Davidson Outdoors seeks to broaden inclusivity

Zack Longboy-

Photographs chronicling the 2018 Davidson Outdoors trip to the Rio Grande River on the US-Mexico border. Photos by Wilson Goode

For Wilson Goode ’19, Davidson Outdoors (DO) trips are about more than just exploring the natural world. Goode, the current Vice President of DO, believes they are about “perspective. “

In January, Goode and a group of other trip leaders paddled the Rio Grande in tandem canoes for ten days. Camping on both the Mexican and Texan sides of the river, the group came across ropes and scraps of clothing strewn across the bank and discarded sleeping bags left by people presumably crossing the border.

While camped, “We heard people crossing in the middle of the night, running through the canyons,” said Goode. “Seeing border patrol fly over us with spotlights in the middle of the night was a surreal experience.”

DO is a organization that, as well as coordinating the first-year Odyssey program, offers outdoors equipment for rent and runs a series of activity trips throughout the year. Any Davidson student can enter a lottery for these trips, which include kayaking, canoeing, backpacking, rock climbing, and caving, in locations from Mount Mitchell to the Everglades.

Additionally, students can apply for Trip Leader Training (TLT). As a part of this program, prospective leaders attain hard skills, such as the PCIA—a national climbing certificate—but also learn “what it means to be a good leader, how to deal with any problems that arise, and generally how [to make] it a good experience both logistically and psychologically,” said Zane Libke ’21, a first-year trip leader.

For many students like Libke, DO serves as an outlet. For him, the opportunities DO provides are invaluable, especially at Davidson where he often finds himself caught up in school work, securing an internship, or navigating the social side of college life.

“When you’re hiking, what matters is that you get from point A to point B and that you cook dinner that night. It’s really stripping down everything to the necessities,” said Libke. “When you do that you find that you really enjoy the small things a lot more.”

For DO President Keelan Sharbach ’19, the most pressing issue facing the organization is diversity. “As far as privilege in the outdoors, it is often biased towards people who are white and have money. It’s often expensive to get the gear, and you have to have the resources,” said Sharbach. “It’s a cultural thing that is passed on—there are people from underprivileged groups that just don’t have the same access.”

Goode, who has seen a marked effort over the past three years to address this issue, agreed with Sharbach. “The outdoors in general has the reputation of being a very white and very masculine space,” said Goode. One way in which DO has increased its female participation is through a Women in the Woods trip with female participants and oftentimes female faculty to discuss their role in the outdoors.

While both Sharbach and Goode feel DO has done an effective job bridging the gender divide, “the area that we aren’t doing as well in is with racial and ethnic diversity—and that is an area where the outdoors community in general is struggling immensely,” said Goode.

This year, the organization welcomed a new advisor, with Austin Langley taking over the Assistant Director of DO. As well as climbing expertise, according to Goode and Sharbach, Langley has brought a new focus on accessibility. “[Langley] is really great,” said Goode. “I think she’s bringing a lot of new insights into DO that we haven’t had in awhile, [with] more of a focus on diversity and accessibility.”

In order to address these issues of inclusivity, Langley and the rest of the DO team have put a series of diversity initiatives in motion. The number of Odyssey crews was expanded to include a “Base Camp” option where the programming was based on day trips, a social justice educator was invited to speak to Odyssey leaders, and the availability of financial aid for DO trips has been robustly increased. DO now promises to match the aid level (percentage) that students receive from the college. As Sharbach puts it, there are now funds for “everything but underwear and socks,” in an effort to reduce the financial barrier to participation.

For Goode, these accessibility initiatives are vital, ensuring that students are not prevented, financially or psychologically, from the profound experiences he has had. While on the Rio Grande last January, the broader significance struck him in particular. “It was a surreal experience because in the grand scheme of things we were there for fun, because we had the privilege to be there, while on the other hand some people were there as a last resort,” he reflected.