By Raena Doty
Asst. Arts & Features Editor
James Edward Mills, journalist and wilderness expert, visited FSU April 4 to give a presentation on and answer questions about how to engage people of color in outdoor recreation.
Mills began by describing his experiences going to the Grand Canyon in the Colorado River - a privilege few get to experience because of limits the National Parks Service imposes to keep pollution out of the area.
He said in his party of 15 people, he was the only person of color - and, in fact, the friend who invited him to come, who had been a tour guide for four decades, said Mills was the only Black person he’d ever taken through the Grand Canyon.
Mills said 4.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon per year, but only 29,000 people are permitted to go through the Colorado River.
“After our trip was over, we had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with many people of color on the Canyon rim - so it’s not to say that there are no Black folks on the Grand Canyon,” he said.
Mills then described his personal history working in nature. He said his father was a lawyer and activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr., and because of that, expectations for him were very high throughout his childhood. Despite that, he chose not to go to graduate school, as was expected of him.
He said his career helped him explore all over the world. From working at The North Face, then a small company, to visiting the highest Alpine lake in the world, Mills had the opportunity to see and visit many places.
It was the events of Sept. 11, 2001 that pushed him to start a career in journalism, writing, and photography, he said.
“I decided that I was going to start looking for stories [of] people like me in the outdoors that had very similar experiences and probably had many of the same stories I had that could ultimately be shared with a broader audience,” Mills said.
He said he had the chance to interview Ken Burns, a filmmaker who made a documentary about national parks, and Burns told Mills a story he’d never heard before, which he called a “radicalizing experience.”
He said Burns told him about a unit of the military called the Buffalo Soldiers, made mostly of Black men, who were stationed in the national parks in Yellowstone and Yosemite.
“If someone with my background - in civil rights, in outdoor recreation, in working in the national world as a person of color - had never heard this story before, chances are millions of people around the world have never heard this story either,” he said.
He added the only permanently stationed Black park ranger in Yosemite today is Shelton Johnson.
Mills said the work of making parks and outdoor recreation more equitable will involve making sure people of color know they’re welcome in the space.
“Welcome isn’t just to say, ‘We’re open to everyone.’ Welcoming is literally inviting people to come in. That’s what we fail to do. That’s what we have been failing to do since the 1900s,” he said.
“There is yet to be a really explicit moment in time where there’s a sign that says ‘Black folks welcome.’ That’s never happened. And it’s probably never going to happen, because no one is really prepared to say, ‘Wow, we really have to fix this problem,’” he added.
Mills concluded by saying the problems are much larger than a simple lack of interest in the outdoors from people of color.
“How can you possibly expect someone who doesn’t have the ability to put food on the table to go for a wilderness adventure on an overnight experience?” Mills asked.