to the people who shared them for their feedback, advice and counsel, which has been instrumental to my understanding of issues that were complicated, difficult and necessary.

Over various conversations, one challenge in particular emerged as a critical obstacle to the development of a movement strong enough to protect our natural world in the midst of unprecedented threat: the historic exclusion of younger generations and marginalized communities. This catalyzed my efforts to create pathways for young, diverse constituents within our programming.

At times my efforts to translate what I heard from our constituents into action went well. At others, they failed to align with my intentions. For example, I heard that one of the challenges for people of color in outdoor recreation was that they rarely saw role models that looked like them in the popular media. To address this, our organization began to feature more people of color in our content and creative materials, and to develop additional programming, such as the Gotta See It To Be It project, to tackle the issue head-on.

This was received by some as a contribution to the space. To others, it represented cultural appropriation. I did my best to listen to all feedback and incorporate what I heard into my efforts moving forward.

What I heard was that there was a problem facing people I cared about and demographics that needed to be uplifted in this work, I dedicated the resources I had at my disposal to doing so. I thought I could help by using the space I occupied to highlight the amazing leaders within the ELP program as well as the incredible work of SHIFT participants during SHIFT itself. We received positive feedback from some people of color for doing so. Other received it as tokenization.

When I reached out to people of color I considered friends and heard that, in their lived experience, stories related to outdoor rec and conservation were limited to white narratives, I tried to develop SHIFT and ELP into a platform to elevate voices, stories and perspectives of people in the space who had been historically marginalized. In doing this, I sought to use the resources I had at my disposal to contribute, in a meaningful way, to constituents who had been marginalized.

Again, this was received differently by different people. Some viewed it as cultural appropriation; others of the same demographics felt it was valuable. Still others considered it to be a deliberate effort to highlight traumatic experiences for the entertainment of white audiences. I have to own that impact and reconcile it with the originating intent. This is a work in progress.

To create pathways for a wide range of early career leaders in the proceedings of SHIFT in particular and the outdoor recreation/conservation communities in general, I created the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) in 2016. I owe a debt of gratitude for this to Juan Martinez, who brought a contingent of early career leaders to SHIFT in 2015, and José Gonzalez, founder of Latino Outdoors, with whom we worked closely to identify candidates for the first year of the program. Other leaders, such as Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin and Chris Rutgers, assisted us in our first tentative forays into the complicated DEI landscape.

At times, my failure to adequately credit these leaders for their help and their groundbreaking work, which served as the foundation of ours, was received as “Columbus-ing.” I apologize for not giving credit where credit was due. I also appreciate being held accountable for this and similar mistakes, as it is a necessary part of doing this work better in the future.

In 2018, during ELP, I was called out for not receiving proper DEI training in advance of starting the program.

In 2016, when I started the program, I wasn’t aware of a lot of DEI training options, especially in my own community and state. Even to this day, while trainings and workshops, such as the one our organization participated in last month, exist, there is not an officially sanctioned DEI curriculum that I’m aware of.

Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin (who, with Ava Halladay, would go on to found the Avarna Group) was one of the early DEI leaders in the outdoor recreation community. She graciously participated in our Advisory Council, doing her best to help me navigate the space. In 2016, I invited her to lead a Cultural Relevancy workshop at SHIFT, which she did—but as an organizer of the event, I was unable to participate, tasked as I was with running the festival.

In undertaking all of this work, I truly thought that good intentions and the sharing of my resources would be sufficient. And for some participants it was. For others, it was not.

Thanks to friends and colleagues such as Aparna, Len Necefer, Angelou Ezeilo, José Gonzalez, Morgan Dixon and Dr. Morgan Green in particular, I’m learning that there are varying degrees of trauma and difficulty created by intersectionality, even amongst people of color. They are helping me to understand that it’s not just a matter of programming; to prepare a space where positive experiences can be shared equally, deeper intentionality is needed. This, too, is ongoing work.

My efforts, and those of our organization, to create intentional and authentic platforms and opportunities for a diversity of perspectives at SHIFT have grown each year. We continue to work diligently to elevate the perspectives and priorities of individuals who have been historically excluded from the space. In doing so, I am acutely conscious of the fact that we will make progress, and we will make mistakes. I’m also aware of the risks of a white cys male such as myself faces in attempting to do this work—but as I’ve stated elsewhere, I believe it is an important part of the overall effort to protect our natural world in a time of unprecedented threat.

I have taken the grievances leveled against me and against our organization to heart. The changes we’ve made in response—in board expansion, leadership recruitment and structural development—have, we feel, prepared us to navigate a complicated landscape better than we’ve done before. More importantly, we believe the changes will allow us to realign our intentions with our stakeholders to reach the desired impact.

I want to emphasize that my outline of the points made above are made alongside the position outlined in this open letter written by our board in April. Furthermore, I reaffirm the commitments I have made in my open letter, which was published concurrently.

Both letters acknowledge our ownership of our impact. The steps noted at the end of this post are ones we have taken since November to address these grievances.

The changes we’ve made over the past six months—in board expansion, leadership recruitment and structural development—have, we feel, prepared us to navigate a complicated landscape better than we’ve done before. More importantly, we believe the changes will allow us to realign our intentions with our stakeholders to reach the desired impact.

As reported in the April 6 New York Times, “Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace.” This is why I do this work.

I am not a DEI expert. We are not a DEI organization. But I do know this: if we don’t figure out a way to work collaboratively to address the threats we are now facing, we won’t be strong enough to succeed. And that is something I am not willing to consider.

—Christian Beckwith

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