You hear a lot of talk about “privilege” these days, access or advantages granted to certain people just because of their membership in a social group. What does privilege mean in terms of access to healthy and safe natural settings, and the ability to go on outdoor adventures? My walking therapy colleague Aimee Frazier and I recently wrote about a group exercise “The Privilege Walk” that explores this questions and reveals, in real time, hidden privileges we have. Aimee led a real life privilege walk at a recent outdoor therapy conference.
We published an account of this in the Mazamas Mountaineering Club journal (here). The complete write up below, so you yourself can answer the questions and take your own privilege walk.
Lest you think this is just an intellectual exercise, watch this brief video of someone leading a privilege walk. This episode could occur during first year orientation on any college campus in the US. Tell me what you feel as you watch.
There are things we all can do to address this issue. We can understand where we inherit privilege and what kind. We can support policies such ones President Biden is creating. We can us our privilege as leverage to level the playing field. That’s what the Mazamas Climbing club is doing to go from a traditionally all-white male-dominated group of mountaineers to an organization open to all members of the public that want to climb high.
Keep in touch,
— Thomas Doherty, Psy.D.
Doing the Privilege Walk in the Outdoor Adventure Community
By Aimee Frazier and Thomas Doherty
I, Thomas, have been a Mazamas member for some years and have learned a lot from our recent membership discussions. I also work as a psychologist and have a somewhat unique niche studying people’s relationship with nature and the outdoors. Lately, I have been training counselors who take therapy outside and this brings in good questions about accessibility for the public. Aimee, who is on the way to becoming licensed as a counselor, also has an outdoor adventure background. She recently did a thought-provoking training for the Association for Experiential Education, and when we spoke about it, I realized it would be a great addition to the dialog on the Route Ahead for the Mazamas organization. I’ll let Aimee take it from here:
The outdoor adventure community has historically lacked inclusivity, catering access to outdoor adventure-based experiences to white, middle and upper-class men who are able-bodied. This exclusivity has left out people from a variety of diverse backgrounds, body types, and identities, making the outdoors feel unapproachable or unsafe for many.
Privilege is defined as “Unearned access or advantages granted to specific groups of people because of their membership in a social group” (United Way). One tangible way of recognizing privilege is an experiential exercise called a Privilege Walk. The purpose of this activity is to expand awareness of one’s own privileges or lack thereof, and gain insight toward the different experiences between individuals.
This idea originated from the work of Peggy McIntosh, who wrote “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In her work she describes privilege and defines many of the unearned benefits that white individuals typically take for granted, that people from other racial backgrounds do not have.
The privilege walk is typically an eye opening experience for those from privileged backgrounds, as individuals come face to face with other people in their community who have had vastly different experiences based on parts of their personal identities.
I most recently led this experience with outdoor-based experiential educators and therapists. 34 participants from a variety of backgrounds signed up for an experiential workshop on the topic of inclusion and social justice in the outdoors. The group lined up, standing side by side, in a large field, all facing forward, where I stood in front of the group. I described the purpose of the exercise; To better understand our levels of privilege in the context of the outdoor adventure field. I let participants know that they had a choice to participate or observe and they were never obligated to answer any questions. With that, we began.
I read the first statement. “Take a step forward if you grew up in a home where your parents or guardians took you outdoors during your childhood”. Most participants stepped forward. Some did not.
The statements continued from a more generalized perspective and progressed toward more personal experiences. “Take a step forward if you had access to safe parks, trails, or outdoor recreation areas during your childhood.”
“Take a step forward if you have always felt welcome by other people and organizations in the outdoor setting.” Many stood still. Participants looked to their left and right, toward the individuals they knew and cared for, and their faces revealed a variety of emotions having learned of their experiences of exclusion.
“Take a step forward if you have felt fully comfortable and widely accepted by others in the outdoor adventure field based on your racial background, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, ability level, sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex.” Many did not step forward.
Their stillness represented the lack of safety, acceptance and inclusion they had experienced. I watched individuals silently wipe tears away as they acknowledged and witnessed the representation of deeply personal wounds within their community of peers and colleagues. Following the last statement, the participants paused to take inventory of their place in the now-dispersed line of participants. Some individuals stood near the starting line, indicating a lack of privilege, while others were much further ahead- indicating a wide gap of privilege within the outdoor adventure community.
In the debrief, we talked about what it was like to see privilege unequally dispersed through the community. Those who had more privilege shared their mixed emotions. Those who had less privilege shared what it was like to have their reality witnessed by peers. Some chose to share their personal stories of not having access to the outdoors during childhood or finding the outdoor adventure field to not be inclusive of “people like me.” It was a moving experience that allowed participants to see a tangible representation of privilege and systemic issues that are often are ignored.
Marinel M. de Jesus, the founder of Brown Gal Trekker, encourages those leading and participating in outdoor adventures to acknowledge the reality of inequality in our communities. She encourages adventurers to educate themselves on issues of inequality and privilege, and to be an advocate by calling out “isms” when we see them—racism, sexism, ableism, etc. She states that it is crucial for each individual to know their personal biases and work to continually let them go. When others from backgrounds different than our own share deeply personal experiences of encountering inequality, it’s important to validate their pain.
I encourage those leading within the outdoor adventure field to take time to reflect on issues of privilege and engage with their own experiential privilege walk within their communities.
“So what does privilege have to do with the outdoors? A lot actually. Nature is inhabited by people who reflect the same biases you see everywhere else in society. Although it’s tempting to view the outdoors as a transcendent experience that will smooth over unpleasant topics like …racism… that’s more wishful thinking than reality. Forest bathing doesn’t wash away bigotry… Privilege is hard to see. In fact, the more you have it, the less likely you are to be aware that it exists.”— Danielle Williams, Melanin Base Camp
Now back to Thomas: I hope you find this exercise as enlightening as I have. I myself didn’t grow up with access to the mountains. Fulfilling life goals like the Mazamas glaciated peak requirement has always been a source of pride for me. But as a white male, I realize my privilege walk was more like a run. I was lucky enough to know people who could take me up peaks like Mount Rainier, myself with little to no experience, and keep me safe—and I never had a doubt I was fully accepted. For this, I have deepening gratitude. Try your own privilege walk below.
Outdoor Experiential Privilege Walk:
Take a step forward if…
- You grew up in a home where parents took you outdoors
- An adult in your life took you on outdoor adventures on a regular basis
- You ever engaged in a sport or a community program that allowed you to spend time in the outdoors as an athlete or recreationally
- You lived within walking distance of a safe trail, park, or outdoor recreation area
- People in your life encouraged you to spend time outdoors
- You always feel safe when outdoors with friends
- You always feel safe when outdoors alone
- As a child you learned skills necessary for safe practices when participating in recreational activities outdoors
- As a child you had financial access to organizations that facilitated outdoor activities
- You feel comfortable sleeping outdoors
- You have never been harassed by strangers outdoors in a wilderness setting
- You have always felt welcome in the outdoor setting
- You had access to outdoor-based organizations where leaders had similar identities (gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc.) to that of your own
- You’ve spent more than a week at a time living outside (camping, backpacking, etc)
- You’ve had the financial means as a young adult to enjoy one or more outdoor recreation activities
- You have always felt comfortable in all areas of your personal identity being widely accepted by others in the outdoor adventure or recreation setting (gender identity, sexual orientation, race, class, cultural identity, socioeconomic status)
- You have at least one place in nature where you feel connected to something larger than yourself
- Meerts-Brandsma, L., Lackey, NQ., Warner, RP. (2020). “Unpacking Systems of Privilege: The Opportunity of Critical Reflection in Outdoor Adventure Education.” Education Sciences.
- McIntosh, P. (1998). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In M. McGoldrick (Ed.), Re-visioning family therapy: Race, culture, and gender in clinical practice (pp. 147–152). The Guilford Press. (Reprinted from “Peace and Freedom,”” July/August 1989, pp. 10–12.
- United Way Equity Challenge — Day 3: What Is Privilege?
- Melanin Base Camp
- Brown Gal Trekker