Meet the Vancouver Woman Who Called Out MEC for Its Lack of Diversity
Judith Kasiama took to Instagram to address underrepresentation in outdoor-adventure marketing—now, she's encouraging other POC to get outside.
November 23, 2018
White people have long dominated TV, music and film, but the populace is perhaps most prominent in outdoor-adventure ads, where, more often than not, nary a speck of melanin can be detected in visuals of smiling faces rock-climbing, cross-country skiing and toting technical backpacks across lush terrain. (For real, spotting a person of colour on websites belonging to brands like Arc’teryx, Helly Hansen and Columbia can feel like a game of Where’s Waldo? at times.)
It’s a problem that, thankfully, has been noted by former MEC CEO David Labistour, who acknowledged in an open letter last month that the Vancouver-based outdoor-gear giant has failed to “[represent] the diversity of Canadians” in its almost 50 years of business. The catalyst for this surprisingly self-aware admission? Local MEC member Judith Kasiama, now a MEC Outdoor Nation ambassador, who, in March, took to Instagram to declare that such marketing perpetuates “a narrative that BIPOC don’t enjoy the outdoors compared to their white friends.”
We talked to Kasiama, an outdoors enthusiast and consultant in the nonprofit sector who’s called Vancouver home since 2012, about what led to the public callout, the significance of representation in advertising and what she hopes to achieve through her new role at MEC.
Vancouver magazine: At what point did you realize that the outdoor-gear and apparel ads you were seeing were overwhelmingly white?
Judith Kasiama: I’ve been seeing it for a long time because it’s not something that you miss. But it became more and more apparent as I was doing my own research, trying to figure out how representation is conveyed in the outdoors. I was looking at companies’ social media and ads, and noticed that there was a big gap in terms of representation and expanding this narrative.
I was also reading The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by James Edward Mills. He’s a U.S. journalist who follows a group of African-American climbers—the first of its kind—doing an expedition in Denali. That was a very, very interesting read in terms of being able to dig deeper into the history of representation in the outdoors, and how certain people have not been spoken about in the outdoor industry despite having contributed significantly to it.
VM: Why did you turn to Instagram to call out MEC and other outdoor businesses?
JK: There’s something very interesting that’s happening right now in terms of how history is told. Before, history was shared from the top down: the people in power could tell whatever story and narrative they wanted to. But now, with Instagram, POCs and people who have been suppressed in history have the ability to redefine and challenge that narrative. So just being able to say, visually, “Look, I’m a person of colour and I love the outdoors and I enjoy doing things in the outdoors the same way that any other white person does” is a powerful tool. It showcases a narrative that contradicts the one in a paid advertisement.
VM: What happened immediately after your published your post in March? What has the public response been like?
JK: That same day, I was contacted by somebody from MEC. We set up an appointment for later that week to talk and for them to hear why I called them out. And they acknowledged that this is an issue and that they really wanted to work on it.
There’s been a lot of positive feedback from people who are wanting to engage and who see this as a problem. But there’s also been pushback from people who say things like “It’s not an issue. Why are you making everything about race?” A lot of people don’t want to acknowledge it; they just want to pretend that it’s not an issue or something that’s only happening south of the border. When, in reality, there does exist prejudice because, if my lived experience is denied, then that means that my story is not relevant compared to what others are feeling.
VM: Why is diversity in outdoor-adventure marketing so important?
JK: Diversity isn’t only about race—it’s about looking at body size, ageism, ableism, LGBTQ individuals, and making sure that there’s a broad spectrum of people being seen in the outdoors because we all partake in it. It’s about expanding that narrative instead of showing the same story of predominantly white males conquering every mountain.
I feel like the outdoor industry is really falling behind when it comes to acknowledging these spectrums and the fact that there are all these biases and stereotypes that are being projected. Advertising is such a powerful way of telling a story and a narrative. So if people are not being represented, people are not going to feel comfortable. They’re not going to feel like they have a right to space, because they’ve been presented with this singular narrative their entire lives.
VM: What does your new role of MEC Outdoor Nation ambassador involve? What do you hope to achieve?
JK: This role, for me, is about having a platform where I can share my experiences—both on social media and in real life. I’m also bringing a lot of POCs into the outdoors through weekly events and really encouraging them to take up space. They don’t have to feel intimidated because if I can do it, they can do it too. I’m carrying this story and this narrative, and challenging people and their perceptions of diversity in the outdoors.
I want everyone to have the ability to have this conversation and I want to have representation in the outdoors taken more seriously. Not just in a tokenism way, but through supporting athletes of colour who are very passionate in their sports, for example. I eventually hope to further this work academically with my master’s and PhD studies, so I can really analyze, through a Canadian lens, POC and their relationship to nature and how they’re underrepresented in advertising. And the role of social media that’s giving a lot of us agency in determining what stories we’re telling.
VM: Finally, what are some of your favourite hikes and trails in the Lower Mainland?
JK: I have to say Panorama Ridge is one of my favourites. And I know everybody loves Joffre Lakes, but that was one of my first solo hikes that I did so it has a special place in my heart.