Who Fits Under Your Umbrella: The DOC, Inclusion and Advocacy in the Outdoors

by Caris White | 8/14/20 2:30am

by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth Staff

This spring, the Black Lives Matter movement swept across the United States and the world. Millions of Americans attended protests, donated money, posted on social media and signed petitions. According to several recent polls, Black Lives Matter is now the largest movement in our country’s history.

As a Dartmouth student, my inbox was flooded with emails from what felt like hundreds of student organizations, each condemning police brutality and voicing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. There seemed to be a collective realization that the tear gas on the streets of Seattle and the actions of Minneapolis police officers were not isolated events, and that for Black lives to matter, they have to matter everywhere, including the student organizations that call Dartmouth home.

At over 1,500 members, the Dartmouth Outing Club is by far the largest student organization on campus, operating as an umbrella organization for several member clubs, ranging from hiking groups to the competitive woodsmen’s team. Furthermore, in a typical year, over 90 percent of incoming students begin their Dartmouth experience through DOC-affiliated First-Year Trips.

As former DOC president Sarah Kolk ’20 observed, “The DOC has a big responsibility in terms of our scale and our alignment with the institution as a whole. It’s a huge club and has social and cultural pull on the campus.”

Kolk continued, “The DOC is important to alumni and to Dartmouth’s image. If we want Dartmouth to be more inclusive, then these massive clubs with a lot of influence need to be more inclusive.”

Supporting inclusion can be as simple as putting your money where your mouth is. This spring, the DOC partnered with Dartmouth club sports to raise over $9,000 for a racial justice matching fund. This fund will be used to match donations given by the greater Dartmouth community to five racial justice-focused organizations.

While the DOC’s size is helpful for raising money and awareness, it also poses a unique challenge. Gabriella Smith ’22, head of the newly formed Diversity, Inclusion, Justice and Equity division of the DOC, reflected on the pitfalls of advocacy work in such a large organization.

According to Smith, because advocacy is not explicitly written into the DOC’s constitution, it was challenging to start advocacy work on a large scale. Smith added that it is impossible to call a club meeting to approve an email when a quarter of the College can be considered DOC members. So, DOC leaders must try to reach a delicate balance between their desire to speak out as advocates with a large platform and the impossibility of speaking for 1,500 very different club members.

In addition to challenges of size and organization, the DOC operates in a field that has traditionally been reserved for white men.

As current DOC president Lauren Dorsey ’22 noted, “The outdoors is traditionally a very exclusive space, just because of the technicality of doing a lot of things — like white water kayaking, for example — and the amount of gear you need.” She added that, historically, the DOC has been a space for white men.

Smith also reflected on the historically white and male nature of outdoor sports.

“There’s still a very big issue of whiteness in the outdoors,” Smith said. “These [outdoor] sports are built, by nature, for big, strong white guys, so how can we get Black women, Hispanic women and non-straight women to come out and participate?”

All of the DOC leaders I interviewed agreed that the answer to this question lies in decreasing barriers to entry. As Dorsey pointed out, the DOC has a robust financial aid system, which means that most Dartmouth students don’t need to buy a $100 pair of hiking boots or a brand new backpack if they want to go on a DOC hiking trip. 

However, barriers to entry aren’t just financial, and diverse representation in the outdoors is an area where Dartmouth has historically struggled. For most of its history the DOC has been primarily white, and even today Smith estimates that the DOC is whiter than the general Dartmouth population, which already stands at about 60 percent caucasian.

That being said, over the past few years, the DOC has embraced a trajectory of inclusion. People of Color Outdoors was founded in the summer of 2018 to organize trips led by students of color. Its description on the DOC website reads, “By organizing trips primarily with leaders of color, the club creates an environment with fewer barriers to entry for those members who want to try out the DOC or outdoor adventure in a more comfortable crowd.”

More recently, Smith and Dorsey worked together to create DIJE, which will act as an advisory body to the various member organizations of the DOC. Its goal is to increase diversity and equity across all DOC clubs, as well as to ensure that advocacy continues throughout the DOC’s termly leadership transitions. 

DIJE represents the DOC’s ongoing commitment to inclusion because, according to Dorsey, “there are examples of initiatives that happen once and then don’t happen again, and that’s a big fear we have about the anti-racism discussion. But, the president automatically has a spot on DIJE, which helps create a sense of continuity.” 

One of the most common but essential ways the DOC is looking to assess and improve its commitment to diversity is by gathering data on who is actually participating in the club. As Dorsey explains, quantifying membership in the DOC is a tricky gray area. 

“It’s one of the things that’s really interesting about the DOC — how do you count everyone who is involved? Everyone who gets the emails or who went on a trip once?”

Dorsey hopes that a new website will help to clear up this confusion.

“We are creating a new website; it’s in the final stages, and it’s going to be used for all trips come this fall,” she said. “One of the real side effects of that is that we are going to have more data on who is participating in the DOC, so conversations about who is in the DOC are going to change a lot next year.” 

Although results from the DO-Census are pending, and current demographics are relatively unavailable, the overall goals of the DOC’s inclusion initiatives are clear.

As Smith summarized, “you can’t have spaces that are diverse if they’re not inclusive, and you can’t have spaces that are equitable if they’re not inclusive, so start with that framework and work up from there. Because we’re in New Hampshire, and we’re in the middle of the woods, the outdoors shouldn’t be inaccessible for anybody.”

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