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Digital Media

Power in Numbers

Panel explores the next generation of outdoor advocacy by using the tools of social media to advocate for social justice and environmental issues.

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You don’t have to think very hard to come up with examples of how social media has been weaponized to spread harm. But a panel at Outdoor Retailer on Saturday Day 3 explored effective ways to flip the script and use the powerful tools of social media to accomplish good things for both people and the planet.

From left to right: Jenn Brunson, Katie Boué, Elyse Rylander, Brooklyn Bell, Shelma Jun, Jolie Varela, and Gale StraubSpencer Cox

The panel, titled “Leading Outdoor Advocacy Through Social Media,” was moderated by Katie Boue who handles social media for the Outdoor Industry Association. Panelists featured a crew of shining stars in the industry who use platforms like Instagram to create wide-reaching social activism campaigns. The lineup included: Brooklyn Bell with Melanin; Elyse Rylander, founder of Out There Adventures; Gale Straub, founder of She Explores; Jenn Brunson of OIA; Jolie Varela, founder of Indigenous Women Hike, and Shelma Jun, founder of Flash Foxy.

“Many companies build their social media platform but then they are not sure what to do with it,” said Boue on her motivation in forming the panel. “Everybody is so addicted to these platforms but how do we use the tools to facilitate change and do something that really matters?”

Boue said the goal of the discussion was to explore what these next steps should be and to draw from the wisdom of the panelists who have proven themselves to be highly savvy social media managers as well as social activists. She pointed to the example of Danielle Williams, founder of Melanin Basecamp, who has pioneered methods for how to have a “loud voice” in championing underrepresented causes.

“Social media has emerged as a super egalitarian tool that enables underground communities like ours to connect, collaborate and ignite social change,” said Williams before the panel discussion.

Based on the success of Melanin Basecamp, which promotes the stories of people of color engaging in adventure sports, Williams recently teamed up with other emerging leaders to form Diversify Outdoors. This new website and social media platform is a coalition of activists and organizations promoting, as the name implies, diversity in the outdoors. As a result of the Instagram and Twitter prowess of Williams and her colleagues, the effort has more than 150,00 followers on Instagram alone. “We run six monthly climbing/hiking meetups in six major cities, produce five outdoor diversity and inclusion blogs, and host three annual climbing festivals,” said Williams. “Our emphasis is on partnership.”

A crowd listens to the talk on social media on Saturday at Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show.Spencer Cox

Teaming up in the name of activism is nothing new but what panelists noted is that today many successful campaigns first reach and mobilize people through social media. “Our focus is on social media engagement and pop up events instead of having national and regional chapters,” explained Williams. “We’re millennials and our tools are at our fingertips. We’re storytellers. We blog, we post photos, we engage directly with our followers.”

But for these panelists, Instagram and other platforms are not just for creating buzz and publicity with cool photos. “Social media isn’t just a marketing strategy. Storytelling has intrinsic value on its own,” added Williams. “We build communities that we didn’t even know existed prior to engaging. The community I’ve built through Melanin Base Camp didn’t exist before.”

When it comes to which platform is best for accomplishing this activism, Boue is not a fan of Facebook because she says it “preaches to the choir.” Instagram is her favorite tool because it is “accessible and visual” for storytelling. She also likes Twitter as a tool for spreading information and for its ability to allow posts to quickly go viral. Of the six panelists, five said Instagram was their preferred platform, with one “old school” advocate of Facebook.

Not surprisingly, the panelists pointed out how social media is an essential tool for connecting with youth who don’t pay attention to the more traditional communication channels. “Social media is this huge opportunity to reach out to youth who are underrepresented in the outdoors,” noted Rylander. “They can also see themselves represented in a cool way on Instagram and that builds confidence in themselves and enthusiasm for the outdoors.”

But what about those hashtags? For anyone who is not a Millennial, perhaps the most vexing part about social media is figuring out the effective use of hashtags. Williams has it down. “When I started Melanin Base Camp, no one was using my hashtag,” she said. “There were zero hashtags for people of color in outdoor adventure sports.”

So Williams manually sifted for hours online, looking through hundreds of generic hashtags to find the few hashtags representing diverse climbers, kite boarders, base jumpers, free divers, hikers and one cleverly titled @soysaucenation.

“I was deliberate and intentional in my efforts to build a diverse feed and I ignored the dominant narrative about who should be outdoors,” said Williams. “The most frequent response I received when I asked permission to repost a photo was ‘how did you find me?’ I told them I was looking.“