Teresa Baker wants everyone to experience the ‘cathedral-like’ beauty of nature — especially POC and others who have historically been excluded.
Before she was working with companies to diversify their staff and audience, Teresa Baker was simply a hiker who loved Yosemite. She used to make “dang near-monthly” trips to the park. Now, she prefers to visit in the offseason, roughly November through February when the crowds are gone and there’s often snow on the ground.
“Find time to get into the Valley by yourself and just listen and just pay attention,” Baker said. “It’s such an inspiring place to be and just stand there and look all around you. Not just the waterfalls, but the vastness of what Yosemite is, the granite that is all around you. It’s cathedral-like to me.”
It was on such a solo trip that she had a revelation.
“I was like damn, I have not seen another Black person the entire time I’ve been here,” Baker said. “Nor had I seen any other people of color.”
She reached out to the National Park Service and brought up the lack of diversity at the park. They acknowledged it and welcomed her ideas to help them change that.
Since then, Merrell, other brands and organizations, and individuals have joined her efforts to bring diversity to the outdoors via the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge and other projects.
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Actions Speak Louder
After her epiphany at Yosemite, Baker set upon a journey that would lead her to spearhead projects like the Women’s Outdoor Summit for Empowerment as well as retracing the Buffalo Soldiers Trail from the Presidio of San Francisco to Yosemite National Park.
Her most recent venture, the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledgeencourages outdoor brands to act around efforts of diversity rather than simply speaking on its importance.
Currently, the CEO Pledge has more than 70 signees from brands and nonprofits.
Honoring the Buffalo Soldiers
When the NPS lent an ear to Baker‘s concerns, one of the first things that sprang to her mind was the Buffalo Soldiers. She knew the critical role they played in the park’s early days, from construction projects to some of its first park rangers.
“I don’t want my history as a person of color, as an African American, to fade. I don’t want people to think I don’t have a legacy here,” Baker said.
“So I thought, let me do a Buffalo Soldier Trail retracing from the Presidio in San Francisco into Yosemite just to bring attention to this history. At the Presidio, there are over 400 Buffalo Soldiers laid to rest, and people don’t know that.”
She pitched the idea to a supervisor with the NPS, fellow members of Outdoor Afro, other advocates, and members of the community. Members of the Buffalo Soldiers motorcycle club even joined in.
Another person to join the trail retracing was Robert Hanna, the great-great-grandson of John Muir. In the past decade, Hanna left behind the corporate world to advocate for the outdoors, especially the Sierra Nevadas and its parks.
Hanna suggested they coordinate an effort to rename the last few miles of the road leading into Yosemite as “Buffalo Soldiers Highway.” The State Assembly passed the resolution in 2016.
Next, Baker and Hanna teamed up again to rename a portion of the road into Sequoia National Park After Captain Charles Young, who, in 1903, was named acting superintendent of the park. There, he led the Buffalo Soldiers in early infrastructure projects.
Naming a highway is symbolic, but it also sparks curiosity. “People will go and take photos in front of the sign and later learn the history of it,” Baker said.
Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge
Since then, Baker went on to found the In Solidarity Projectwhose Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge is a way to address change from the top down.
The idea is to help brands work toward greater diversity internally and in the outdoors. It’s about seeing diversity reflected in hiring and advertising, not about tearing down castles or ousting executives. To achieve this, the group holding aims to create authentic relationships that help guide company efforts while still them accountable.
“The Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge connects leading outdoor brands with inclusion advocates to advance representation for people of color across the industry,” reads the group’s mission.
The focus is on building relationships across the staff and executive personnel as well as sponsored athletes and ambassadors.
After a CEO or other executive signs the pledge, they are connected with the Pledge Steering Committee to choose a liaison to work with toward their company’s diversity goals. The two talk through company culture, goals, fears, and a few anecdotes of outdoor experiences — because, well, that’s what everyone is here to do.
After a year, the company submits a report and future plans, which the Pledge Steering Committee assesses with feedback. To recognize significant progress, the committee gives Industry Inclusion Leader awards to companies as well as showcases these companies with preferred placement in its media efforts.
Looking for Representation
That’s how she got to know, and trust, Merrell.
“Through the pledge, I’ve developed a lot of relationships with a lot of industry reps. There’s been so much turnover in the outdoor industry over the past 3 years. It’s like one day I’m speaking to someone, and the next they’re no longer there,” Baker said. “But Merrell has been consistent. They’ve stayed in touch with me, shared with me projects they’re working on, and that’s how it began.”
Since then, they’ve stayed in touch at Outdoor Retailer events.
“What really stood out for me from Merrell was when the new CEO came in. I received a handwritten letter in the mail from the new CEO just thanking me for the relationship and helping guide Merrell on its path of inclusion,” Baker said. “I still have the letter, and that to me speaks to the commitment an individual has.”
She praised the support the brand gives to thru-hiker Will “Akuna” Robinson and its continued collaborations with the artist Jitterbug.
“It’s important that people see the faces and names behind these projects,” Baker said. “It’s not just Merrell or brand X. Merrell has said, ‘We’re going to do and expect the pushback, and we’re going to deal with it and answer some of the questions around the why.’
“Every morning I wake up, there’s a new group that is formed. And the reason they’re forming is that they don’t feel included in these larger organizations, and it’s amazing to me that people don’t realize that,” Baker said. “How about you address why they don’t feel included? Address the why.”
The problem is systemic, she explained, but there are signs of progress.
“I have seen change over the past 3 years that I didn’t see 8 years ago,” Baker said. “Change is happening, but change is slow.”
In that time, marketing followed suit, with people from underrepresented communities on social media and in ads.
However, Baker insists the biggest change will be seeing similar strides made to add color to C-suites. For instance, she challenges companies to show that Black Lives Matter by hiring Black people for higher staff and executive positions rather than just hiring after the latest death from racial injustice.
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This article is sponsored by Merrell. Find out more about its hiking footwear and collaborations online.