We believe every young person deserves the opportunity to explore their identity in a positive and affirming environment. This comes from the OUT There Adventures’ website, a Seattle based non-profit organization working to change the lives of LGBTQ youth. It’s an “adventure education organization committed to fostering positive identity development, individual empowerment and improved quality of life for queer young people through professionally facilitated experiential education activities.”
And the person behind this important work? Meet Elyse Rylander, founder and Executive Director of OUT There Adventures (OTA). Throughout her career, Elyse “has worked tirelessly to reduce outdoor access barriers for all members of the LGBTQ community.” Elyse brings her expertise to Outward Bound through partnering on expeditions—including the Oregon Rafting & Service for LGBTQ Teens and Yosemite Backpacking to San Francisco Urban Service for LGBTQ Teens.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Elyse and talk about the incredible work they are doing at OTA and how they partner with us on our courses for LGTBQ teens.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
Elyse: I was born Southern WI, outside Madison, and I’ve always had a strong connection to the outdoors. In fact, I went on my first canoeing trip at four weeks old. My family prioritized spending time outside together. I grew up on hobby farm near the woods and always had tall grass to run through. I got involved in the outdoor industry at 16 when I worked as a summer instructor at Rutabaga Paddlesports, which happens to be the largest flat-water paddling school in the country. I tried to be as involved as possible, so in addition to instructing, I also helped with trade shows and met a lot of folks who work in the industry. After college, I moved to Alaska and then eventually made my way to Seattle, where I worked in social service. Throughout early adulthood, and as I came out to my family and community, I felt drawn to work with the queer community in outdoor spaces, but there were few to no opportunities. With the support of mentors and family, I launched OUT There Adventures in 2014, making 2019 OTA’s fifth year of summer programs.
What is OUT There Adventures (OTA) and how did it become involved with Outward Bound?
Elyse: OTA exists to empower queer young people through their connection with the natural world. At its core, we want to further bridge the gap between LGBTQ youth and outdoor opportunities. And those opportunities can present themselves anywhere outside—in the wilderness at a national park, or in a local, neighborhood park. We got involved with Outward Bound in 2018, when we ran the first LGBTQ course with Outward Bound California.
What role does OTA play in Outward Bound courses?
Elyse: Our approach has been very hands on. In 2018, I went through Outward Bound Instructor training and was integrated into the culture. This allows me to help Outward Bound support students in the application process, and support staff in the program, marketing, outreach and student services departments. This year, OTA will facilitate conversations with Course Directors, teach what we learned last year and provide resources for Instructors.
How is the course curriculum curated specifically for LGBTQ students?
Elyse: Queer youth make up a demographic that needs some extra time and attention for relationship building as marginalized population. Considering this, OTA worked with Outward Bound Course Directors to develop a “queericulum,” in which we talk about community, identity, relationships and the future. We talk with students not only about what it looks like to be a queer adult, but what it can look like to be a queer adult. We also developed an adaptation of the Hero’s Journey and call it the “Queero’s Journey.” We discuss the narrative arc that a queer person (our queero) goes through when they come out and present as queer. We work through specific challenges to queer community, as well as challenges that aren’t specific to the community. But the really good work that comes from these courses is having them led by queer community members, because they can speak the language and have conversations to support students in whatever they might be going through. Not to mention the organic conversations that come up and that can be even more powerful than the lessons or challenges that Instructors create for them.
Are the Instructors on these courses members of the LGBTQ community?
What are sleeping arrangements on a course?
Elyse: Instructors will assign students a group based on how we think they will work together, and always have a conversation on night one about our group agreement. This includes a conversation about exclusive relationships and our expectations while on a course. Staff will generally position their sleeping shelter in sound of the group and when terrain allows, in-between the student tarps.
What’s the best way to prepare for a course, and what can students look forward to?
Elyse: Students should arrive prepared to backpack in the backcountry, which means they should be physically, mentally and emotionally ready. As a general guideline, students can expect to travel three to seven miles a day and carry a 35-45 lb pack, so being physically prepared is a great way to set yourself up for success.
One thing to look forward to is being in a group where queer identity is the majority, and having the opportunity to cultivate a culture that is removed from society’s expectations. It’s a freeing and liberating experience. Sharing a space with people like you can be an amazingly powerful opportunity.
Who are the Outward Bound LGBTQ courses right for? Who can students expect to share their experience with?
Elyse: If you feel like it applies to you, it probably does, and we want you to come hang out with us. If a young person or their parent feel drawn to this course, they should get in touch.
What kind of service projects will students participate in?
Elyse: Last year, a course coincided with San Francisco Pride, so we were able to participate in cleaning up after Trans Pride. We also stood at entry gates for a Pride concert-type event and took donations. Half of the money went to local LGBTQ organizations and the other half supported scholarships for the LGBTQ Outdoor Summit. This year, we will support a Pride climbing event in Portland, hosted by El Cap, the parent company of Earth Treks and Planet Granite. In San Francisco, students will support LGBTQ organizations in the Castro with current projects.
What do you hope students walk away with?
Elyse: On a tactical level, I hope students leave course with increased self-confidence, leadership skills, technical proficiency, communication skills and a renewed connection to the land. Beyond that, I hope they walk away with new friends, especially friends from across the country. It’s important to have people in other communities that look different from their communities. I also hope they are able to identify adults in their life that support them, see them and respect them. For LGBTQ young folks, that’s a vital need and unfortunately can sometimes be lacking.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
Elyse: Financial support for marginalized populations is critical, so if you feel compelled to support programs like Outward Bound’s LGBTQ courses, I encourage you to donate to scholarship funds.