In the spring of 2017, $25,000 in federal-agency funding that had been earmarked for scholarship funds for The 2017 Emerging Leaders Program was paused due to federal budget cuts. Recognizing the threat this loss posed to the future of the program, alumni of the 2016 ELP are spearheading this crowdfunding campaign to raise scholarship funds for 2017 participants.
Here’s why, in the words of one alum:
My name is Leandra Taylor; I’m the Coordinator for the Merge Coalition in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I wanted to share with you why I believe in the Emerging Leaders Program—and why I believe it needs your support.
I’m an Army brat. I grew up behind the tall, iron gates that border the perimeter of Fort Carson Army Base in Colorado Springs. Nature was my escape and my place of solace and happiness—but “nature” meant exploring the flowers and weeds in the Base’s Iron Horse Park, where my dad, his pants wrinkled from a day’s work, dried sweat fanning out in white ripples on his tan shirt and the smell of his Degree deodorant preceding him, would take me and my brother to play. I can still remember the dry, feathery texture of dandelion seeds on my tongue as I tasted the desiccated flower—it was like eating a spider web—and gawking at the Rockies beyond the gate in their magnificent glory. I never imaged that I might one day reach their summits.
My first “real” outdoor experience came on my first weekend in Albuquerque. After graduating from Baylor University with a B.S. in Environmental Science, I’d moved to New Mexico to work as a data management assistant for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Friends had invited me to hike La Luz Trail to the crest of the Sandia Mountains. The 14-mile hike was both physically challenging—the altitude was killing me; I had to take a break every few switchbacks—and exhilarating. I’ll never forget the tawny brown gravel of the trail, the thorny cholla plants that crowded its edges, or the breathtaking views from the top, the scaly towers of the Sandia peaks ringing the purple sky.
I’ll also never forget the stares. Apparently, I, too, was a sight to see, an African-American woman out hiking amid the desert foliage.
“I’ll be sure to always hike with a white friend,” I said to my partners after yet another hiker gawked at me. “Maybe people won’t be so suspicious.”
In the middle of the beautiful vistas, I’d never felt more at home. But as hiker after hiker stared at me, I also didn’t feel welcome.
After the hike, I posted pictures of my trip. My family and friends were astonished. They couldn’t believe I’d been hiking, either.
What I’d experienced on the hike was awe, and joy; though I didn’t realize it at the time, hikes like that would also become a place for healing. But the most extraordinary thing was the reactions—of the other hikers, and of my family and friends. People of color don’t hike!
With that one hike, a passion was born in me, a desire to get people of color into the outdoors and change the narrative of who’s outside. The reason my family reacted the way they did, the reason the other hikers stared, was because we’re not used to seeing people of color outside. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a photo of an African-American woman hiking in the pages of your favorite outdoor magazine?
After that hike, I decided I would be that black face outside. I would be that black voice demanding space in the outdoors, sparking conversations about inclusion—or more accurately about being invited, but not feeling included.
But I didn’t understand how hard the work would be. Though I was slowly emerging as a leader in the conservation movement, conversations about the lack of diversity, especially racial diversity, in the outdoors were wearing me out. I often felt as though I were fighting to validate my presence outside. The work was exhausting.
The Emerging Leaders Program took place around the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. For three days in advance of SHIFT, 33 other young people like myself gathered in Jackson, WY, to discuss outdoor recreation and our public lands. Though we represented many different perspectives and backgrounds, we were united by our love for being outside, and for protecting the places in which we liked to play.
An integral part of The Emerging Leaders Program, and of SHIFT, is storytelling: creating a space of mutual respect for one another by sharing the stories of how we’ve come to fall in love with these places, and why we believe they need to be protected. Late one dark, magical evening, on one of the first nights of the program, I sat in a circle at the Teton Science Schools with my fellow Emerging Leaders. The room was cozy with warmth, as if a fire were burning in the room, as we shared our stories about what had inspired us to get into this field.
The conversations were electric with passion, and the breadth of stories blew my mind. One leader, a woman whose quiet grace belied her strength, began by saying that while she understood the conservation movement, she didn’t identify with it.
“I fought to keep a new industrial factory from being built in my community and killing my neighbors, my family, my friends,” she said. “Nobody listened.”
“If conservationists don’t care about my community, why should I care about public lands?”
She was fighting for basic rights for her community. The program for her was not about protecting public lands; it was an opportunity to network and grow as a leader so that she could be a powerful voice for her community.
Her words shook me. The conservation and environmental justice movements are often viewed as separate issues. Now I understood how important the relationship between them actually is.
As an army brat, I’d often lacked a sense of place; the transient lifestyle makes it difficult to truly connect to people. So I was surprised when two fellow Emerging Leaders shared stories about their childhoods—they, too, were army brats, with struggles and emotions similar to mine. After the storytelling circle had ended, we talked. Before my dad boarded the bus to deploy to Iraq, he’d promised me and my brothers we’d go to Iron Horse Park when he returned. My new friends understood he’d said that to comfort us. Crying and bonding over the stories we shared, we realized the bond we’d just discovered would never be broken.
On the third day of the program we transferred to SHIFT, where we were featured as panelists, panel hosts, moderators. As we shared our stories and experiences with the “veterans” of outdoor recreation and conservation, they listened. Individually and collectively, our voices rippled through the SHIFT conference, setting the tone for the changes we wanted to see.
As I contributed to the conversations, I felt heard as I’d never been heard before. I went from being empowered to in power, networking and seeking paths to achieve the changes I want to see in my communities and around the nation.
The Emerging Leaders Program needs your support. It provides developing leaders like me the opportunity to challenge themselves with new conversations, with people from across the nation, with different perspectives and experiences. It creates a space for young people like me to find a supporting family of peers and mentors. And it changes the experiences for SHIFT participants, so that the me of twenty years from now doesn’t have to go with white friends when she wants to hike in the mountains above Albuquerque.
As young stewards breaking into the conservation world, we’re so grateful for having had the opportunity to experience The Emerging Leaders Program. Your contribution to the program will help insure the next generation of leaders protecting America’s public lands represents our country in all its diversity.
On behalf of the Emerging Leader, past and future, thank you.
—Leandra Taylor, 2016 Emerging Leader