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Amid SHIFT controversy, complex questions surrounding diversity in the outdoors emerge

The "Won't Take SHIFT Anymore" campaign alleges ongoing oppression and other issues at the event, which leadership says they're working to address.

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Racial controversy plagued the recent SHIFT conference after some participants came forward with accusations that the event’s executive director, Christian Beckwith, lacks the basic justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) training needed to lead the organization.

The event, which in part aims to train and elevate a culturally diverse group of young outdoor recreationists to become leaders through the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP), has become the backdrop for exactly some of the problems it wants to solve. 

The gathering of ELP participants happens in the days before SHIFT, which stands for Shaping How We Invest For Tomorrow. The festival explores issues at the intersection of outdoor recreation, conservation, land management, and public health through discussions.

Christian Beckwith founded SHIFT in 2013. He launched the ELP in 2015. Both live under the nonprofit, Center for Jackson Hole.SHIFT

In a letter posted April 6 as part of the “Won’t Take SHIFT Anymore” campaign, 17 people—including ELP participants and former SHIFT employees—call for Beckwith’s resignation from leading the annual festival held each fall in Jackson Hole since 2013. 

The group accuses Beckwith of continuously causing trauma, in part, by being “underprepared and ill-equipped to lead an organization that seeks to center equity work in the outdoors.” They also allege that participants from marginalized communities were tasked with educating predominantly white participants on basic JEDI principles, which caused them physical and emotional harm because they re-lived past and ongoing traumas.

“This created an environment, where combined with poor leadership, the burden was placed exclusively on participants of color to not only justify their existence and work but also to educate others on it and endure microaggressions, othering and open hostility in the process,” the group wrote.

But despite the claims, the remaining five board members—three members resigned amidst the conflict—have decided to keep Beckwith as executive director for now, while aiming to improve the experience by making other leadership and programming changes. A few of those changes, detailed in a letter from the remaining board members, include:

  • Removing Beckwith from leading the ELP and appointing program graduate and pediatrician Dr. Morgan Green, who says, “I  am hopeful for what we will accomplish this year.” 
  • Creating an advisory council for the ELP to oversee and guide the program
  • Requiring Beckwith and the organization to go through formal DEI training, which includes hiring a consultant to work with them
  • Committing to expanding the board to increase the number of women, specifically women of color and others with more diverse life experiences

“I think people have legitimate reason to be upset with Christian and to be upset with ELP and SHIFT. I do not deny that,” said Len Necefer, board chair, founder of Natives Outdoors, and a widely-respected leader in the outdoor industry. “I think the difference really comes down to, how do we address this as a community? How do we move forward? The ethics in which we do that is where I feel the difference lies.”

Jasmine Stammes, 2018 ELP participant and campaign co-creator, said, “I think we’ve been very clear about where the responsibility lies. I’m asking that Christian resign because he has been given multiple opportunities and he has spoken about how he is learning and this is an experiment. I didn’t sign up for a social experiment.”

Beckwith released an apology last week, saying, “I would also like to express that the depth of my remorse is matched by my commitment to ELP alumni and future participants to create a better, safer program, one that helps us develop a movement of people working in concert to protect these places we all love and need so dearly.”

How the conversation applies to the greater outdoor industry

Creators of the campaign believe that keeping Beckwith in a position of power silences the voices of victims and perpetuates systems that benefit people of privilege.

“What we brought to light in telling our stories is the fact that this is not isolated,” said Stammes, who works with The Conservation Fund in North Carolina. “…What we unearthed was a clear pattern of behavior that was beyond us. We are about not just reducing harm, but eliminating harm.”

Bam Mendiola, another 2018 ELP participant and campaign co-creator who identifies as non-binary, said, “Gatekeepers in the outdoor industry fetishize resilience because it absolves them of responsibility. If the dominant narrative of people of color is that we’re better, stronger, wiser because of racism, then it provides valid reason for why the status quo should be maintained. They want to hear that the systems they benefit from are also benefitting people of color through the lens of resilience.”

A screenshot of Bam Mendiola’s (@mynameisbam) Instagram story, with a call to action.

The campaign’s creators and their allies have called for Beckwith’s removal on social media and they continue to speak out, in part, calling for Necefer, José González (another well-respected outdoor industry leader), and other remaining board members to be held accountable for allegedly perpetuating the toxic environment. 

However, the board members say they have a plan to successfully transition Beckwith out and turn over leadership to someone better equipped—ideally a former ELP participant. 

Beckwith told SNEWS that his objective is creating a coalition to protect public lands and the natural world, which includes bringing together people with diverse experiences. Just as he’s not an expert in outdoor recreation, he’s also not an expert in JEDI and defers to and relies on experts in those arenas, he said. He said he will “serve at the discretion of the board,” and will continue to support the health and wellbeing of the organization.

“Simply removing an executive director won’t automatically address the underlying systemic issues in this space,” Necefer said. “One of the things that happens is if you kick someone out of the space, without holistic accountability, they take their power and privilege with them, and there’s no transformative change.”

A screenshot of Bam Mendiola’s (@mynameisbam) Instagram story, calling for the boycott of SHIFT.

Necefer and González say they are grappling with and working on the best ways to continue the discourse, find solutions, and address how to bring value through SHIFT and the movement at large. While acknowledging needing to address real concerns in the work and process, they don’t believe social media is the best place to do it, as it can easily lead to feelings, concerns, and action of cyberbullying and turn away allies and prospective allies on all sides—which paralyzes the conversation. SNEWS talked to four people who said they have been bullied as a result of the social media campaigns and call outs.

Stammes told SNEWS she and others in the group felt they had no other choice and no other survival tool than to turn to social media, after voicing concerns at the event and learning that the problems have persisted. Mendiola said they also realized that SHIFT leadership didn’t attempt to correct racist behavior unless it was made public, such as online. They believe that JEDI work can be done outside of SHIFT, outside of Beckwith, and instead, through organizations led by people of color.

“What we’re asking for is for equity work to be intersectional,” Mendiola said. “One of our messages is that if our work isn’t intersectional then it’s incomplete.”

Today and tomorrow, the board is attending an organizational retreat planned before the dustup. There is still more to be done and more to everyone’s story, on social media and off social media.

“It’s just tearing this community in such a big way,” Necefer said. “We have not established guidelines as a community about how we treat each other…I’m just concerned that if this is the norm, and this is considered standard practice when mistakes happen, then I can see people, companies, not really wanting to engage in this work too much. I don’t think that’s good.”