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Colorado’s outdoor industry knows it could be more inclusive

The industry acknowledges that there’s a large population that doesn’t feel included
Michael Mojica, Martha Y. Díaz, Charlotte Young Bowens, and Joey Montoya at the Path Ahead Ventures Panel discussion, sponsored by REI at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on June 9. (Steve Peterson/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Michael Mojica was up for anything, so when a neighbor asked if he wanted to climb a 14er, a surefire induction for any new Colorado resident, he agreed to it.

“Sure,” the transplanted Texan replied. “What’s a 14er?”

A few days later, Mojica topped out on the summit of Mount Yale. His eyes blurred with tears, exhaustion and the wonder of the world before him.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why am I getting so emotional about this?’” he said.

The outdoors can be a magical place. Mojica, for example, started his own outdoor gear company, Outdoor Element of Englewood, after his first 14er. There’s a mountain of evidence that human beings need time outdoors to recharge their mental health.

But Mojica’s mission runs deeper: He designs gear, he said, to give anyone the confidence to venture out like he did. And he means anyone.

Most others on Yale that day didn’t look like him. Mojica’s Native American name, Bodaway, means “fire maker,” and he knows he dodged many of the obstacles blocking other paths to the outdoors. He made a good living as a mechanical engineer, he was eager for the experience, and a neighbor made him feel welcome. He hopes his gear, his energy and encouragement and a touch of activism, make others feel like they belong, too.

More than ever, the outdoor industry acknowledges that there’s a large – and growing – population that doesn’t feel included, and it’s a diverse group of all colors, sizes and challenges.

The Outdoor Retailer trade show in Denver, the largest in the country, explored inclusivity during the three days it was in town, June 9-11.

There are many challenges, and that’s because the group includes minorities as well as plus-size people (mostly women), those with disabilities, people with chronic illnesses and those in lower-income families. The LBGTQ+ community sometimes feels out of place, too.

Yet there are also possible solutions, and many of them are created by those inspired by their own experiences. Mojica sat on a panel with three other minority entrepreneurs, including Martha Y. Diaz, who in July will launch Itacate Foods, a line of Latin backpacking food. Diaz has been through rough times, but she had the outdoors to help her. She said she has enjoyed the backcountry since she was 10, after her family migrated from Mexico.

Mike Mojica, founder of Outdoor Element, speaking during the Path Ahead Ventures Panel at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on June 9. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I can’t imagine going through some of the things I’ve been through, and not had the outdoors to help me through them,” she said.

But the industry really is just getting started in opening doors.

“There’s an extra burden,” said Dan Kihanya, director of REI Co-op’s Path Ahead Ventures, “when you represent an underrepresented group.”

Few familiar faces

“When we see someone who looks like us,” said Luis Villa of Latino Outdoors, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, with a chapter in Colorado, “it gives us permission to be there.”

But many say the outdoors isn’t as full of shiny, happy people as the glowing models in photographs plastered all over the trade show lead you to believe. Others make them feel unwelcome, even judged, for being there.

Bushman, a plus-size Black woman who is known to her hundreds of thousands of followers as Kween Werk on social media, preaches “The Outdoors Is For Everyone.” She’s enjoyed outdoor activities for nearly 25 years, and yet people are stunned when she confirms that, yes, she’s the one leading the kayak trip.

“A microaggression can be a subtle comment or action directed toward someone from a marginalized community that can be intentionally or unintentionally harmful,” Bushman wrote. “Microaggressions can range from brief comments to subtle insults delivered through dismissive looks, gestures and tones.”

Chantelle Shoaee sees them all the time during her hikes. She is the executive director of Always Choose Adventures in Colorado, which works to increase opportunities in the outdoors with efforts such as a gear library that lets anyone borrow expensive equipment free of charge. She also has a chronic condition that causes her airway to collapse, forcing her to use an oxygen tank during physical activity or at higher elevations.

“They make jokes, like, ‘I can’t breathe either, can I have some of that?’” Shoaee said of her oxygen tank.

Chronically ill people need the outdoors, she said, because they typically are depressed and struggle just to leave the house.

“They have no hope,” she said. “They need to feel the sun on their face.”

In response, she’s working with Osprey, a company in Cortez, Colorado, that makes packs, to design a backpack made for carrying oxygen bottles. She also wants to design nose cannulas with different colors so they blend with all types of skin color.

Kindra Roberts, a white plus-size woman, came out every year to Colorado to ski, something she’d done since she was 3, but after she gained a significant amount of weight in 2017, others on the slopes made her feel self-conscious.

Roberts started an online clothing company, AlpineCurves, in 2017 after she couldn’t find ski clothes that fit. She had to special order men’s clothing. Her friend, she said, had brand-new, cute pink clothes, and she had to wear a “gross” black-and-blue snowsuit that made her feel dumpy.

When she went to the Outdoor Industry show in 2018, eager to present her idea to designers and companies, she was told “they didn’t want someone like me representing their brand.”

“It was horrible,” she said. “I felt like a fish out of water.”

This year, Outdoor Retailer honored Roberts in its Inspiration Awards, which she downplayed.

The industry, she said, ignores people like her at their own risk: More than 65% of all women are size 14 or above.

“That’s billions of dollars,” Roberts said. “They have money to spend, and they are just being ignored.”

They won’t go to store managers and demand plus sizes, either, Roberts said, because they’re embarrassed. But some places are getting the message. At the show, Osprey showed off its brand-new line of backpacks called Extended Fit, which can accommodate hips up to 70 inches.

Osprey didn’t anticipate big sales for the new line, said Blair Volpe, who works in sales for Osprey and was managing the booth at the show.

“But I didn’t realize how many full-sized people there are,” Volpe said, “and there’s just no gear for them. We don’t want the barrier to the outdoors being gear.”

No one called the company asking for the new line. But since news of Extended Fit broke — the line will launch in spring 2023 — Osprey has had many calls from people thanking them for making the new backpacks.

“Once you make it, you take away that barrier,” Volpe said. “It’s just a really neat idea.”

Cheap but maybe not affordable

Andy Hartman didn’t get into the outdoors until he was in his late 20s, when he traveled the world and stumbled across New Zealand’s “Lord of the Rings” scenery. He became a guide and now is executive director of New Treks, a Denver nonprofit organization that takes students, mostly minorities, in Denver Public Schools and from a homeless shelter, on backpacking trips.

Getting to those places is always an issue for families, a trip that requires a personal car most of the time. This alone means many Denver public students won’t see the mountains up close in their childhood. Their parents, many times, haven’t seen them either and don’t see the point, Hartman said.

“They have the wonder for it,” Hartman said. “You just have to light the flame.”

Clothes and gear, however, are expensive.

Hartman had to adjust his way of thinking about urban kids and introducing them to the outdoors. He prefers to stay unplugged during his adventures, but watching the kids record and post about the outdoors on their phone told him they were engaged. Some hadn’t seen a chipmunk before.

“One of the kids wrote a rap song about rock climbing,” Hartman said. “He’s asking when he can go back.”

Minority groups don’t want to stereotype, but many minority families still face lower incomes, said Villa of Latino Outdoors, and simply won’t spend hard-earned money to, say, go trekking in the Grand Canyon. So it helps to broaden the perspective of what can constitute an outdoors trip.

Vanessa Herrera with Latino Outdoors said thinking about the outdoors in broader terms could encourage cities to develop more parks near Latino neighborhoods. Greeley, for instance, developed a park with trails, natural tree limbs and a concrete slide in an area where many Latino and refugee families live.

The terminology Herrera uses could also reassure those uncomfortable in the outdoors.

“It’s about the framing of all of it,” Herrera said. “We want to see ourselves as a part of the conversation.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.