Nikki Ekstein, Bloomberg, February 16, 2021
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 one of the first descents 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.