What are you Reading? And Why?
Written by Eli Walker, HIOBS Course Director and Senior Instructor and 2020 Kellogg Award winner
“What are you reading these days, and why?” was one of the questions asked during José G. Gonzalez’s keynote address that started the Wilderness Risk Manager’s Conference in October 2020. I think it’s a question worth asking, sharing, and examining.
As a kid I was an avid reader. I remember leaving the library with a stack as tall as I was of the Curious George books. In eighth grade, I exclusively read nonfiction mountaineering books: Into Thin Air, Touching the Void, Snow in the Kingdom, and so on. Over time, my reading hobby dissipated – which I would love to blame on too much school or work – but truthfully I think it has much more to do with an increasing habit of mindlessly scrolling through webpages…
I’m now about to turn thirty, and something about that number prompts introspection and goal setting. Since I started working for Outward Bound almost ten years ago, each of my winters has had a unique motif. In 2015 I lived with a couple that I had met five years earlier while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Sam (their two-year-old), Tito (a rotund chug), and Otis (an elderly and anxious boxer). 2016 was a strange winter (not that the rest haven’t been) of having a post office box in Blue Diamond, Nevada (please Google it) and working for the Nevada Conservation Corps. 2017 was early mornings in the UPS warehouse sort aisle and food prep for a trip I did with friends to Ungava.
Two winters ago, I finally rediscovered my passion for reading, when I stumbled into a parenting seminar organized by Julia Makowski, who was then our Associate Director of Education & Innovation. Like most people in the seminar, I was uncertain about how I had joined – and too embarrassed to decline the invitation. That winter consisted of reading parenting books, training a puppy, and working for an elder care agency – I found countless connections between my winter mainstays and my passion for instructing and teaching. By the end of spring, I had quit my job at the elder care agency, and decided that I probably didn’t need to have kids – as raising a puppy was hard enough!
Fast forward to the winter/spring of 2019/20. I had lost my spring work due to the Coronavirus pandemic and stayed at or near the humble abode that I share with my dog and husband for 2 weeks at a time without talking to or interacting with anybody else. Dog walks, Skip-Bo games, and picking up bottles and cans off the side of the road became the daily routine. During that time, I was invited to join an Equity and Inclusion book club through HIOBS – and also discovered an edX class titled “Becoming a More Equitable Educator”, where we had a group of around fifteen outdoor educators affiliated with NOLS, NCOBS, HIOBS, and Chewonki that met each week. At the same time, I participated in the YWCA’s Stand Against Racism Challenge, designed to create dedicated time and space to build more effective social justice habits, particularly around race, power, privilege, and leadership. My winter was filled to the brim with dog walks, Skip-Bo, and online learning about equity and inclusion.
Now, in the fall of 2020 I am sitting on the edge of what promises to be yet another strange winter. Employment and housing are both up in the air, just like they often are this time of year. Even with the unpredictability of another winter, I have found that some of my past winter motifs have become common threads. While I hope to never work in another UPS warehouse sort aisle and am unlikely to have a post office box in Blue Diamond ever again… dog walks, playing outside, and taking care of the planet, and social justice work are likely here to stay – and whereas the first three in this list come relatively easily, remaining focused on social justice feels much more challenging.
My new goal is to make equity and inclusion more than just a winter motif. I look at this country of ingrained, systemic, and hierarchical oppression, and wonder if there is even a point in trying to create a more just society – where underprivileged and underrepresented communities are heard, valued, and celebrated? In my times of doubt, the equity and inclusion book clubs have helped hold me accountable in my actions, perseverance, and initiatives and have catalyzed further education and opportunities.
In the past year, I have read White Fragility, Trace, and have just gotten rolling with How to Be an Anti-Racist with the current HIOBS book club. I have also recently read Braiding Sweetgrass, Black Faces, White Spaces and My Grandmother’s Hands. I enrolled in a graduate program that centers on social justice and environmentalism in all of its coursework. In this program, I feel supported in exploring research questions such as: What are the benefits of affinity groups in outdoor programming? How can we shift incident reporting practices to understand better the emotional risk related to under-represented individuals and communities? For one of my projects this semester, I started working on a place-names booklet for Newry courses that highlights Indigenous people’s stories.
I hope that the momentum I feel from participating in recent HIOBS book clubs is also inspiring other staff, and to the school. I don’t know exactly how many people showed up regularly for the first book club or how many will show up regularly for the current one – but I do know that in the last session I attended, there were more faces crammed onto my screen than ever before, there was a higher level of representation from different positions from the school, and that participants had a lot to say. The first book club had awkwardly long silences, but in the last session of the current book club I was unable to unmute myself fast enough to say anything and resorted to posting provocative questions in a chat box (that I would have much preferred to ask aloud).
I have begun to understand that equity and inclusion work does not limit itself to a Diversity Training, to a book club, or even to a research question or project. Focusing on creating a more just society needs to be a part of every lesson, every course start, and every day. We need to ask ourselves some big questions: How many Outward Bound students leave knowing the history of the land they travelled on? Whose voices are we amplifying? What does the language we use mean? Whose practices and land use are we excluding when we teach Leave No Trace? Perhaps more importantly, how many students leave our courses with a curiosity about the history of the land they live on and come from?
In a world where words and images come at us from every angle and where mindless (and mindful) scrolling is a habit, it is easy to forget the things that matter most and to take the time to read a book. If you’re looking for suggestions, I’d ask you to consider How to be an Antiracist and join in on the conversation with the HIOBS book club – or start a conversation in your own network and circles, and see how that goes. Other books I’m reading right now include: Farm City (good so far), Outdoor Program Administration: Principles and Practices (don’t recommend it), The Lorax (worth re-reading), and the 7th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (well organized but a bit dry).
What are you reading – and why?
Walking the Long, Challenging Path.
Anna Parker, HIOBS Course Director and Senior Instructor
For two months or so during the late spring, construction stopped on both the building next door to me and the building behind me. It was an unexpected side effect of Massachusetts’ early COVID-19 response, and one my roommates and I greatly enjoyed. Our six-thirty power saw alarm clocks were not missed, and every Monday I could sit out on our small back porch balcony to eat breakfast and catch up on my HIOBS book club reading.
I read our first book in sweaters and with cold feet. It wasn’t quite warm enough to be comfortable, but it was better than sitting in my kitchen again. I’d sit there with a pencil, writing marginalia—nothing too insightful, mostly a lot of “this one’s me”, and some “I’ve seen this.” Looking back, I can’t say that I was ever excited to pick up my copy of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, but I knew that it would be nice to see people during our Tuesday meeting, and that this work was something I needed to be participating in.
For the last couple of summers, a group of HIOBS staff had been pushing for increased diversity, equity, and inclusion programming. We talked about what place this kind of work had on our courses, what conversations we wanted to have with students, how we could support all our members of our communities big and small. In our discussions about White Fragility, we expanded on these themes. I may not have loved the book, but I loved getting to talk with whoever was at the book club that week. People shared personal stories, asked hard questions, sat and listened. It wasn’t ever easy; we didn’t come up with any stunning plans. What we had was a group of people open to learning and trying something hard out. And then, six weeks later, it was over. We agreed to take a short break, find a new book, and return. After all, we now knew our schedules would be open.
I didn’t need to wear sweaters for our second book, Lauret Savoy’s book Trace. In fact, depending on when I woke up and how long it took me to make breakfast, I’d sometimes have to shift positions on the balcony in the middle of reading, chasing the shade as the sunshine appeared over the buildings. There were fewer places for me to go, surrounded by my roommate’s urban garden—five gallon buckets of tomato plants, a railing full of spinach in plastic tubs, a pot of nasturtiums in the corner. Trace was a very different read, a mix of memoir and nature writing centered around the author’s experience with race. My notes were different. Our conversations had a different tone in early May, as we buckled in for a summer that didn’t look like the one we had been hoping for in March. We talked about nature writing, about essay structure, about stories and histories. We appreciated having a place to go and talk to Outward Bound people about Outward Bound things, even if it was a virtual one. Everything had become abstract, especially with the looming feeling that we wouldn’t be trying out our ideas and goals with students this year.
At the end of May, right before we finished reading Trace, George Floyd died at the hands of a policeman in Minneapolis and protests spilled out in cities across the United States and abroad. As a book club, we were right on time, and so, so very late.
This summer, the United States has been full of overdue conversations. Conversations about police brutality; about healthcare access; about redlining practices, and incarceration, and representation. Conversations, at their hearts, about systemic racism against Black people and communities in the US. And not just conversations, but discussions, protests, counter-protests, yelling matches, op-ed pieces, Tiktok memes, book clubs, and more.
At HIOBS, both in Maine and spread around time zones and continents, our Outward Bound community has been asking where we fit into this conversation, and what we must do. In June, we finished Trace and set aside the book club for a bit. In September, Sarah Chesnutt sent the emails out again. We’re currently reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I’m reading chapters during my lunch break at work these days. Construction restarted on the buildings around me and it is simply too loud and too dusty to read on the balcony. Our book group is larger this round and has new faces in addition to some old ones. It’s still nice to see people, to have the chance to talk with people who understand what it means to miss sitting out in the rain for hours with students. It’s encouraging to see everyone’s willingness to grow, to make mistakes, to try something new. We are, I think, doing the opposite of picking up where we left off. Instead, we’re standing up and trying to start over. We’re trying to do big things, to become a more just, inclusive, and equitable organization.
There is a long, challenging path in front of us that we have started trying to climb. Our book club may be a small part of that climb, but it’s one I have appreciated over and over again during the past seven months. Every Tuesday, we’re making an effort to take a step.