Outdoor spaces through the lens of those who protect and write about them.

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I often ponder how lack of diversity in outdoor arenas affects people of color who report on activities in outdoor spaces and who work to protect them, daily. I reached out to the founder of http://joytripproject.com/blog/, James Edward Mills and asked him to share some of his thoughts on diversity in the outdoors. I also reached out to Margaret Hangan, a Forest Archaeologist with the U.S Forest Service. I wanted to get their impressions as people of color that are outdoors on a daily basis, interacting with the public.

James, you have been addressing issues of diversity for some time now. Have you seen much forward movement or do you feel the approach needs to be different?

I wrote my first article on the issue of diversity in outdoor recreation 20 years ago for a magazine that no longer exists. Since then I’ve been doing all that I can to raise awareness for the issue with very little to show for it until recently. I had always thought including more people of color in the effort to protect the natural environment was just the right thing to do. But what has changed to give these issues more urgency is the growing awareness that the U.S. population is shifting to favor a non-white majority. As leadership in the conservation movement begins to realize that their aging demographic is becoming less relevant to the interests of an emerging constituency of younger, more racially and culturally diverse citizens there is indeed a different understanding of the importance of reaching out to segments of the population that had been previously under represented or simply ignored. Momentum is building to move this work forward and that’s very exciting!

Why do you feel mainstream outdoor publications, do not carry articles that address issues of diversity in the outdoors? Do you think there will come a time when mainstream publications include people of color in the publications and it not be a big deal?

As professional journalist this is something that I deal with all the time. And unfortunately I can only speculate as to what the reasons are. I assume however that a magazine or newspaper editor simply believes that these articles wouldn’t be of interest to their readers. That’s not at all unreasonable. But when an editor or publisher is concerned that a discussion of such topics would alienate or even anger members of their audience that’s where we get into a very difficult set of circumstances, when we deliberately ignore a persistent problem in the hopes that if we don’t talk about it, it will go away. It takes a great deal of professional courage as a reporter to take on a topic that some people would rather not discuss. And few news organizations are prepared to go out on limb to cover an issue they don’t really believe is a problem.

You have made mountain climbing seem possible for everyone. Why has Expedition Denali become such a focus for you?

Well I don’t think I’ve personally made mountain climbing seem possible for everyone, but hope that my work might have helped more people to at least consider the possibility. Expedition Denali has become a major focus for me because it’s a great story. Every member of the climbing team has a compelling narrative that demonstrates real world examples of ordinary people who have overcome their personal fears and apprehensions to attempt something remarkable. I look forward to telling other stories.

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Margaret , why do you feel it is so difficult for government agencies to attract and maintain a more diverse workforce?

I cannot speak for all Government agencies.  However, in my agency, the Forest Service, one of the biggest problems we have is advertising who we are and that we have jobs that do not involve hugging trees.  Unless you live in a small rural town surrounded by National Forest, the average urban public has no clue who we are as an agency, nor what we do.  People may visit and recreate in National Forests without realizing that they are in a “National Forest.”  They also assume we are just like the Park Service when in fact we have a completely different mission.

As for attracting a diverse workforce, in my opinion a lot of it has to do with a lack of advertising our jobs effectively.  People assume we are all park rangers (Forest Service does not have park rangers), and spend all of our time out of doors interacting with the public.  Actually only our Law Enforcement and Fire Prevention people do that.  Granted our fire fighters, timber markers, silviculturalists and specialists like biologist, archaeologists, geologists and hydrologists do spend time working in the woods, so to speak.  However we have a lot of administrative and technical jobs that do not require people to leave the office.

Which brings up the other issue, there are few people of color getting into fields such as firefighting or timber and sciences like biology and archaeology.  So try as we might to recruit at colleges and/or conferences geared towards scientists of color, you are not seeing too many people of color getting into these fields.  I know only a hand full of people of color who are, as we say “ologist” in the country and most of them either work in academia or for an agency like the Forest Service.

Retention of diversity is a challenge, partially because the Forest Service, thought it wants to diversify, I believe as an agency it does not quite understand the unique challenges of being a person of color in this agency, especially people of color who are stationed in remote areas.  Thus it has not created within its system a way to address these issues nor offers the kind of support that would help employees cope with the effects of remote stations.

What can the forest service do to attract a more diverse workforce?

Get better at branding and advertising itself.  The Forest Service also really needs to find ways to be a bigger presence in diverse communities.  This is a particularly difficult challenge because so many forests are in very rural, mainly white communities, at least here in the west.  We also need to “grow our own,” by encouraging young people of color to get into fields such as the natural sciences that would lend themselves well to jobs with the FS, BLM and NPS.

What are the challenges unique to people of color in the Forest Service?

One of the big challenges is being a person of color in rural America.  In the west, at least, the Forest Service has offices in very remote areas, where the closest community is very rural and there are no or very few people of color living anywhere near there.  That is a particular challenge for people who have never lived in an “all white” or nearly all white community or have never experienced being the only one in the room.  There are other challenges like getting hair care products (thank goodness for the internet), or if you have specific food requirements or religious beliefs.  Furthermore, though FS staff in these places are generally accepting of diverse staff members, they often do not understand the challenges that these remote posting can pose on a person of color.  Nor does the FS have a system in place to help people of color cope with these types of situations.  Here in the Southwest Region, we started an African American Cohort which helps to address this issue by giving black employees stationed in say, southern Utah, a group of people they can call on for assistance, or for just plain socialization and networking, but we are the exception, not the rule.

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