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This new conference is building future outdoor industry leaders

Led by college students, the first SOLE gathering featured a climbing competition, networking opportunities, and a space to open up about sensitive topics.

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Matthes Jones at SOLE Conference
Matthew Jones, 22, teaches a group of outdoor students about the gender spectrum and cites a shocking study released in 2018 by the American Academy of Pediatrics: More than 50 percent of female-to-male transgender teens reported attempting suicide, while 29.9 percent of male-to-female transgender teens attempted suicide.Eric Phillips

“Coming out is a huge life moment and can be one of the scariest things ever. I cried for 30 minutes….As an outdoor leader, your job is not to give advice on someone’s identity—it’s to help them feel comfortable in the space. Treat them the same as you treat everyone else,” said Matthew Jones, 22, to a classroom of 20 of his peers in early April. 

Jones is a graduate student of the Western Colorado University (WCU) outdoor education and recreation program. He delivered a lecture called Queerness in the Outdoors: Lessons From Those Who Live It to outdoor program group leaders and directors, club members, and students, who gathered in Gunnison, Colorado at the inaugural Student Outdoor Leadership and Education Conference (SOLE). 

Perhaps the most important and unique aspect of this event was the people who ran it: not seasoned outdoor industry veterans, but outdoor education students in their 20s. Connecting with experienced advisors, say, at Outdoor Retailer, can aid someone’s career growth. But some students found that SOLE’s structure provided benefits that are equally key. The space gave them time to teach, constructively challenge, and uplift one another, broaden their comfort zone, and find collective motivation. 

The three-day conference featured a wide range of topics, from Jones’ exploration of gender to environmental impact (covered by professional ultrarunner Dakota Jones) to skills workshops on things like stove repair and maintenance or backcountry cooking for allergies.

The jist of Jones’ well-attended session was how outdoor professionals—such as guides, trip leaders, and company or non-profit directors—can establish a safe space, emotionally and mentally, for the participants of organized outdoor programs. Pushing ourselves physically in nature segues to vulnerability, Jones said, and for some, that becomes a space to come out, to give self-disclosure about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Yet, for the most part, outdoor professionals aren’t trained for that momentous experience.

“I’m gender fluid. I openly identify as a gay male,” Jones told the captivated audience. “I’ve worked in the outdoor industry since I was 17 years old. There isn’t a lot of representation for ‘weird’ people.” He followed with a lesson of terminology—related to gender, sex, and gender expression—a list of affinity groups, how to identify and address homophobia in the workplace, and management of coming-out scenarios.

“Talking about and understanding gender as outdoor instructors is really impactful,” said Sara Hanneman, 22, who was in tears of relief, following Jones’s presentation. “Now that I have a general understanding of gender identities, I feel prepared to approach someone who’s struggling.”

Hanneman is an outdoor program instructor at Colorado State University and an Environmental Health major. “The benefit of SOLE is to have conversations with young professionals in the outdoor industry about the impact we want to have within our communities, what we can do to change the industry moving forward, and to hear different points of view,” she said. “Talking to long-time industry professionals can be intimating. It’s easier to talk with people who are at the same educational level.”

In other words, SOLE supports an industry and culture shift from the bottom-up. Compared to their older counterparts, collegiate-level professionals carry a different perspective on today’s evolving social norms. And, they’re closer in age to the rising generation, Generation Z, who they’re bound to influence through their work in the outdoors or education track, Hanneman explained. 

SOLE conference
SOLE kicked off with an indoor bouldering competition. Eager climbers were briefed on the open format guidelines prior to ascending as many routes as possible in a 2.5-hour period.Eric Phillips

A collective rise

“Peer-to-peer presentations raise the bar of credibility and holds students accountable for the quality, which is great practice for being an outdoor leader,” said Rodney Ley, assistant director of the outdoor program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He attended the conference with 10 of his students. 

Throughout his three-decade professorship, Ley has attended and co-directed several conferences with integrated student leadership including, the Intermountain Student Outdoor Leadership Symposium, which in part inspired SOLE co-founders Hunter Grant, Eric Phillips, Kevin Fox, and Rachel Kym—four students at WCU—to launch a conference that was completely student-led and inclusive to a greater number of campuses.

“The purpose of SOLE was to bring students from across the mountain west, and across the outdoor industry’s collegiate level, together to share knowledge, ideas, passion and stoke,” said Phillips, SOLE marketing director. Beyond peer presentations, networking opportunities were woven throughout SOLE including a climbing competition and a career fair, as well as a gear swap. Thematically, this year’s event was tailored to four topics: Gender & Diversity, Environment, Transference, and Future. 

SOLE’s founders want the conference to be annual. Representatives from several universities expressed an interest in hosting future gatherings and have a vision to expand the size, which could lead to growing pains. “The singular most important part of SOLE’s uniqueness is that it’s student-run,” said Ley. but also, “Students need a lot of back up. How should [outdoor campus recreation programs] support SOLE without taking it from being a student-led conference?”

Though questions of SOLE’s evolution remain, and a representation of diversity has yet to match the intention of inclusivity, the immediate benefits achieved from a student-led conference are clear: “SOLE was amazing. My students got power…they felt empowered to make a difference on their terms,” Ley said.