Every single PolarExplorers guide - and I’d venture to say every single PolarExplorers Alum, has a close and personal relationship with the outdoors. We have all benefited from its beauty. We have grown strong from its ruggedness. We have learned leadership lessons, and judgment and humility not only from the wild places we visit but also from the people with whom we have traveled. Significant life decisions including our life partners, and our careers have been influenced by the outdoors. Not one of us at PolarExplorers can think who we would be without this intimate connection. We are so lucky to have it.
Not everyone is so lucky. The outdoors are considered by many as an equalizing force. The rain doesn’t care what color your skin is when it’s trickling down your face, and the wind doesn’t detect whether you are a man or woman, old or young, or who you choose to love. But how can a force be equalizing when access to it is unequal?
Whether it's physical access (actually getting there), access to a mentor, or access to equipment, being able to “access” the outdoors, and all it has to offer, is complex and uneven to say the least. On top of that, not everyone feels welcome in the outdoors. Whether that’s due to personal safety concerns, or a gut feeling that comes from looking different than everyone else in a space, many people don’t feel like they belong outdoors. Just as importantly, many people feel that the outdoors doesn’t belong to them. Of course it belongs to everyone; as do all the important life lessons that are gained by venturing outdoors.
Our world increasingly demands a citizenry that is creative, resourceful, adaptive, resilient, humble and able to care for one another. These are precisely the skills that we learn when we venture outdoors for extended periods of time. Furthermore, as our relationship with the outdoors grows, so too does our capacity for stewardship and being an ambassador for this planet that has no voice of its own.
In recognition of this lack of diversity in the outdoors, and especially within the expedition guiding community, PolarExplorers initiated the Matthew Henson Scholarship. This scholarship is open to all people of color who are:
Passionate about wilderness travel and outdoor leadership;
Aspire to have a career in the outdoor industry;
Looking to increase their skill set to include cold weather camping.
It’s our belief that a more diverse guiding community will help diversify the outdoor industry as a whole; and it will help to inspire people of all colors, from all backgrounds, to embrace the outdoors and to welcome outdoor adventures into their lives.
We are extremely proud of our first two Matthew Henson Scholars: Emily Ford and Stephen Scott, who both joined our recent Polar Shakedown Training. Both Emily and Stephen have forged their own paths in the outdoor industry; Emily as a long-distance hiker/skier and outdoor influencer who inspires people of all colors and backgrounds to embrace the outdoors; and Stephen who organizes and guides adventures for Outdoor Afro. We look forward to long-lasting relationships with Stephen and Emily as they continue to inspire and influence other outdoor enthusiasts. You can check out their comments about the Matthew Henson Scholarship below.
All of us at PolarExplorers believe that we can influence change within our own industry and within the world. As adventurers we know how adversity can push us to accomplish great things if we dare to accept the challenge; and how our expedition skills, including working with a diverse team to achieve success, can have significant relevance outside of the backcountry.
Have you thought about how your connection with the outdoors has changed your life? Have you considered how your actions and your support might influence another person’s ability to experience the outdoors - perhaps someone with a different background, skin color or identity?
As a fellow adventurer and lover of the outdoors, I encourage you to think about your ability to influence change in your own community and in the outdoors. And while you’re thinking about inspiring change check out Full Circle Everest. This intrepid group of climbers will soon head to Nepal to be the first all-black team to attempt to summit Mt. Everest. We are very excited to follow their progress!
If you’d like to learn more about diversity in the outdoors including what you can do to make the outdoors more inclusive; or if you'd like to know more about Matthew Henson (he’s amazing) check out these resources:
The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by James Edward Mills
An American Ascent - a documentary film about the first African-American expedition to climb North America's highest peak, Denali
Five Ways To Make The Outdoors More Inclusive - The Atlantic
Who Was The First Person To Reach The North Pole? National Geographic video about Matthew Henson
About Emily and Stephen’s experience as Matthew Henson Scholars…
“Matthew Henson is an explorer that I keep at the forefront of my mind when I think about my polar exploration goals. His drive to learn everything about anything and say "yes" to opportunities that came his way allowed him to stand at the top of the world! This was long before any guiding service was offering last degree pole trips. He and I share the same desire to learn from those that have done it before and to turn it into our own. Receiving the Henson scholarship allowed me to say yes to learning more and more about how to thrive in polar regions. I know there are others out there who share our desire and I'm stoked to see who is next on the Henson list! The outdoors is for everyone and this scholarship is helping push one more little step in the right direction for equity in the outdoors.” - Emily Ford (Follow Emily on her current expedition here).
“Being a Matthew Henson Scholar and experiencing the Polar Shakedown was amazing! This adventure provided an experience to build winter survival skills and meet people from all over the world. I learned how to layer clothing to thrive outside in the cold beyond just a couple of hours (our bottom temp was -31F the day we headed out to the backcountry). I learned how to prep a tent pad in the snow, setup the tent and setup guidelines for the tents using snow. Also gained familiarity on how to operate a MSR Whisperlite stove for melting snow for water. I have already utilized the layering and carrying of hot water during a recent single degree hike with a group of Outdoor Afro members at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Long Meadow Lake trail. I would love to share my knowledge and take a group of folks on a winter camping adventure in the future.” - Stephen Scott (Check out Outdoor Afro here).