By Abby Burrows and Veronica Abreu
Graphics by Naomi Valdez
Dartmouth has a reputation for being an outdoorsy school. It’s safe to say that a majority of students are familiar with the term “crunchy,” and the school boasts the country’s oldest outing club. However, don’t be fooled by the prevalence of Patagonia-branded clothing you see around campus. Like other places in the United States, Dartmouth’s Outing Club is home to a number of aspects that discourage a diverse range of student involvement. Exclusivity in the outdoors exists outside of Dartmouth; modern engagement with “the outdoors,” in the western sense, has been excluding marginalized groups for decades. This can be seen in a number of different ways, from the historical erasure of Black and Latino cowboys to the high prices of outdoor brands. It seems absurd that anyone should be barred from the outdoors, but much of the natural space that can easily be enjoyed by anyone has been monopolized by wealthy, white, and mainly male demographics. Organizations and people around the country and at Dartmouth are looking at ways to decrease exclusivity in outdoors spaces. To understand how to address these issues, let’s dive into the history of how they were created. The idea of nature as a means of recreation dates back to Mesopotamia. However, romanticism of nature in the early 1800s was largely led by wealthy, educated people during the industrial revolution (Jensen and Gutherie). This was then enforced by the conservation movement, popularized by activists like George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, and President Theodore Roosevelt. During this period, the United States expanded west and established national parks, which preserved and protected land, stolen from native tribes, and opened it up to the western, newly settled public to visit.
At this time, the outdoors were reserved for people that could afford to leave cities during the industrial revolution. This was most definitely wealthy white people that likely didn’t hold underpaying factory jobs and could take time off to travel to preserved parks. It's not merely incidental that national parks were far whiter than cities: the parks were a haven for white people to flee from BIPOC in cities. This was continually enforced throughout history, as national parks remained segregated into Jim Crow-era-America and still remain inaccessible to many today.
In a report from Southern Florida, many African-Americans cited the lack of visual and textual representation of African-Americans in the outdoors in outdoor magazines, National Park exhibits, and even lack of recognition of black environmentalists as contributing to stereotypes of relationships between African-Americans and the outdoors (Finney). The Acting Director of National Parks Service, David Vela, still believes money is a large factor in who can enjoy parks (Ebbs & Dwyer), while others point out that many attraction signs are only printed in English, excluding people who speak other languages.
While some marginalized communities have been systematically excluded from these physical spaces, others were literally pushed out of outdoor spaces. The regulations created by early environmentalists only took into account European ideals of man and nature interactions. Harsh criminalization of fishing and hunting practices policed how native and rural communities interacted with the land, which they had been doing sustainably for years before colonization and western expansion.
Additionally, the borders of parks were often drawn with little consideration of native land. This created conflict as the Anglo-American vision of wilderness often only considered wild animals inhabitants, excluding indigenous peoples. The U.S. government claimed ownership to land where native tribes lived, driving communities into smaller reservations (Starr). The narrative that persists today praises a “leave no trace” motto, which encourages people to leave nature how they found it, but it’s important to acknowledge that many protected lands were established by forcing communities out of their homes and altering their land. An especially cutting example is Mount Rushmore, which defaces the Six Grandfathers Mountain, an area sacred to the Lakota people.
Due to the fact that many modern, public outdoor spaces were established during a time of accepted racial discrimination, the systems that remain today remain influenced by those hateful morals. Until the structures that are embedded with racism are overturned, it is unlikely that outdoor spaces will be completely accessible and enjoyable for marginalized groups.
Dartmouth College shares much of its history with the United States national parks. The land Dartmouth occupies was inhabited by the Abenake people, but was allocated to the school by Governor Wentworth, a white man, in 1769. The school was originally founded to teach Native Americans about Christianity. However, as time went on, the school started teaching exclusively white men to be missionaries to Native people. Dartmouth continued to only teach white men well past when other institutions started accepting women and people of color, living up to the stereotype that Dartmouth College was not only a boys club, but a white boys club.
Like the school itself, the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC) was founded at a time when women and black, indigenous, and people of color were still heavily barred from higher education. The DOC was created by and for young white men. Started by Fred Harris as a means to enjoy skiing with his friends, the DOC went on to start several sub-clubs, introduce First Year Trips, and build the Dartmouth Outing Club House on Occom Pond long before the college went coeducational. Comparably to national parks, it’s easy to see how Dartmouth’s long history influences students’ trends of involvement in the outdoors.
The racial integration of Dartmouth College was a slow and gradual process. According to Professor of Medicine Forester “Woody” Lee ’68, Dartmouth admitted their first black student in 1824, a man named Edward Mitchell. Following Mitchell, 130 black students studied at Dartmouth prior to 1950. However, when looking at old outing club records and even the Outing Club’s own history on their website, there is no mention of integration. The conclusion? Likely the DOC remained very white even while the college was integrating. And if there were students of color participating, they have been rendered invisible.
Co-education was a very different process at Dartmouth with very different effects on the DOC. The College started to admit women in 1971, and the process was difficult. However, it was also much more well documented than the racial integration process. In her research on the role of women in the DOC, Mia Nelson ‘22 found that while the DOC was structurally inclusive, it struggled culturally. She explains that even though a white woman was elected as DOC Vice President as early as the 1974-1975 school year, brazenly sexist poems were still read aloud in Cabin and Trail (CnT) meetings (Nelson).
Measures were taken to increase the involvement of women in the DOC. The Women in the Wilderness (WIW) club was created in 1992 as a safer space for women involved in the outdoors and other DOC subclubs. However, the similar club for people of color called People of Color Outdoors (POCO) was not created until far later, in [year]. In an interview with Maanasi Shyno ‘23, the summer chair of POCO, she explained that POCO began relatively recently, and in its first few years was made up of white students leading groups of non-white students on trips. Though POCO now acts as a safe affinity space for people of color in the outdoors, this is a more recent development as the club continues to grow.
The differences between WIW and POCO reflect the demographic changes, or lack of changes, in the DOC. While white women are now relatively well represented in the DOC, non-white men and women make up a vast minority of participants, leaders, and administrators.
The issue of inclusivity is not lost on the members of the DOC. In our interviews with six women involved in the DOC today, we found that all of them believed the DOC was actively trying to become less exclusive. However, as Michelle Wang ‘21 emphasized for us, the DOC is not just an institution, but an institution led almost completely by students. As such, she asked that we keep this in mind when critiquing previous attempts to increase inclusivity. Students trying to lead other students may not have all the answers. At the very least, though, the women we interviewed did seem to have a pretty clear grasp on the current issues they believe are most inhibiting to people of color in the DOC.
Culturally, the DOC struggles with inclusivity because it is, in part, a “social group” with social norms. Integrating into the group happens quickly for those who share the same experiences or skills, know the same lingo, or use the same gear. For the DOC, these norms tend to follow a largely white colonial way of experiencing the outdoors — emphasizing the most expensive gear, toughest trips, and seasoned skills. Mary Joy ‘21 explains how growing up in a white, “outdoorsy” town in Pennsylvania gave her the knowledge and experiences to integrate pretty quickly into the DOC as an Indian woman. Quite literally, she spoke their language. Mary went on to serve as both CnT chair and DOC president, leadership roles that other interviewees commented they rarely see women of color holding. The DOC norms are not neutral: they can have deeply exclusive effects because of who is predisposed to learn the way of experiencing the outdoors that the DOC emphasizes.
This culture affects the structure of the DOC as well: though the club has made great strides toward becoming more financially accessible, the lack of beginner trips offered make it difficult to enter the club without prior experience. The DOC has alleviated many (if not most) of the financial burdens of going into the outdoors: from free gear rentals to free transportation to free food, the club makes it possible to participate with zero money in your pocket. Break trips are a staple of the DOC, as Mary explains, and a huge way to meet people and get involved. Every year, the DOC directorate attempts to make trips over breaks as affordable as possible. Michelle also brought up DOC funding. If you have a fun adventure you want to go on, you can apply to get money from the outing club. Michelle describes amazing climbing trips she went on that would not have been possible without DOC funding. In many ways, the ability to provide money is the DOC’s greatest asset towards inclusivity.
As Michelle said, at its core, the DOC is a group of students working to make a space for students who love the outdoors. These students have recently created three new inclusivity initiatives that both continue the work of previous initiatives and those that tackle the issue from a whole new angle.
First, this summer’s Racial Justice Fund and corresponding inclusivity talks are a new spin on the old termly “Identity in the DOC” events. This initiative is made up of two parts. The first, the racial justice fundraiser, is an unprecedented DOC outreach program that takes advantage of the club’s resources and privilege. The second is a series of inclusivity talks intended to enact change within the club. The continuing discussions are much like the termly inclusivity events but they happen each week instead of once a term and are more about personal education and self-examination, with readings, speakers, and discussions.
Much of the DOC’s inclusivity programming centers on education and conversation. When asked why she created the DOC Diversity, Inclusivity, Justice, and Equity division (DIJE), Gab explained that during her time in Ledyard leadership, there was a lot of talk about what was wrong with Ledyard and very little action. Gab appreciates that acknowledging the issues head-on is of course the first step, but she wanted to do something more concrete about it. That’s where DIJE comes in. DIJE is almost like a consulting group. According to Gab, the club will take on issues brought by subclubs, individuals, or the DOC as whole, assign them to a project group of DIJE members, and then work with the plaintiff to come up with a solution. By bringing together students with both deeper knowledge of issues of inclusivity and diversity and different identities and perspectives, Gab hopes that DIJE solutions will be more effective than less organized responses of the past. Though still in its early stages, DIJE will hopefully bring about lasting change.
Finally, Abigail Johnson’s DOC Design Challenge is almost like a DIJE project group that's already on its way. This design thinking project attempts to pinpoint key issues that, if addressed , could make the DOC more inclusive. After interviewing a broad swath of DOC members, the team decided that one major barrier to inclusivity was the lack of beginner trips. To increase beginner trips, Abigail explained that they would need more leaders who want to lead beginner trips. The group is working on creating a beginner leader certification. The benefits are twofold. First, the new certification would have fewer requirements so more people could become leaders, allowing the DOC to offer and lead more beginner trips. Abigail hopes that this will help diversify not only the participant body, but the leader body as well. This structural change will hopefully alter the DOC culture that currently brushes aside beginner trips.
The DOC as an institution is inherently problematic, steeping in the racism, classism, and sexism that upholds this colonial narrative of “outdoorsmanship.” It is also an institution of Dartmouth College, a place founded on Abenaki land, originally meant for furthering a hierarchical Christian agenda, and later for simply educating white men. The DOC itself was founded in this era before women or Black, Indigenous, and people of color were able to attend Dartmouth. The DOC will always carry the exclusionary aspects of its history.
However, it is well-intentioned and well-set up in order to be inclusive. It is also led by students, changing with the ever shifting beliefs of the current student body. The morals and actions of the organization reflect how young people at Dartmouth perceive the world and its faults. But we cannot forget that these leaders are young adults, still engaging in growth and learning. Perfection is unrealistic and shouldn’t be expected. Undoubtedly, the current student leaders of the DOC are engaged in growth and learning. With three new initiatives this summer alone, we cannot help but be optimistic for the club’s future.
Thank you so much to Maya Khanna ‘22, Maanasi Shyno ‘23, Mary Joy ‘21, Michelle Wang ‘21, Abigail Johnson ‘23, and Gab Smith ‘22 for giving us their time and thoughts!
Lee, Dr. Forrester. “Ivy League Pioneers: Black Students at Dartmouth, 1775-1950.” Black@Dartmouth. Dartmouth College, Hanover. March 28-30, 2014.
Nelson, Mia. “Room for a Few Girls: Co-Education in the Dartmouth Outing Club.” Rauner Special Collections Library, October 18, 2019, https://raunerlibrary.blogspot.com/2019/10/room-for-few-girls-co-education-in.html.
“History of the DOC.” Dartmouth Outdoors, Trustees of Dartmouth College, 21 Oct. 2012, https://outdoors.dartmouth.edu/doc/history.html.
Ebbs, Stephanie, and Devin Dwyer. “America's National Parks Face Existential Crisis over Race.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 1 July 2020, abcnews.go.com/Politics/americas-national-parks-face-existential-crisis-race/story?id=71528972.
Finney, Carolyn Marie. Black Faces, White Spaces: African Americans and the Great Outdoors. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Jensen, Clayne R., and Steven Guthrie. Outdoor Recreation in America. sixth ed., Human Kinetics, 2006.
“Native Americans and Mount Rushmore.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/rushmore-sioux/.
Starr, June. “American Indians and National Parks.” Cultural Survival, Cultural Survival, 1 June 1999, www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/american-indians-and-national-parks.