Cranes, high-rise buildings, Sports Authority Field, and the glow of thousands of brake lights fill Denver’s skyline. And behind all the construction and city noise, far beyond the stoplights and rolling plains sit the timeless Rocky Mountains. Their quiet, snow-covered peaks can seem far from the everyday hustle of city life, and for some, they remain impossibly far.

For students from under-resourced communities on Colorado’s Front Range, the Centennial State’s iconic mountains and all of the adventure they offer lies out of reach. Whether it is a problem of transportation, lack of resources to purchase luxury gear like hiking boots, tents, and backpacks, or tentativeness about approaching an unknown space, students rarely have the opportunity to explore and benefit from all that a natural environment has to offer, something that those who grew up in the outdoor community take for granted.

In recent months, diversity has become a hot topic within the outdoor industry: How do we open the outdoor industry to underrepresented communities? What can we do to make the outdoors a more inclusive place? Big City Mountaineers (BCM), a Golden-based nonprofit with programs in seven other cities nationwide, has spent the past 27 years building and honing outdoor education programs for children and young adults to fill the space left by issues of inclusion. “There are so many barriers to access to the outdoors,” explains Bix Firer, BCM’s Colorado Program Manager, “We as an organization believe that everyone has the right to experience the outdoors. So, our challenge is to figure out how to eliminate those barriers”.

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Big City Mountaineers’ Overnight Camp offers outdoor opportunities for kids aged eight to 12 years old. Genesee, Colorado. Photo Credit: Big City Mountaineers.

In 1989, Big City Mountaineers founder Jim Kern (also founder of the American Hiking Society) approached a local youth agency in Miami where he lived to see if there was a teen that might benefit from joining him and his son on a four day backpacking trip in Montana. The success of this experience inspired Kern, and a year later he filed the paperwork to establish a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for Big City Mountaineers. As of January 2017, with the support of major industry partners like Skip Yowell of JanSport and Backpacker Magazine among many others, BCM has served more than 8,000 kids on 700 expeditions and another 115 overnight camps.

The key to BCM’s success in establishing students’ positive relationship with the outdoors is threefold: partnerships, people, and places. “BCM programming begins with relationships with local youth agencies,” explains Bryan Martin, Executive Director of Big City Mountaineers, “We tailor our curricula to expound on the goals of each organization”. Some local Colorado partners include Denver Kids, the Boys and Girls Club, the I Have a Dream Foundation, and the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. In the case of the I Have a Dream Foundation, an organization based around first generation college attendees, BCM has built a curriculum for a weeklong expedition called ‘Climbing the Mountain to College’ that focuses on goal setting, perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and leadership development in the field.

In addition to a youth agency professional who comes from the partner agency, BCM’s weeklong expeditions are made up of the students, a professional guide (Wilderness EMTs with extensive backcountry and education experience), and volunteers (who may not have much backcountry experience at all) staffed at a one-to-one ratio with the students. This unique program model accomplishes two main goals: First, it creates an environment where students feel valued and heard in positive interactions with adults. Second, the volunteers form relationships with these students so they can come back to the Front Range and become advocates.

One of BCM’s biggest challenges—diversity in their volunteer staff—has deep roots. White communities have many outdoors and environmentalist role models with immense cultural capital—Teddy Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson—while the outdoor space for American communities of color has traditionally been charged with generational memories of violence, poverty, and exclusion. BCM is changing this relationship by providing positive role models in the outdoors space that more closely reflect the population of students that they are serving. “I’ve challenged my staff this year to host one of their volunteer information sessions at a community center or a neutral community space,” Elizabeth Williams, Director of Programs, explains. “Traditionally, we’ve hosted our new volunteer information sessions at outdoor retailer storefronts. But if you’re not an avid outdoors person, a big outdoor store can be foreign and daunting. So, if we take away that spatial barrier, hopefully we can attract a more diverse volunteer pool”.

Above all, what each of the BCM staff members and volunteers believe is that the outdoors can be a transformative place. “There’s no better classroom for teaching life skills than the outdoors,” says Williams. “Even if some of these students don’t come back because they hate sleeping in a tent, I really believe that what we’re doing is facilitating the growth of better human beings. And they’re going back into their communities ready to lead. The outdoors can have that transformative power even in just one week”. The Flat Tops Wilderness in Colorado, the Boundary Waters for the Minneapolis-based program, and places like Yosemite National Park in California all provide the inspirational backdrop for BCM expedition programs.

Ultimately, BCM measures their success with individual student growth based on pre- and post-trip assessments, the satisfaction of a partner agency, and on a nationwide scale based on quantitative factors. “In 2015 after 25 years in operation, we did a little back-of-the-napkin math: we realized that we surpassed more than 40,000 nights under the stars for kids that would not have had the opportunity to camp, backpack, paddle, or climb without BCM plugging in their lives,” notes Martin. “We were pretty psyched about that”. Their individual student assessments also show a 90% success rate in facilitating positive growth as a direct result of participation in a BCM program.

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Summiting an unnamed mountain on a Big City Mountaineers Alumni Expedition. Photo Credit: Big City Mountaineers.

Big City Mountaineers and the Outdoor Industry

“I love talking to our outdoor brand partners,” says Doug Sandok, Corporate Relations Director, “because I get to bring meaning to their day. We’re all contributing to this life changing experience for these kids and that resonates with everybody in the outdoor industry”. Outdoor industry companies have been instrumental in Big City Mountaineers success. From in kind gear donations (BCM outfits each student from head to toe) to recruiting Summit for Someone participants to monetary donations, Big City Mountaineers has become embedded in the fabric of the outdoor industry.

“The next step on the part of industry is now to tell that story to their customers in a more proactive and advocacy-related way,” says Executive Director Bryan Martin. “That’s what I see as the next important step in the evolution of the outdoor industry’s involvement in this issue around diversifying outdoor experiences”.

To learn how you can get involved with Big City Mountaineers, visit bigcitymountaineers.org.

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We are driven by our deep respect for our environment, and our passionate commitment to sustainable tourism and conservation. We believe in the right for everyone - from all backgrounds and cultures - to enjoy our natural world, and we believe that we must all do so responsibly. Learn More