Language at BCM
Our goal here at Big City Mountaineers is to break down barriers to outdoor access for students from disinvested communities. By providing free, fully-outfitted, and professionally-led backcountry trips, we’re able to give young people ages 8-18 the opportunity to connect with nature and reconnect with their strengths, skills, and resilience.
You’ll notice, however, that this doesn’t quite align with either our mission or the language on our website. We made this shift over a year ago in an attempt to align ourselves with the principles of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI). We know we need to do more to affirm our students’ cultures and lived experiences as well as deepen our relationships with our youth agency partners. Making this type of language change in a holistic, public way rather than releasing it piecemeal is a part of our efforts to do so.
We’re a small team of ten working all across the country, and we don’t have the capacity to change all the language on our website ahead of our official mission reframing – especially since that process will likely require further changes in our language. So this post – linked in relevant places on the site – is meant to talk about language shifts at BCM in general, and language we can all use moving forward.
In our effort to move away from language that we feel disempowers youth, we must examine all aspects of our organization – and thoughtful reconsideration of our mission, vision, and values is a logical starting place. These are not changes to be made lightly, but by aligning our words with the evolving hopes, dreams, and goals we have as a collective – staff, board, youth agency partners, volunteers, and supporters – we hope to move into the future more united and more committed.
Our mission as currently written says that BCM “instills critical life skills in under-resourced youth through transformative wilderness mentoring experiences”. There are a few words in our mission that we’re concerned with: “under-resourced”, “instills”, and to a lesser extent, “mentoring” and “transformative”.
We don’t believe that our students are “under-resourced”. To the contrary, we believe that though they’re sometimes in circumstances that are less than ideal, they’re managing the best way they know how. This takes an incredible amount of personal resources, even if those resources are not financial. That’s why we’ve begun, when not immediately referencing our mission, to use the phrase “students from disinvested communities”. By doing so, we acknowledge the underinvestment in social services and holistic human well-being as a systemic problem in our communities – and separate the problem from the students subject to it.
On a practical level, students have historically been around banners and signs that describe them as under-resourced – and taken home summit flags that say the same. What is it like, to see all of your complexities summed up in a single phrase? How does that affect the necessary trust-building that goes on with volunteers, trip instructors, and program managers? Moving away from describing students as “under-resourced” (and “under-privileged” for that matter) will help our students’ experiences with us to be as uplifting and impactful as possible.
Because we think our youth are already well-resourced, we question whether or not BCM “instills” critical life skills in the students we serve. We give them the opportunity to explore the strength, adaptability, and resilience they already have by getting them into the outdoors – and outside, far from their usual contexts, they can start to see how resourced they truly are. So while we teach students how to be safe and capable in the outdoors, we’re not sure we’re instilling critical life skills within them.
When it comes to “mentoring” – and the most common understanding of the term – BCM programs miss the mark. Do our adult volunteers provide a caring support network while in the field? Yes. Are they critical to our work? Absolutely. But mentor-mentee relationships are about consistency and longevity – and our programs are not designed with this in mind.
Lastly, we understand that the word “transformative” – and transformation more generally – is widely used in traditional adventure education. Through challenge, the theories say, we find growth and learning. But is this expectation inclusive of everyone, or appropriate for everyone? Is healing transformational? Is networking or peer connection transformational? We’re sitting with this word and asking ourselves what a “transformative” experience in the outdoors looks like – and whether words like “revelatory” might be a better fit.
You might also see other language on the site that disempowers our students on a structural level. We’re moving away from words like “inner-city” and “at risk” as well.
“Inner-city” is often code for Black people, as well as Latinx people and other people of color. While the majority of our students are racially minoritized, we work with white students as well. Plus, the literal definition isn’t always accurate for our programs; some of our students come from the suburbs of the large cities we work in.
“At-risk” often implies that a student is at risk of criminal behavior – which assumes the inherent criminality of people from disinvested communities. Our students are not “at risk” – no more than any student is at risk when they endure hardship. We recruit students from disinvested communities in partnership with local youth development organizations that are college-focused, mental health-focused, or culture-focused. These organizations already have a relationship with these young people – they act as communities, working with students long-term to provide support through their hardships.
Thank You For Understanding
While we’re looking forward to reframing our mission, that isn’t a process that we feel it’s prudent to rush. We really want to get it right, and involve everyone with a stake in the work in the process. As soon as we have our mission reframed, we’ll likewise get to changing the language on our website. Meanwhile, as we try to make changes, we ask that you change with us – using the following language, repeated from above, to describe our work and our students.
Thank you for your patience, your generosity, and for continuing to be in community with us.