By Bill Graham
One way to improve our outdoor communication craft is to make sure we’re reaching all the potential audience and bringing communicators from diverse cultures into OWAA.
Some gaps were obvious to me in June when I made a side trip from our conference hotel in Grand Rapids to buy a fishing license and shoot some photographs for the scavenger hunt.
Our conference attendance each year is lily white, Anglo-Saxon in racial makeup. A minority participant is a rare exception. I’m assuming our general membership roster looks the same.
This is not by design. It’s by happenstance of where hunting and fishing traditions are strongest. But it’s also the main culture that’s been portrayed in outdoor stories by newspapers, magazines, television and radio. Communicators in all those mediums, especially newspapers, have made direct efforts throughout the past 20 years to include minority outdoor folks in stories and broadcasts to better reflect the cultural makeup of their community. But it’s not done consistently, and I suspect this because most communicators travel in different cultural and social circles.
OWAA seeks to be inclusive. I have never seen any type of barrier. All people are treated well in my experience, and I’ve seen members at conferences going out of their way to make anyone and everyone welcome.
Still, we’re failing somewhere in our goal of mentoring the next generation of outdoor communicators. Despite minority participation in outdoor sports, we’re not recruiting young people from their ranks who are passionate about communicating the joys and beauty of nature, hunting, fishing and all the things we enjoy in the outdoors.
For example, the computers in the media room at the Grand Rapids conference were all in use on a Sunday when I got fired up about getting my fishing license. Plus, I needed some photos for the scavenger hunt. So I followed some directions from the front desk and made my way to a large chain store on a main street located between the city and suburbs.
The gentleman at the sporting goods counter was selling fishing licenses and tackle to a man and woman who had three children in tow. The salesman was black and an immigrant from Sudan, he later told me. His customers were Hispanic.
I bought my license and drove east to the river front park where Breakout Day was held later in the week. At the boat launch ramp, I looked upstream and saw the photo I needed for the scavenger hunt that illustrated the Grand River and Grand Rapids.
A man sat out on a rock jetty fishing with his son fishing beside him and skyscrapers looming in the distant background. The fishermen were black.
After I took the picture and walked back up the ramp, I encountered four teenage boys of Hispanic and Asian descent with fishing rods and tackle boxes in hand. They were going to fish for whatever they could catch, they told me.
Then one youth asked me about my camera and the photo I just shot. He owned a 35 mm film camera, he said, and he was using it to learn photography. So I talked to him a bit about what I was doing there, about photo composition and similar aspects. He soaked it all up eagerly.
The park was filled that Sunday afternoon with a great diversity of people. Old hippies picnicked and played some music on drums and a clarinet. A black family reunion was underway. Asian couples strolled on the path.
Then I went back to the hotel and our OWAA conference, where almost no people of color were participating.
I don’t have a magic solution to filling this vacuum in our ranks.
But there’s one thing we can do, and that’s keep an eye out for opportunities to do better. Are there things we can do to encourage and recruit more diversity? We’d probably need to do it one member at a time, whether it’s providing friendly encouragement to a kid at the fishing hole, passing out OWAA literature while speaking at schools, or looking for an opportunity to promote our organization when we bump into high school or college journalism teachers.
People in fields related to ours are working on diversity.
There’s great concern in the hunting and fishing industries about a falloff, or potential drop, in participant numbers. Thus there’s less of the license revenue that pays the bills for many state fish and wildlife agencies. There’s also less outdoor gear sold. Minority participation is needed.
Marketing experts for outdoor manufacturers have recognized that the minority population in the United States is growing and they’re looking for ways to increase sales to that segment.
Outdoor communicators are important. We played a major role in building the last century’s conservation movement and we’ll do the same for this century. We also generate enthusiasm for sports such as fishing and hunting, and we help build respect for outdoor ethics.
Perhaps most importantly, we cannot underestimate the role that outdoor sportsmen and sportswomen—plus their friends, relatives and neighbors—play in supporting progressive conservation by voting that way at the polls.
Outdoor communicators need outdoor sports to have a job. In order to have a secure future, those sports need broad support from all cultures.
Somehow OWAA, in our leadership role as the oldest, largest and most influential organization in our field, must find a way to mentor more diverse voices to celebrate and protect the outdoors. ◊
Bill Graham recently served on OWAA’s board of directors. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.