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Sam Firman
Written by Sam Firman
Danielle Williams
Published on 11th March 2021
8 min read

An inclusive and diverse adventure culture needs a media ecosystem by and for marginalised voices. The evolution of Melanin Base Camp, which is helping lead the way, reflects the challenges involved in this journey.

In a truly inclusive adventure culture the argument for more diversity would be unnecessary. Plurality would be so normalised that everybody would feel genuinely welcome at the crag or on the trail.

If reaching this ideal is a complex puzzle, digital media is an integral piece. This piece requires much more than devoting coverage in existing outlets to diversity issues. It means fostering a media ecosystem that doesn’t just cater to a diverse range of perspectives, but is actively shaped by those perspectives in the form of writers, editors, creatives, athletes and more.

Putting this piece in place is beyond any one organisation. But zooming in on pioneering platforms like Melanin Base Camp is helpful. Doing so helps champion good work, illuminate insights for other organisations and reflect dynamics in the wider adventure community.

Danielle Williams started Melanin Base Camp as an Instagram account in February 2016. Today it is a blogging platform with a monthly readership of 50,000, an Instagram following of 80,000 and a team of writers across North America with Danielle as Senior Editor. 

In January 2018 Danielle also helped found complementary project Diversify Outdoors, a coalition of organisations serving as a “Rolodex” of projects and people promoting diversity in the outdoors. #DiversifyOutdoors has been used over 80,000 times on Instagram, and the coalition is looking to develop a jobs board and other interactive features to make better use of its wealth of resources.

In many ways the rise of Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors, buoyed by heightened awareness of racial inequality amidst the Black Lives Matter groundswell, are success stories. But speaking with Danielle illuminates some of the challenges involved in developing Melanin Base Camp against this backdrop.

Danielle Williams

“I was looking for that common space where I could find other people who looked like me - or who didn't,” Danielle says of the genesis of Melanin Base Camp. Initially this translated into aiming to help populate that common space by encouraging more outdoor participation among people of colour. 

But troubling though inequalities in outdoor participation are, Danielle soon realised that participation wasn’t necessarily the main issue. Social media soon unearthed plenty of adventurers of colour. The problem, she discovered, was “how invisible we were to mainstream media.” Telling stories about this often hidden participation became a mission of equal importance. 

Danielle speaks of this challenge as creating a home, or “umbrella”, for people feeling excluded or alienated by outdoor culture. Primarily this is people of colour and Indigenous people, although Danielle emphasises that Melanin Base Camp is a wide tent with content created by people of colour for people of colour.

Danielle is also a founding member of Team Blackstar, a skydiving club aiming to increase diversity in the sport. Her own experience of feeling isolated within the skydiving community, and of having her typical beginner mistakes misattributed to her gender or race, taught her that “a space where people can be seen and heard, and also reach out and not have to feel like they are the only one, can be very powerful.” As the community around Melanin Base Camp’s work has grown, Danielle hopes that “more and more people are finding their home.”

Essential to this goal is Melanin Base Camp’s guiding principle of being “for the community by the community.” Melanin Base Camp’s content covers all aspects of outdoor life. Trip reports, gear reviews, personal essays, opinion pieces, listicles and more are all created from perspectives that readers can relate to in such a way as to make them feel at home in the outdoors. Last year the team also raised $28,000 USD through Kickstarter to help produce Titan, the first Melanin Basecamp short film. Danielle hopes it’s a sign of more to come.

“A lot of our readers have grown up in predominantly white communities,” Danielle explains. “They went to predominantly white schools, and a lot of them now are working in jobs where maybe they are the only person who looks like them in their workplace. And on top of that, they are spending the majority of their time in the backcountry in spaces where nobody else looks like them. Maybe they are the only person of colour in their friendship group.”

Another way of framing this process, Danielle explains, is as helping readers “learn the importance of  being in community with one another. If that’s never been an option for you, you might not know the value of affinity spaces—and that’s okay.” 

One of the biggest challenges here is overcoming the microaggressions, conscious or subconscious, that are particularly prevalent in relatively homogenous communities. These persistent signals of difference “wear you down - are what can cause you to leave a community or to leave an office or workplace,” Danielle says. “They are just more emotionally taxing than one person calling you the n-word that one time.”

The intention here is never to tell others how they should react. “It's not really our place to tell people of colour how to respond to microaggressions or to racism,” Danielle says. “But what we are working towards emphasising ... is for people, for the reader, to be more situationally aware as they recreate in outdoor communities where they are ‘the only one.’ Being able to identify racism is empowering because it helps eliminate the self doubt and constant second-guessing caused by uncertainty.”

'A space where people can be seen and heard, and also reach out and not have to feel like they are the only one, can be very powerful.'

This fundamental work typically lacks what Danielle calls the “viral quality” typically reserved for more externally focused, provocative pieces - pieces like Anaheed Saatchi’s two-part Stop Making Movies About White Guys Doing Cool Shit

The comments on these pieces are often polarised and sometimes hateful. Passionate disagreement is no bad thing, and Danielle seems equanimous about such reactions, but it does force the question of when and whether to censor comments. Danielle only removes personal or extreme attacks. “If I have to read this stuff, so should other people,” she explains. “I don't think it should be like a hidden thing, the fact that we get hate speech or hateful comments.”

The biggest problem presented by having a dual audience is actually very different. The killing of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter has meant an enlarged audience for Melanin Base Camp and many other organisations: a “perverse positive impact of something that was so awful and tragic.” This increase consisted largely of white people looking to learn more about antiracism.

This seemingly positive growth has forced Melanin Base Camp to consider how to respond to this sudden desire for education. Use an outdoor lens to try and provide that education? Produce work that goes beyond the outdoors? Or signpost readers to expert work elsewhere?

Danielle acknowledges that Melanin Base Camp hasn’t fully answered this question. Certainly a hard pivot to this new audience doesn’t make sense, given it is already dissipating and that “our goal has always been: we are people of colour creating content for other people of colour in the outdoors, and that hasn't really changed.” For now they have opted for a balance between signposting to more suitable work when appropriate - Danielle references Rachel Cargle, Green Girl Leah, Laura Edmondson and Mélise Edwards - and adapting Melanin Base Camp content. 

The question goes beyond this specific case. Any organisation looking to explore wider issues through adventure needs to decide on how to strike this balance. Speaking with Danielle left me feeling we could do more at Adventure Uncovered to point our own readers to good work elsewhere.

'I don't think it should be like a hidden thing, the fact that we get hate speech or hateful comments.'

Photos: Danielle Williams

Even with a growing audience and a body of work speaking directly to an acute political moment, the most existential challenge for Melanin Base Camp is one familiar to any publication today, including Adventure Uncovered: funding. 

For three years Melanin Base Camp was entirely volunteer-run and self-funded by Danielle. Writers working for free for such a long time is testament to their commitment and the importance of the project, but the question of how far one can fairly take that goodwill remains difficult. “People don't often talk about money, but you need money to get things done,” says Danielle. 

The good news is that Melanin Base Camp recently started paying writers - a major step forward. They do accept donations, but this move has been powered by advertising revenue. Melanin Base Camp also just announced a partnership with CamelBak, which will fund two six-month writing fellowships. 

But securing such revenue isn’t easy, even with a strong brand and active audience. Covid has hit advertising budgets hard, and more generally Danielle recalls accusations that Melanin Base Camp is selling out by accepting ad revenue. 

Beyond these challenges it takes time and care to build partnerships that align with output and audience - a particular challenge in Melanin Base Camp’s case. For a long time Danielle was anxious that brands were reluctant to touch “spicy” content about race. She even debated, though ultimately rejected, removing references to Black Lives Matter from her social profiles.

But during the past year “some of that anxiety has actually gone away,” Danielle reflects, “because now everyone is talking about race … in a way that used to make brands uncomfortable. But now that is kind of the minimum. So the bar has been raised and I think hopefully that will make it easier to continue to develop relationships with brands but not feel like we have to censor our content.”

'Now everyone is talking about race … in a way that used to make brands uncomfortable. But now that is kind of the minimum. So the bar has been raised and I think hopefully that will make it easier to continue to develop relationships with brands but not feel like we have to censor our content.'

This development is one of the most promising signs of the evolution of outdoor media. This bodes well, and it is heartening to see reflected in Melanin Basecamp’s story. But that story also shows the many challenges that remain in establishing more diverse adventure voices and spaces. 

Danielle is keen to emphasise that this work goes far beyond her, Melanin Basecamp or particular brands. “If I go away tomorrow, or if I get tired of this tomorrow, that's not going to stop,” she says. “The momentum is going to keep just going and keep building, and hopefully the legacy is very positive for people.”

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