#RepresentationMatters, from the Oscars to the Outdoors

Pictured: Kaily Heitz  @skaiheitz   Photo:  @mikey.ae

Pictured: Kaily Heitz @skaiheitz
Photo: @mikey.ae


At first, it can be difficult to understand the recent plethora of new, (mostly) online communities that each, in some way, serve as visual archives for a group previously unseen, unrecognized, or excluded by mainstream (environmental and outdoor) media. 

From “another one!?” responses to the more colloquial “YAASSSS” affirmations prompted when a new Instagram community pops up in our “Recommended For You” bubbles, the change and wealth in accounts and online communities has undoubtedly been felt. Whether you welcome the change or not, however, it is important that we fully understand why this is so crucial in the deeper sense, and why it is necessary.

We are in an ongoing fight for our collective imagination; that’s to say, we are in a constant battle for how we imagine things to be, reality or fiction aside. Fictional movies, dystopias and utopias; visuals on social media, music videos, and in art; the daily and nightly news; and even the written word are all in some way always affecting how we see the world around us, and so how we come to interact with it via our respective realities. From our childhoods to our adulthoods, we are bombarded with images that tell us, in a sense, what’s possible and what the world does — and especially cannot — look like. With this said, it is why the power of visual online communities cannot be underestimated or undervalued, and why it is so critical that we visually reclaim all of our wonderful multitudes.

The powerful thing about reclaiming our stories is that it carries an impact not only in how we see the present, but in how we regard both the past and the future, as well. Intentional representation in visual and written archives today serve as a clear acknowledgement of the continued presence and history of marginalized communities despite misrepresentation and often explicit erasure throughout history. It celebrates our existence by saying: Estamos Aquí (We are Here) or hey, we’ve actually #BeenOutside or have been here — and it makes clear that we are not new. We are not new to these spaces and, from this stance, are so empowered by our own history and resilience that perseveres to this day. We will continue to be here.

This then informs where we are presently: i.e., in the perfect position to take control of our own narrative, define and empower one another, and decolonize or deconstruct the harmful narratives that have, until now, told our story for us.

Consider where we are currently and picture the imagination battle as is: how we are “otherized”; how we are perceived from walking down the street to hiking down the trail. How an “environmentalist” conjures images of a white American hippy but not of an indigenous woman, healer, and leader in her community. How we see more images of black death and incarceration reflected at our brains than we do of black excellence in its unlimited forms; how the digital mainstream will gladly accept explanations of the lone wolf, mentally ill white man before labeling him a terrorist.

Everyone absorbs these images, narratives, and fictions, from your teachers to your students, from your police force to your local barber. We come to see the world by these lenses (often imposed on us) and we act accordingly through what our heads imagine because of it. Our imaginations influence us so profoundly, and as an ever visual society it’s why we need our own visual archives that say differently. After all, we're the ones who know how to tell our stories best.

The final element of this piece speaks to how our reclaimed narratives and #RepresentationMatters collections (check out @zerowastehabesha and her series) will come to affect the future. I would argue that this is a key element in building the world we envision for ourselves, seeing it today, and making the path, toward our more just and resilient future, more clearly.

Digital archives and platforms like Being Green While Black, Unlikely Hikers, Native Womens' Wilderness, and Melanin Base Camp exude this principal and know the power and significance that their platforms hold. It’s why Diversify Outdoors is necessary, it’s why films like Black Panther or Moonlight carry so much timely force, it’s (one reason) why the triumph of Chloe Kim is so beautiful to see, or why the impact of seeing yourself reflected on TV can last a lifetime. Seeing our beautiful manifestations and infinite destinies in both our realities and fiction worlds gives us all a tangible visual to grab on to and strive for — and most especially for our youth who will continue to define the world we leave behind.

Each platform or community is an endeavor to turn the tide on the imagination front that we face unceasingly; attempts to positively affect and inspire the lenses that we put on every day and ultimately change how we see one another, how we interact with one another, and how we build up or tear down one another. These platforms want us to inherently see differently. So that the multitudes of human beings can be represented, and so that the next generations can see themselves as the next Edouardo Jordan or the next #aquickbrownfox.

In light of the social media dawn and age (and the democratization of media) it only makes sense that we are stepping forth in droves to take back our narratives, histories, and experiences to influence and better our collective imagination. I'll say it again: we are our own best storytellers and our perspectives matter.

After all, yes, it's about how people see us but — perhaps more importantly — it's also about how we see ourselves, and how the up and coming little brown and black babies see themselves in the mirror and on the tv screen. Powerful. Radiant. This is our power move on every level even though in the end it really isn’t about power. It’s about reclaiming. It’s about celebration, #LivingWhileBlack, remembering and expanding, both Lena Waithe and her cape, and so many more. It’s about taking our narrative and dictating who we are: defining and empowering.

Imagine it: a future where you see your own infinite multitudes reflected everywhere. That’s why #RepresentationMatters.

Have a favorite community or platform? Comment below!!


Follow Michael on IG @mikey.ae and @brownenvironmentalist