• Hayden Seder

Wild Woman: Inclusive Idaho's Co-Founders

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement that has resurged in recent months, you’ve probably seen outdoor companies flaunting black models and influencers on their social media, making promises about including more underrepresented groups in their companies and the outdoors in general. But what does it really mean to be inclusive in our outdoor spaces? And how can we make them more so? Whitney Mestelle and Whitley Hawk of Boise, Idaho recently launched their organization Inclusive Idaho as a solution to societal barriers of belonging and advancement for minority groups, women, people with disabilities, refugees, and those with marginalized gender and sexual orientations. Through advocacy, education, programs, community events, policy, and legislation reform, they hope to create a more inclusive Idaho for all Idahoans.

What made you want to start Inclusive Idaho?

Whitney: Whitley and I have wanted to start a non-profit for years, always something in the vein of social justice. We’re pretty passionate about child advocacy as well so we knew it would be what we’re doing now, that, or a combination of the two. I’ve seen a lot of things saying it was born out of the [Black Lives Matter] vigil and that’s partially true and partially not because starting a non-profit organization regardless of what it was for has always been on our minds. But I think our current climate politically, culturally, really moved us. And when I say “ours” I mean state, nationwide, worldwide. We feel like we started something and our doing things and are planning to do things that maybe other organizations in Idaho are not doing. And also, there’s really no organization in Idaho that’s doing what we’re doing, for sure that’s black-led. When we talk about the nation’s climate which is really focused on elevating black life and counteracting what has been historically the black experience, many of those institutions and organizations are not led by black individuals—and granted, we’re working for all marginalized communities but same idea that many of those organizations are not led by marginalized folx themselves—I think that adds an extra layer of seriousness and understanding and relatability to our work for the people doing the work.

Inclusive Idaho co-founder Whitney Mestelle

Whitley: Everything Whitney said but yeah, what she said about always wanting to start a non-profit, I think that’s really true. We did have a long conversation with ourselves about doing this because once you do it, you’re all in. We wanted to make sure from a financial standpoint we could do it so we could be all in. Just going down the list of everything we needed to be able to do and do it well was tedious, but at the end of that conversation, we decided that this was something we could do and we’re going to go for it. And we went for it and here we are!

What are your backgrounds? Non-profit work?

Whitney: I do have a fairly significant non-profit background. My entire working career isn’t super long—I’m 29, so I don’t have 20 years of any experience. But I currently work for a non-profit; I’m the Director of Admissions and Marketing in mental health care at a residential treatment facility for teens in Garden Valley, Idaho. And I worked for FCA (Fellowship for Christian Athletes) for a while, both of these are non-profit organizations. Both required a lot of fundraising and the same organizational structure we’re looking to have. And my other experience is in higher education and a lot of athletics—I was a college track and field athlete. I also went to law school for a year, which is random. But I do have an organizational structure understanding of how non-profits work and operate and are supposed to operate.

Whitley: My background is in HR and finance. I work in HR for St. Alphonsus Rehabilitation Services (STARS) and my background is in finance. My other background is 12 years in the army; I just got out in April after 12 years. A lot of what I do now and what I did in the beginning when we first launched is a lot of back-end things because starting a 501(c)(3) is like starting nothing else. I had a full company that I had before that I did everything for and I thought this was going to be a walk in the park. Well, a 501(c)(3) is obviously different in a lot of ways because of your tax exemption. My experience led me to be able to manage accordingly but I’ve also learned a ton of things along the way. We’ve had great mentors to help us in the non-profit world and the for-profit world: people that are lawyers, people in the finance world. We’ve been really lucky and grateful to have that stewardship along the way.

Inclusive Idaho co-founder Whitley Hawk

Whitney: From the social justice side of things, I’ve never done social justice work on the scale that we’re currently doing it. I’ve always been a voice of reason and advocacy in my personal life and personal social media. It’s been the same things but on an obviously massive scale. I do have a good amount of experience organizing as well, like events and things in my internships and jobs. I feel like for our organizations and other organizations like us, it’s a vital component of programming because a lot of it is events and gathering people together or creating spaces for people as well.

Are there any existing organizations you modeled yourselves after?

Whitney: We definitely looked at some organizations structurally. I work for two non-profits so obviously there were some elements I wanted to incorporate and some I didn’t. I think in some ways what we’re trying to do is unique so even in the looking it was like, ‘Well that’s not going to work here.’ We looked around at small and big but we also are in a unique situation because we’re in Idaho. When you talk about social justice work, especially marginalized groups social justice work—Black, LGBTQ+ and those two groups specifically—it’s charged and different than it would be in California or New York or wherever. We’re kind of facing an additional barrier of, ‘We could do this…but that doesn’t really work in Idaho.’ I felt like that looking at other organizations and the work they’re doing. Maybe we’re a little far-out from being able to operate exactly that way.

Why do you think it’s important for Idaho’s outdoors to be more inclusive? What kind of experiences have you had that show that Idaho’s outdoors aren’t as inclusive as they could/should be?

Whitley: What I’ve seen that makes me feel like it’s not inclusive is lack of people who look like me, lack of resources for people who look like me, and also lack of resources for people who can’t afford to financially get outdoors. Things like hiking and such are free, but if you want to become a snowboarder or a mountain biker and you want to be good at it, not just become a mountain biker but have access to a quality mountain bike and quality helmet, quality gear, somebody who can teach you the ropes—those things cost money. Or you have to know someone who has money or the time to teach you and the lower socio-economic class you’re in, the less likely that is to be a possibility for you. And in Idaho, the people in the lowest socio-economic class sometimes are black and brown people and those who are already disenfranchised or marginalized in other ways and that’s the thing—their parents can’t decide between feeding them or snowboarding lessons. Obviously they’re going to choose to feed them. Those are some of the things I see and part of what we’re going to do is try to bridge that gap, provide that financial support, and at minimum provide mentors who can show them how to whitewater raft or snowboard or mountain bike. Those are just some of the barriers that come to mind when I think about why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Whitney: When I think about inclusive outdoors and that programming, we’re looking at the large landscapes so nationwide but also Idaho. Looking at statistics, black and brown individuals are less likely to do outdoor activities whether it’s camping or more strenuous things like snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking, and rafting. Those reasons are cultural, financial, and discriminatory. When we look at Idaho, we’re growing exponentially. With that growth is going to come a growth in diversity, not to the level I would hope because Idaho is a largely white state so a lot of the same type of people are moving here which means a lot of white people. But we also have a really unique refugee population. When you couple those things, we’re looking at a place that is vastly different demographically than we were 25 years ago. We want to make sure we’re providing education, mentorship, and experience—which are the tenets of all our inclusive outdoors programming—to black and brown children, LGBTQ+ youth, and marginalized groups of youth who have the barrier of their parents never doing it. If my parents don’t take me camping, I’m never going to go camping, right? Because for so many people that’s the first story that they’ve heard. Or that’s the first time they went and did something in the outdoors. And then you have the financial aspect, the cultural aspect, and also the understanding how to do it. We want to help alleviate some of those cultural biases that “black people don’t swim,” or “black people don’t camp,” or “those are white people things.” And in mentorship, provide individual volunteers who are joining hands with these individuals and teaching them the ropes in whatever activity it is whether it’s climbing, rafting, angling, cycling, or backpacking. That’s really why we’re doing it because we understand the outdoors is a massive part of what it is to be an Idahoan. And maybe not everybody who lives in Idaho loves the outdoors, but the culture of the outdoors in Idaho is hugely significant; it’s massively profitable. And for an entire group of people to have very limited access screams “discrimination” and “marginalization” and somebody’s got to start doing something about it.

Tell me about your relationship to the outdoors. What was it like growing up? How did you get into it later?

Whitney: I grew up in rural Missouri on several acres so I never had an affinity to the outdoors but I spent time outdoors as a kid—not in the mountains, because Missouri doesn’t have mountains. But it’s something I always enjoyed as a kid. I started to become a more avid outdoors woman when I moved to Colorado a couple of years after graduating college. It’s kind of spun from there. Last winter I learned to snowboard and I now mountain bike pretty consistently. Probably my favorite thing to do in Idaho is backpack. I also tell people often that I’m “maxed out”; I’m committed to doing three things consistently in the outdoors in Idaho because of the financial barrier. I mountain bike, backpack, and snowboard; if I want to climb or be consistently rafting, that’s thousands more dollars that I have to throw at that to learn and more to be decent at. So, I’ve kind of coined myself as having snowboarding, mountain biking, and backpacking as my niches. But I also think Idaho is a location that because of landscape, we don’t have the barriers that some other states do.

Whitley: Obviously I grew up in the same outdoor area that Whitney did. We were outside a lot as children on a lot of acres. We’ve definitely never been averse to the outdoors. I guess as far as my relationship with the outdoors, I joined the army at 17. Since I was 17, I’ve spent substantial time outside and a lot of that was really structured because it’s the army, but a lot of hiking, a lot of rock marching 12-24 miles, camping in the woods, a lot of outdoor things. I wouldn’t say my love for the outdoors grew, it just became what I thought was normal. I do love being outside in that capacity. And maybe what I thought was normal turned into a love for being outside. I think now as an almost 30-year-old woman, I view the outdoors as probably more of an escape. I hike a lot, I ski. Those are the two things I do the most. In the summertime I bike but I’m not a road biker or a huge mountain biker but I do get outdoors a lot. We’re lucky as Idahoans because even if you’re not trying to be outside, you can find yourself outside. At least one of your 10 friends is going to invite you on a hike a million times a year. Things like that are important. To give people who don’t have that access—children and lower-income families—to let them feel those same feelings, that same release, that safety, that getaway, that’s what we want them to feel. The financial limitations are sometimes really heavy. If I want to take a weekend and go to Sun Valley, I just do it, I book the trip and go to the outdoors. It’s almost second nature. It’s not that we aim to give everyone that second nature feeling but we want them to at least know what that experience is like.

Whitney: I forgot to add too about our experience. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in the outdoors, it hasn’t always been pleasant. I have an advantage because my husband’s white and he’s a pretty decent outdoorsman. Navigating those spaces is easier for me than it might be for other black women or anybody that’s black. I’ve been uncomfortable a lot because I’m often the only one. Many people simply can’t hide the shock, I can see the look of surprise that I’m doing an activity like snowboarding, mountain biking, backpacking. That happens consistently and often. What that tells us is that if it’s happening to someone like me who’s in the outdoors consistently, then it’s not a norm. If it’s more of a norm and the access is there and black Idahoans are doing it, the shock will go away.

Whitley: I just wanted to point out that our inclusive outdoors programming is going to include all marginalized communities. Obviously we’re black and we care a lot about black people but that includes the Latinx community, the Native American community, and those with marginalized gender identities. If you do research, children with marginalized gender identities often come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

What’s your favorite trail snack?

Whitley: First gum, gum always. If I’m running or working out or doing anything in the outdoors, gum. Favorite snack? Probably cashews with chocolate and some form of dried berry.

Whitney: Kind bars.

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