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Walking the Talk
The North Face’s Explore Fund Council to Help Create Equity in the Outdoors

Launching in 2021, the celebrity-led Explore Fund Council will focus on accelerating culturally relevant exploration opportunities and connecting diverse communities to the benefits of outdoor exploration.

During the pandemic, many of us in the US have taken to exploring nature as an escape from working or studying from home. Indeed, partly due to evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is less transmissible outdoors, parks, campsites, and other places where people can gather safely and socially distanced have seen increased popularity. According to some reports, campgrounds and hiking trails are seeing record usage across the country this year; and some national parks are seeing more visitors than they did in 2019 — despite travel restrictions.

But for low-income communities — especially communities of color — getting into nature is often not an option. From lack of accessibility (people of color are three times more likely than the average US citizen to live in nature-deprived neighborhoods) and the high cost of outdoor gear to significant cultural barriers, it often isn’t possible for many US residents to enjoy nature.

“American society distributes nature’s benefits ... unequally by race, income and age,” Jenny Rowland Shea & Shanna Edberg, authors of a Center for American Progress (CAP) report released in July entitled The Nature Gap, wrote in a blog post. “At this time of social distancing — when clean, fresh air is most wanted and needed — nature is out of reach for too many.”

The North Face, one of the world’s leading outdoor gear brands, is aiming to address this gap through the recent launch of the Explore Fund Council — a $7 million global program that aims to accelerate equity in the outdoors.

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“We are experiencing a crucial cultural turning point in 2020, and believe we have an obligation to use our voice and platform, and tap our network to enact meaningful change,” Amy Roberts, Senior Director of Social Impact at The North Face, told Sustainable Brands™.

Launching in 2021, the first Explore Fund Council will focus on accelerating culturally relevant exploration opportunities and connecting diverse communities to the benefits of outdoor exploration. The Council will be led by Lena Waithe — an Emmy-winning actor, screenwriter, director and producer who has worked tirelessly to champion new voices within the entertainment industry; and Jimmy Chin, world-class mountaineer, adventure photographer, team athlete and Academy Award-winning director of the 2018 documentary, Free Solo. They will be joined by other leaders across culture, entertainment, academia and the outdoors to create scalable solutions to increase access to exploration — and their recommendations will guide $7 million in initial funding, globally, to continue building equity in the outdoors and create opportunities for all.

Scalable solutions are needed — because, as CAP’s report shows, the gap is massive. Whether it’s the 1930s redlining that forced minorities to live in less desirable neighborhoods, far from nature; the active theft of land from Native Americans, or the still-prevalent lack of hiring and representation in natural resource agencies and the environmental movement, pervasive, systemic issues exist when it comes to diversity and nature.

Racism is an issue, too. Remember when a white woman called the cops on a black man in New York City’s Central Park earlier this year for merely birdwatching? The truth is that many black and brown Americans don’t feel safe or comfortable being in parks or natural sites with mostly white people.

Solving that will take real, dedicated effort. That’s why the Explore Fund Council is not a short-term program, but a forward-looking plan with long-term goals. The first year will be focused on bringing together experts to address barriers to exploration and create culturally relevant exploration opportunities for communities of color. This will drive the future of the program.

Roberts says the plan is to have the full Explorers Fund Council in place, with additional details and specifics about the programming announced in Spring 2021.

Coming up with plans is one thing, but actually reaching people in low-income communities is another thing. One unique aspect of The North Face’s projects is the active social component, which aims to create content on platforms including TikTok.

“Our hope with the social filters and GIFs is that people will be able to unleash creativity on their own channels and share with their communities to inspire others to join in the movement and offer the hope of progress through exploration for all,” Roberts says.

In 2020, we’ve learned the incredible value of having access to nature. Ensuring that everyone in the US, regardless of their location or ethnicity, has equal access to our shared natural heritage is a goal that everyone can and should support.