In the outdoor industry, Elyse Rylander (she/her) has become a name synonymous with actively shifting behaviors and points of view to better reflect – and meet the needs of – people who have traditionally been excluded. Elyse’s work is oriented towards an understanding of where we’ve been in order to best inform where we need to go. She approaches this work with compassion and a learning mindset, which we at Outward Bound are also committed to – in the field, in our organization, and across our communities.
We’re thrilled to have Elyse Rylander joining our team as Outward Bound USA’s first Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Director. To get to know her better, we recently sat down to chat about a few questions submitted by our staff.
Can you share an experience you’ve had in the outdoors that highlights the need for greater equity, inclusion, and diversity?
Pick a day in the last 17 years and I could probably provide an example! One theme that has existed throughout my career, and still does today, is this idea that “nature doesn’t discriminate.” Too many times to count I’ve had well-intended folks say to me, “But Elyse! The trees and the mountains don’t care who you love/what gender you are/what the color of your skin is/etc.! Why are you making a big deal of this?!” And my response is always along the lines of ‘exactly!’ The natural world does not care about the social identities or lived experiences we bring when we are engaging with it. However, the people who are around us might care, and they might care A LOT.
I think it’s too reductive to strive to be like the natural world and not see the differences between us the way we see them. Those differences matter and they matter a lot to each of us because they make up who we are. So instead of acting like there aren’t true issues of safety, access, and belonging when we’re outside and instead of striving to just not see those differences, we need to be creating physical, social, and emotional spaces that embrace all aspects of ourselves and allow us to not just be included but truly belong. This is when we are at our best and when we are not just receiving from nature but be able to give back, too.
You’re the first in this role, but you’re not new to Outward Bound. Talk more about where/how the relationship started.
First let me share with the Outward Bound (OB) community and beyond that it is a true honor to be stepping into this role. One of the highlights of my career, in fact. I’ve had a relationship with Outward Bound since I first started in outdoor education way back in high school. For many years the pinnacle felt like becoming an OB or NOLS instructor. While I came to that later than I thought I might, I found such value in the way my relationship with OB has unfolded.
My relationship with OB started officially in 2016, though Mitsu Iwasaki has been a mentor of mine for longer than that. I co-led a training on the LGBTQ+ community for the Northwest Outward Bound School (NWOBS) staff at the Mazama basecamp. I believe we were the first “outside” trainers they had… maybe ever?
After that I met the former Outward Bound California Program Director Maggie Lyons-Weller at the Women’s Outdoor Summit for Empowerment, and we planted the idea for the first LGBTQ+ specific WURBAN (Wilderness to Urban) Course for that next summer. I was able to instruct two courses over two summers, the first of which we spent about eight days around Yosemite and six days in San Francisco, including taking the students to Pride (which was a career highlight for me!).
That course supported NWOBS launching their Queer specific teen course. So many beautiful moments on those courses, and I would like to say that I am so thankful for the many folks inside and out of the OB community that lit my way. I recognize that I stand on the shoulders of many giants, and I’m grateful to now be another steward along the way. Outside of direct program work, I’ve also worked with several schools through my time as a partner with The Avarna Group.
What do you see as the biggest current opportunity in the outdoor industry for an organization like Outward Bound?
Wow. There are so many, it is indeed difficult to pick one! If I had to distill my answer down to one response it would be to play a more active role in shifting the understanding of leadership. Outward Bound has an enormous opportunity to support deeper, more nuanced understanding and skill building aligned with transformational leadership and relationship building, as opposed to transactional. Dr. Shawn A. Ginwright has a fantastic book called The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimaging Ourselves. He dedicates a section to this idea of pivoting from transactional relationships to transformational. In that process he identifies three necessary ingredients: belonging, care, and vulnerability. Outward Bound has such a great foundation to continue to build this pivot upon, and in areas this work is already happening. If we could make this pivot and embed it at scale we will create even more meaningful experiences for our students, fulfillment for staff, and further open the door to supporting other organizations and industries in also making this pivot.
What do you want the Outward Bound staff and alumni out there to know?
I would like to again reiterate how truly honored I am to be stepping into this role. We all carry myriad social identities and complex lived experiences. I recognize not only the facets of my identity that experience disinvestment but perhaps more importantly those in which I experience privilege. I also recognize I am not a “DEI expert.” I don’t think such a thing can actually exist. What I do have is experience both personally and professionally supporting individuals and organizations in making changes towards becoming more oriented towards justice and a culture of belonging. I view my role in this type of work as one of a bridge builder and connector. I won’t always have all the answers, but I am always committed to supporting others in their growing journey, as well as being supported in mine. I am also deeply committed to be open and transparent, and welcome the opportunity to get to know anyone in the Outward Bound community who is interested in learning more about what we will be working on!
What are your new job pump-up jams? What are you reading/listening to right now?
I’d like to think I have an eclectic taste in music, and looking at my Spotify recently played I’m seeing things like Fleetwood Mac radio, Megan Thee Stallion, and a band called Flock of Dimes that I’ve been very into these past few months. Any of those and beyond could fit the bill depending on the day! And gosh, do I wish I had more time to read for fun! My wife and I have a five-month-old, so time for anything outside of tending to needs is extremely limited. But before Juniper was born, I was finally able to finish The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, as well as Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship by Catherine Raven and had started The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukerherjee. I’ll also admit that I am a huge Armchair Expert fan…they have gotten me through many sleepless nights as of late and are pretty much the only way I can take on grueling mountain bike ascents.
Though Elyse has been an influential and inspirational part of our community for a long time, this is the start of a very exciting new chapter. Please join us in welcoming her, and for the work ahead.