We know diversity allows organizations to think out of the box, be more creative and innovative, problem-solve better and see around corners. But leading with diversity can undermine equity, especially when it comes to single identity experiences for people with marginalized identities.

To be clear, today we’re talking about single-identity spaces for people with marginalized identities. Single identity spaces for white folks or men, for example, is another topic for another blog post. Here, we’re referring to spaces created by and for people with marginalized identities, be that based on gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, indigeneity, class, disability, or other identities that experience systemic barriers.

So what do single identity spaces look like?

Single identity spaces can look like single-identity programming, such as Conservation Legacy’s Ancestral Lands conservation crews, Northwest Youth Corps Queer Inclusion Crew, Idaho Conservation Corps’ Women’s Crew, and the Sierra Club’s Military Family and Veteran’s programs.

Single identity spaces can also look like organizations focused on specific communities and their relationships to the outdoors, conservation, or environmentalism. Some examples include: Outdoor Afro, Green Latinos, Green Muslims, Black Freedom Outfitters, Latino OutdoorsBrothers of Climbing, Venture Out Project, OUT There Adventures, and Women’s Wilderness.

Single identity spaces can look like a convening by and for people with specific marginalized identities to discuss issues and opportunities that impact them, such as the annual Green Latinos Summit, the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, and the subsequent 2002 Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, the 2017 People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature, and the Environment Summit, and the 2017 Women’s Summit for Outdoor Empowerment.

The argument

Diversity and inclusion champions will claim that we shouldn’t support single identity spaces because they are not diverse or inclusive. But equity and inclusion advocates will realize that single identity-spaces are not diverse across identity, and that is by design.

Because if we want to include marginalized communities in this movement that we call “conservation” and “recreation,” equity demands that we support their being able to gather in spaces for them and by them.

We define equity as an approach to ensuring everyone has access to the same opportunities. Equity demands that we examine barriers and disadvantages people experience based on their identities and to address them. In the conventional outdoor, environmental, and conservation space, these barriers may include:

  • lack of access to public lands,
  • negative and exclusionary experiences in outdoor spaces,
  • negative experiences working in this sector,
  • unwelcoming culture,
  • lack of gear or transportation to access some areas,
  • different relationships with land and water that defy our conventional (and myopic) notions of “conservation,” “environmentalism” and “recreation.”
  • experiencing loss in the name of conservation (e.g. indigenous dispossession of land)

So why should we all work to support single identity spaces for people with marginalized identities?

  1. Cultural relevance: Typical outdoor programming may not be culturally relevant to all the communities you’re is trying to reach, be it due to the program structure (length, location, etc.) or because of the program outcomes (e.g., resilience, leadership, etc.). Single identity programming with different structures or outcomes (informed by the communities) can support cultural relevance.
  2. Safety: People with marginalized identities need spaces where they don’t have to code-switch, be forced to assimilate, be tokenized, and be subjected to constant microaggressions. This “identity stress” causes real emotional harm.
  3. Healing: People of marginalized identities need to be able to build alliances, support groups, and networks with each other to talk about the challenges they face and heal from experiences of oppression and community trauma. For example, Outdoor Afro began leading “healing hikes” for members of the black community in light of police killings in the last two years.
  4. Innovation: Though diversity may support some innovation, it does not support people with marginalized identities being able to innovate solutions to the barriers they face in the outdoors and conservation. Single identity spaces are a venue for people of particular marginalized identities to share stories, discuss common challenges, and innovate solutions to these challenges.
  5. Role models and mentors: People with marginalized identities often cite the lack of role models as a barrier to their continuing to be involved in outdoor education and conservation. Research shows that having teachers, mentors, and role models of like identity actually improves experiences and outcomes. Single identity experiences can connect the emerging leaders of today with these mentors and role models.
  6. To explore diversity beyond a singular identity: There is a tendency to assume that people with a particular identity are part of a homogenous group (e.g. all Latinx people believe…”) Single identity programming allows people with these identities to explore the diversity within a group. Sometimes this is not possible in typical programs because people are distilled to a single visible identity and aren’t comfortable showing up as their complex selves.
  7. Valuing of diverse cultures: Sometimes single identity programming is seen as a “gateway” for people who wouldn’t normally participate in your program to get a taste of your organization’s work, “drink the Kool-Aid,” and then join your organization’s typical programming that isn’t based on a single identity. But equity means valuing different cultures and not expect people to assimilate to your dominant culture. This can show up in having continuous single identity offerings for people of different identities.

Single identity spaces are also important for reasons beyond equity:

  1. Retention: Research shows that in the business world, “Employee Affinity Groups” (also called “Employee Resource Groups”) are important to retaining people of certain identities in the field. Conservation in particular struggles to retain people of color. Anecdotally, many people are tired of having to “fight for inclusion from the belly of the beast” and would rather leave the sector to do their own thing. Single identity experiences can help people feel like this space is one they are willing to occupy for just that much longer.
  2. Organizational learning: Organizations can also learn from single identity programs. Working with different communities helps organizations become more culturally competent and integrate inclusive practices into all of their programming.

So if you’re grappling with whether to support a single identity effort, drop that diversity flag and lead with equity, and you’ll find it’s a lot easier to walk the talk.