The Explorers Club Finally Addresses Its Problematic Membership

Members of the Explorers Club have done all sorts of truly remarkable things.

Since the club’s founding in 1904, they’ve included the first summit of Mount Everest (by member Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953), the first trip to both the North and South poles (by members Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen, respectively), the first trip to the moon (Neil Armstrong, in ’69), and the first descent to the deepest point in the ocean (James Cameron, 2012).  

Besides belonging to the most prestigious club for adventurers, these trailblazers share another thing: They’re all white men.

That’s why the latest “first” for the Explorers Club is all the more notable. The invite-only organization recently published its inaugural “Explorers Club 50,” a list of 50 adventurers changing the world.

The catalog is akin to a “40 Under 40” list for field scientists, anthropologists, and expedition leaders—a way to identify new members that could bring the club future prestige through their own history-making accomplishments. And unlike the club’s dominantly affluent, male, Eurocentric makeup, they represent true diversity in gender, race, socioeconomic status, and creed.

The Explorers Club Finally Addresses Its Problematic Membership

They include Ayana Omilade Flewellen, who teaches black feminist theory for the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Riverside and spends her free time pursuing underwater archaeology and running the Society of Black Archaeologists, which she co-founded.

There’s Joey Angnatok, an Inuit fisherman whose side hustle as a field researcher helped prove the existence of Greenland sharks in the Northwest Passage. Bolortsetseg Minion is a Mongolian paleontologist working to identify and protect overlooked sites of interest throughout the Gobi Desert. And there’s Mario Rigby, who recently completed a two-year trek traversing the length of Africa—which he used as a platform to share stories of Africa’s multitudes and to break barriers as a Black explorer.

Their accomplishments are independently meritorious and deserving of the global spotlight. But taken together, they represent an unprecedented celebration of diversity—not just in the world of exploration but for the entire travel industry, which has typically struggled even with the basic task of providing diverse representation when marketing to the non-homogenous masses.

The Explorers Club Finally Addresses Its Problematic Membership

For longtime Explorers Club member J. Robert “J.R.” Harris, an endurance hiker who chairs the club’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, the E50 list represents a radical shift in tone from a club that, in the 1990s, scorned him for the color of his skin and whose members frequently questioned his belonging. It’s also one in a series of actions intended to make his second home more welcoming to curious trailblazers of all backgrounds in the long run.

It also largely happened by accident.

“The main idea for the E50 project was simply to find people doing really interesting things and make their stories known,” explains Harris, adding that diversity wasn’t among the criteria when narrowing down hundreds of nominations.

The foresight came in establishing a diverse panel of nominators and judges—14 of them, from every corner of the globe—who could think about exploration in broader terms than the colonial ideal of a White man discovering “uncharted” lands.

“Gone is the day when a European American like myself will go off to a far-off land and interpret it through my own eyes,” says Explorers Club President Richard Wiese. What’s better, he says, is “to have people from those places interpret their own lands and give their communities a voice.”

What It Means to Be an Explorer During Covid

Celebrating exploration in the locked-down era seems ironic on the surface. But curiosity, more than miles traveled or feet climbed, is what makes an explorer great, argues Harris, who grew up in New York public housing. That’s an empowering message for kids who look like him and are growing up under financial hardships.

“Everybody has a certain level of curiosity,” Harris explains. “Their version of exploration may not necessarily be going into the Arctic or the jungle—maybe they’re curious about birds or national parks.”

The Explorers Club Finally Addresses Its Problematic Membership

That can still constitute important exploration work—as in the case of E50 winner Shelton Johnson, whose work as a National Parks ranger has opened the door for other Black Americans to become custodians of protected lands in their own backyards. “Social systems—and to a large extent, the way people are brought up [in BIPOC communities]—it discourages people from exercising their curiosity. It all comes back to the image being broadened,” explains Harris.

Of course, there are also BIPOC individuals traveling far from their homes and pursuing feats of athletic and intellectual endurance in remote and challenging environments. One example is Dawn Wright, whose oceanographic field work has taken her to American Samoa, the Indian Ocean, the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific, and to volcanoes under the Japan Sea.

The Explorers Club Finally Addresses Its Problematic Membership

While earlier generations of Black explorers such as American trapper Jim Beckwourth—a freed slave—and early Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, are inspirations to Harris today, he never learned about them growing up. That may change for today’s youth, as efforts like the E50 open doors of opportunity for minority explorers to gain global recognition.

“When we try to get someone like Jane Goodall [to be a member],” says Wiese, “it takes a bit of effort and it doesn’t further their career.” There’s more reward, Wiese adds, in pinpointing rising stars.

Luckily he has a good sense for that. Right around the start of the pandemic, Wiese came across a spoken word poem called Earthrise that made him feel more impassioned about climate change than any research he’d previously seen published. The author, he decided, must be invited to join the club: Amanda Gorman went on to become Joe Biden’s inaugural poet.

The Explorers Club Finally Addresses Its Problematic Membership

The Long Game

By encouraging diverse nominations to the E50 list but choosing them entirely on merit, Wiese and Harris say their list was organically inclusive. And while Wiese will never bring in outside consultants to reshape the organization—that typically ends up feeling hollow, he says—more deliberate steps are being taken to diversify the club.

The road ahead is a long one: The Explorers Club remains 90% White, 71% male, and generally affluent, according to the group’s first demographic study, taken in January. “It’s not a diverse group,” Harris says bluntly. The study is being seen as a benchmarking tool against which the club can set annual goals. 

Righting wrongs from the club’s past won’t be part of the equation. “I want to look forward—not denigrate people and throw them under the bus,” says Harris, questioning efforts by the Audubon Society and Sierra Club to reckon with their histories and repudiate their founders as racists.  

The Explorers Club Finally Addresses Its Problematic Membership

Exclusively looking forward may not feel like the fullest embrace of anti-racism. But in this case, it starts with giving E50 winners complimentary admission to the club (annual dues vary by location) and making them feel more welcome than Harris was made to feel nearly 30 years ago.

“Recruitment of people of different backgrounds, who might not be encouraged or invited, is an important step. But then they must be made to feel included—otherwise, it just won’t work,” Harris says.

He’ll do that by encouraging those with under-represented backgrounds to serve on committees, run for the board, get into club management, and seek flag expeditions, in which members get the prized honor of carrying the Explorer Club flag with them to a place where it has never been.

“We’re now going to change the fate of the Explorers Club and broaden the mission of exploration,” says Wiese, who as president doubled down on his commitment to championing various perspectives last fall through a series of LGBTQ-hosted, virtual lectures broadcast around the world.

Doing so, Wiese believes, is a matter of survival. “Remember Jim Fowler, the alligator wrestler on the Johnny Carson [Tonight Show]?” he asks. “He used to say that if an organism doesn’t continue to evolve or be relevant, it goes extinct.” The same applies to clubs.

“This is a good evolution,” he adds. “Honestly, I can’t believe we’ve waited so long.”

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