Being female and breaking into the world of outdoor recreation isn’t easy. For many of us, we grew up with messages, some subtle and some not so subtle, that physical prowess, survival skills, and navigation in the backcountry were simply not for us. This was the domain of men. The boys were taken out to split wood with dad. Girls learned to cook with mom. Boy Scout troops learned to backpack and canyoneer while Girl Scout Troops sold cookies and did crafts.
As adults, not only are women having to push through this deeply embedded psychology, but we are also working against an outdoor culture that still treats outdoor women with suspicion and disbelief. (As a woman in a leadership role in an outdoor organization myself, I could fill an entire article with stories about being treated like I’m incapable while men 20 years my junior are regarded with respect.) On top of all this, when women want to learn new skills in the outdoors they often don’t have other women to learn from (see back to the things we were taught as children). Men teach and learn very differently than women. The way men approach teaching each other, is not a comfortable way for many women to learn.
Gina Bégin, founder of Outdoor Women’s Alliance saw these obstacles and is turning them into an opportunity to change the experience for women looking to break into adventure.
Asked what exactly OWA does Gina responded, “Outdoor Women’s Alliance (OWA) is a volunteer-run nonprofit media and adventure collective that engages, educates, and empowers females worldwide. Through the lens of human-powered adventure, we work to inspire confidence and leadership in women of all ages, believing that confident women have the power to build healthy communities and — quite literally — change the world.”
No big deal...Let’s just change the world. And the way OWA is growing, I have no doubt that they will.
Empowering women outdoors is important to Gina for the same reason it is important to many of us, because she herself has been transformed and shaped by experiences in it. She shared with me one particularly memorable experience.
“Sleeping under the northern lights in Yukon Territory in 2012. I was on my way to Cordova, Alaska and decided to drive rather than fly. I lived from my car for three years and at this point, it was much more natural to sleep in my car or a tent than it was to get a room with a bed. (Besides, lodging in the winter in the Yukon is hard to find when you’re not in the towns.) Being that it was -14ºF out, I knew I’d be sleeping in my car, rather than a tent, that night.
There was no moon. Mountains ripped into the sky as black silhouettes, lit only by stars. The road was desolate, single-laned, and its borders were uninhabited.
It was then that I saw it.
Shapeless, white, and faint. It was like a city illuminating a cloud cover, but I knew there was no city other than Whitehorse, and no cloud cover in this moonless night. Anyway, I had passed Whitehorse ages ago. There was nothing here — except that light.
And suddenly, realization. I pushed down on the brakes and moved onto the shoulder before cranking on the e-brake and turning my lights off. The window rolled down, frozen air rushing in to replace the heat. My numb fingers fumbled with a camera lens, trying to focus on something that wasn’t quite there yet. But it was growing, it was shimmering, it was beginning to dance.
The northern lights.
I hung out of that car window until my stomach, pressed against the sill, ached and my fingers were nearly drained of color from the cold. I cranked the heat and chased the lights, looking for a place to sleep for the night. Once I found my car campground, I watched until I fell asleep underneath the lights’ movement.
Though I’ve never shunned off-season outings, this experience forever cemented my preference for them. I loved that no one else was around and the wild thrill from this private showing. The only regret was that there was no human-power involved in “earning” this experience, but the impact shaped my perspective deeply.”
The idea and impetus for OWA came from first hand observation of how positive and powerful outdoor adventure can be for women, especially for young women.
Gina tells us, “The concept of using adventure sports to empower women came to me after I returned west from my home state of Florida and discovered a connection between self-confidence and participation in adventure sports.
Born and raised in Florida, I spent a few years of grade school living in the West. I learned to love skiing, hiking, camping, climbing, and exploring but, with my return to Florida for middle and high school, I found access to these healthy activities out of reach.
As I grew away the outdoor lifestyle and aged into high school, I saw many of my female peers—in their quest for acceptance—become pregnant, end up in juvenile court, or drop out of school.
It wasn’t until I moved back west for college that I rediscovered adventure sports and with it, a boost in confidence. I credit my growing confidence to adventure sports’ focus on individual skill progression.
Thinking back to my high school experience and the female friends who fell prey to social pressures, I realized adventure sports would have been a positive avenue for these young women to gain confidence, choose healthier paths, and pursue life with clearer purpose.
It was then that I began planning a way to connect young women with this tool for self-empowerment, with the intent of rerouting young people from risky paths to positive avenues of self-value.
As I continued with the idea of helping young women, I was approached locally by adult peers who wanted to participate in adventure sports but felt uncomfortable in co-ed situations. Achieving confidence in one aspect of life can spill over to all areas of life, and here, I saw the interplay between outdoor adventure and leadership qualities and confidence for all women, regardless of age or environmental upbringing.
Out of these realizations—and over the next several years—Outdoor Women’s Alliance grew into what it is today: a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that serves women worldwide through the lens of adventure.”
Outdoors Women’s Alliance isn’t just about inspiration. It’s about action. Through their Grassroots team OWA works to connect women with opportunities and community to grow their skills and confidence outdoors.
They provide meaningful mentorships and internships for women looking to learn the behind the scene skills they need to grow careers in the outdoor industry. Their media mission is to provide channels to support and uplift women for their skills and accomplishments in the outdoors, rather than for their sexuality. And let’s face it, we can use more recognition of women that is unrelated to their appearance.
On a personal level Gina is working to recover from a serious knee injury that has left her sidelined, with all the emotional roller coaster and self doubt that goes along with it.
When I asked her what was next for OWA she said, “We’re building an online platform that women everywhere can use to connect, grow skills, and build in-person communities right where they are. This new platform will bring the offerings OWA has at the team level to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access, allowing smaller groups of women to meet together in their locations to get outdoors, put on events through OWA, and continue our mission of instilling confidence and leadership skills in each participating member.
Starting February 6th and through March 3rd, we’re running a crowdfunder to get this new platform and program on its feet. With OWA, we’re very organic in growth, relying on the feedback of needs from our community and the efforts of volunteers. We have no debt, no investors — just a community and hard-working women determined to meet the needs of #outdoorwomen.
We hope women will join with us to help provide for each other’s needs through this crowdfunder.”
We are all called to do big work in this world in some way. Gina and Outdoor Women’s Alliance are stepping up to their work and answering the call. If you too want to support getting more women outdoors and the incredible mission of OWA, please consider a donation to their crowdfunding campaign.
Want to keep up with all OWA is doing? Follow them online!
Facebook: http://facebook.com/outdoorwomensalliance (@Outdoor Women’s Alliance)
Twitter: http://twitter.com/womenoutdoors (@womenoutdoors)
Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/outdoorwomen (@outdoorwomen)
Instagram: http://instagram.com/outdoorwomen (@outdoorwomen)
This post is the second in the "Women, Work, Wits" series. Read about the why of this series and find each interview linked HERE.
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