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SNEWS Qs: Distill Productions’ George Potter aims to spread diversity message with Denali documentary

Expedition Denali, the all-African-American team's goal is not simply to put another notch in its mountaineering belt, but to inspire young people fro

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In just a few months, Expedition Denali will attempt to reach the highest peak in North America on the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of Denali.


The all-African-American team’s goal is not simply to put another notch in its mountaineering belt, but to inspire young people from diverse backgrounds to get outdoors.

Recently a Kickstarter campaign was launched for Distill Productions to capture the experience in a documentary, and give further reach to the diversity message. So far, the Kickstarter campaign has raised more than $10,000.

SNEWS caught up with George Potter, a producer for Distill Productions, which focuses on conservation and natural history, who told us all about the project, what inspired him to work on it and why he’s hoping you’ll pledge your support.

How are you involved in the project?
I am a filmmaker and partner in Distill Productions. We’re focused on documentary projects celebrating science, conservation and natural history, so NOLS’ Expedition Denali project immediately caught our attention.

While discussing the goals of the expedition, we were pushing for a feature-length film that could be distributed to film festivals and used in schools and clubs to take the message as far and wide as possible, but the budget didn’t have room for something like that.

So, we decided to ask for support from the community and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production and promotion of the film. Kickstarter is the perfect platform for a film like this because it appeals to many different communities. Now this project will be funded by people who support the motivations behind the expedition.

What is the goal of the feature film?
The goal of the film is to help NOLS and the other Expedition Denali sponsors — The North Face, REI and the Foundation for Youth Investment — to inspire youth of color, and particularly African American youth, to get outside, get active and become stewards of our wild places.

We have an incredible and important story to tell here and the documentary provides a powerful, far-reaching channel to tell that story to as many people as possible in communities we sometimes don’t communicate with frequently.

Documentary films can boil down really complicated issues into a compelling, personal story. By the end of it, you don’t even know you’ve learned something or become part of a movement because you’ve been so involved with the personal stories. There’s a metaphor at the heart of this: The physical challenges the team will need to overcome on Denali parallel the social justice issues we as a nation still face.

Why does the outdoor industry need to pay attention to Expedition Denali?
The outdoor industry ignores urban youth of color at their own risk. This project is a game-changer. NOLS has assembled an incredibly talented group of folks who are role models in their own right, and now through this expedition and the subsequent Project Inspiration (a speaking blitz of schools, colleges and other organizations), will give them voice to tout the benefits of the outdoors and the pursuit of adventure.

One of the expedition members, Erica Wynn, explains on the Kickstarter video: “If a little black girl were to look into mountaineering and hear that single white [person] story, she would probably say, ‘I don’t have much of a place there, or the odds are against me.’” What better chance to establish a future narrative than an historic first on the 100th anniversary of the original Denali summit.

What makes this Denali expedition different from others?
In 1964 Charles Crenshaw was the first African American to summit Denali, but it’s never been done by an all African-American team. This team has the ultimate goal of using the summit of Denali as a platform to speak to young people of all races about the benefit of active, healthy, outdoor lifestyles.

What are the goals of the Expedition Denali?
To encourage diversity in the outdoors.
To provide role models for urban youth and youth of color.
To create a new legacy in the outdoors.
To quote Bruce Palmer, NOLS’ marketing director: “This expedition is more than simply making history. It is an effort to build an outdoor legacy.”

Why would you say it’s important that we increase diversity in the outdoor industry?
We recognize that by 2040 people of color will outnumber Caucasians. Minority will become majority, and if the majority of Americans in the future haven’t experienced public lands and wild places, then there will be no ambassadors for conservation. Our wild places are the core of this $700 billion outdoor industry, and we need to support and encourage the changing societal landscapes to support them.

What kind of work is the team doing prior to and after their feat?
The team has been doing speaking engagements and making sure as many people as possible are aware of the project and its mission. They’ve done a Mt. Baker training trip, individual NOLS courses and extensive personal training in preparation for the climb. They’ve been promoting the 10,000 Steps to Denali (it is about 5 miles, or 10,000 steps, from Denali’s high camp to summit and back) program, which challenges young people and their families to get outside near their homes and take their own 10,000-step expeditions on or around the team’s summit day.

After the expedition they’ll head out on an extensive speaking tour, called Project Inspiration, to give inspirational presentations at schools, churches and other venues to further increase awareness of expeditioning and the advantages of active, healthy, outdoor lifestyles.

Why pledge to the Kickstarter campaign?
The most important thing is that they’ve supported a really important cause and made people think about welcoming all ethnicities to the mountains. Plus, we do have great rewards that are directly related to the climb — check out the Kickstarter site!

What it the connection with NOLS?
NOLS and Distill share values — excellence, community, leadership, wilderness. We’ve worked together in the past and we’re in total agreement with their overarching goals and objectives, including the idea that positive, ethical leaders change the world. Both organizations are passionate about the outdoors and film so it was a great fit.