The keynote address of the 2020 biannual Outdoor Industry Association Industry Breakfast meeting will be conducted as a massive video conference. Angelou Ezeilo, co-founder and CEO of the Greening Youth Foundation, will share her thoughts on the importance of racial diversity, equity, and inclusion in the business of outdoor recreation. In light of national protests over the recent murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis and the rise in awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, organizers of the convention are using this opportunity to discuss the hard truths behind the lack of cultural representation throughout the industry. With the added disruption of a global pandemic that forced the cancelation of the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Denver, senior executives at companies and environmental nonprofit organizations are coming to realize that we are still a long way from business as usual. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe now is the time to use this virtual event to create a new reality with an equally unconventional presentation.
“My initial thinking is that OIA only takes up 5 minutes at the beginning to describe thriving business, thriving people, thriving planet and then pivot,” said OIA President Lise Aangeenbrug. “In order for us to be serious and true to this statement, it needs to not only include all races, backgrounds, genders, it needs to start with Black voices, and we are turning the mic over.”
Author of the new book Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth As Environmental Leaders, Ezeilo is the voice the outdoor industry needs to hear. A Black woman of almost 50 based in Atlanta, she has a lifetime of experience in advancing the careers of Black and Brown young people in public land conservation and natural resource management. Having grown up in Jersey City, New Jersey, her personal love of the outdoors stems from regular visits to 50 acres of land owned by her parents in upstate New York.
“I got that early introduction, but that was something I was never encouraged to pursue as a career,” she said in an interview. “Instead, I went into the legal field, and that’s how I got into farmland preservation and land conservation work for the Department of Agriculture in the State of New Jersey and then the Trust For Public Land.”
Founded in 2015, the Greening Youth Foundation (GYF) specializes in providing job training and internships for women and men of color, many of whom attend istorically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), tribal community colleges, and Hispanic-serving institutions of higher learning. Through her work, Ezeilo connects these young people with career opportunities at federal bureaus of land management such as U.S. Fish & Wildlife, the National Park Service, and U.S. Forest Service. In recent years GYF has also created partnerships with companies in the outdoor industry that include Patagonia and The North Face.
“There was no real organization 15 years ago that focused on young people of color and teaching them about the importance of being stewards of the land and recreating. But not just those things; it is also about having a career in this field,” Ezeilo said. “I wanted to make sure that there weren’t going to be any more Black or Brown girls who love this work but think it’s not for them. That was a big reason why the Greening Youth Foundation came about.”
Building relationships with organizations nationwide, GYF forges career pathways into professional fields in the outdoor industry that many young people have never heard of before. The foundation provides skills training in areas such as landscape management, green infrastructure development, wildland firefighting, and tree care management. “We’re providing them with the hard skills. But we’re also providing them with the soft skills we know they need to succeed, like financial literacy, professional development, and cultural awareness,” Ezeilo said. “Through these internships, they’re learning about the different careers and fields. I see it as a human right to have access to basic career pathways, particularly ones where the focus is on a clean, safe, and healthy natural environment.”
The current social and political landscape has seemed to elevate the urgency within the outdoor industry to make substantive changes in our business culture. Ezeilo’s address to the OIA comes at a time when she is motivated to speak frankly about these very important issues.
“For so long my success has been in part due to my ability to make white people feel comfortable,” she said. “I’m at a very pivotable point in my life where I’ve got to be my authentic self. So what’s coming to this keynote is the authentic Angelou.”
Through her experience working directly with companies in the outdoor industry, Ezeilo says she has seen a certain reluctance among at least a few executives to take the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously. In her address she aims to make her points perfectly clear. “Some of them seem to get it, because they understand that in order to remain relevant, they must learn to engage people who don’t look like them,” she said. “But if they are not willing to do the work, I cannot afford to exhaust any energy in that direction. There is no convincing you that you should diversify your workforce. You’ve got to know that.”
The reality is that the U.S. population is growing more racially diverse every year. It’s estimated that by 2045, a majority of the American public will be nonwhite. Those companies and organizations who can best address the needs and interests of this emerging demographic will be poised for success.
“You’ve got to meet me at least that far in order for me to invest my time and energy into you. It’s 2020!” Ezeilo said. “You should know that the fact that your organization is all White is a problem. You should not need me as a consultant to convince your staff that it is important.”
Speaking truth to power, Ezeilo aims to caution the outdoor industry to pay attention. The world is changing. Those who fail to change with it will simply be left behind.
Don’t miss Angelou Ezeilo speaking at OIA Industry Breakfast: Systemic Change: What Might That Look Like in the Outdoor Retailer Industry? during Outdoor Retailer Online. Register for the Show here and tune in for the breakfast on Tuesday, July 21 at 10 a.m. ET / 7 a.m. PT.