raceAhead: Where Are The Black Park Rangers?

July 25, 2018, 7:01 PM UTC
Two women fly-fishing in river, side view
USA, Montana, Gallatin River, Cameron
Stewart Sutton / Getty Images

I tacked on a couple of days to fly-fish after Fortune’s Brain Storm TECH in Aspen. It is an impossibly beautiful activity, a ribbon in the sky to catch some fish. I came to it late in life, and I wish I hadn’t. It is joy to me.

The purpose of fly-fishing is to trick trout by presenting an imitation of something that looks both real and delicious, and is precisely what they want to eat at that moment in time. Now, trout have only one job, and that’s to be the most excellent trout as they can be. And the bigger they are, they better they are at it. It’s humbling.

(Stay with me here, the race part is coming.)

Fly-fishing is a nerd’s game and an endless puzzle trying to figure out what the trout are taking and why, how the water temperature and air pressure is affecting their appetites, and if they’ll believe that the wind just blew this beautiful grasshopper into their food lane. What’s hatching? Do I need to tie on a mayfly nymph and let it hang below the surface to tempt that big brownie out from the depths of the Montana bridge where I know he lives because I’ve nearly caught him before and I try every year? That’s the game. Someday I will trick him and then I’ll do what I always do—I’ll let him go because it’s just such a privilege to be part of something bigger than myself.

You learn about knots and water flow and snowmelt and follow the mating habits of bugs like they’re Kardashians—and how climate change means bark beetles are surviving the warming winters, killing off unprecedented acres of Ponderosa pines across the West. Ponderosa pines smell like vanilla cake. Not just vanilla and not just cake, but vanilla cake. I love knowing that, and I love knowing that you practically have to hug them to smell it. But every year I go back to Montana, I see more dying off and know the world is changing and it makes me sad.

This cynical girl from Harlem, USA, didn’t grow up with anyone who fished this way. But it has changed my life more than I could have thought possible. It is a transformational experience to stand in a river and join an ecosystem already in progress.

But, here’s the other thing about fly-fishing. In the now hundreds of days I’ve spent casting over the years, I’ve never met a person of color on or associated with the river. Not once. Not in a fly-shop. Not one guide, not a park ranger, nobody who works for a rafting company, nothing. Not even an expert on YouTube where I get most of my pointers.

On one level, this is normal to me. I’m used to being the only one or close to it, from family to school to my career. I accept the risks, even defy them, even while standing in a natural environment which is hostile specifically to me. While it’s survivable, being the only one is also lonely.

People of color are lonely by design. The work, then, must start with facing the foundational issues that created overpoliced, segregated communities with poor health outcomes, inadequate education systems leading to spotty talent pipelines.

Let’s stick with nature for a second. When you first wake up to the beauty of the American outdoors, the ghost of John Muir, the romantic naturalist and conservation advocate, is the first person you tend to meet. His spirit still animates the Sierra Club, which he founded in 1892.

But the National Park system, which turned one hundred in 2016, was also influenced by another person—a conservationist, zoologist and white supremacist named Madison Grant.

Grant wrote a book called The Passing of The Great Race, a breathtakingly racist treatise that was immensely popular when it was published in 1916. It armed generations of leaders with enough pseudoscience to justify segregation, eugenics, race war, workplace discrimination and the violent oppression of “inferior” races, particularly immigrants. Adolph Hitler cherished the slim volume, quoted from it in his speeches and allegedly wrote a letter to Grant calling it “his bible.”

The Yale and Columbia educated Grant traveled in high-tone circles, and his flattering notions of “Nordic” superiority were embraced by the Manhattan aristocracy, including the future president Teddy Roosevelt, who so loved Grant’s work that he wrote a letter that was turned into a blurb for the book.

Grant was the real deal. If you like the Bronx Zoo, you can thank him. If you like Yellowstone Park, tip your cap to Grant. And if you suspect that immigrants are sub-human criminals bringing disease and disorder, then the ghost of Grant may be whispering in your ear.

At the time of Grant’s greatest influence, Jim Crow was in full swing and along with it, the Great Migration, as desperate people moved North and West looking to escape the caste system of racial segregation. Grant and his cronies envisioned the National Parks as a respite for white men who needed to refresh their spirits in the face of this insidious urbanization; their refreshment came at the expense of indigenous people whose land was ripped away, destroying treaties along with their lives.

The National Park Service has been working to reckon with their own complicated past, and I acknowledge this work. Their diversity report is not good. The vast majority of their employees have always been white, as is the Park Foundation board. Park visitors are primarily white, and numerous surveys show that people of color feel unwelcome in these natural spaces—citing racist treatment from park police and rangers, feeling unwelcome and priced out of lodging, and in general, worried about being safe, protected and experiencing fair and equal service.

Part of the work has been a welcome debate about whether or not to fully acknowledge the influence of Grant, America’s racist uncle.

“The way we navigate that history is by not flinching,” Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director told CityLab. “It is true that there were a lot of individuals who were white supremacists or eugenicists or who were making racist comments who were part of the beginning of the conservation movement, or who fought successfully to create national parks. So it’s important to understand our history as a movement, and, as a country, learn from it.”

Sure, easy to say when you’ve got sweet John Muir on your side, but I wholeheartedly agree.

Grant and his ilk are part of the reason why there isn’t a legacy of park rangers of color, or for that matter, conservationists, fly shop owners, hiking guides, and people of every hue refreshing their spirits and enjoying the trout the Lord made. That nobody in subsequent leadership sought to excise his influence made it systemic. There’s your pipeline problem, and we need to talk about it.

And then go fishing. Tight lines, good people.

On Point

How racist does someone have to be before they can't run for office anymore?I have been unable to find words to fully process the fun-show mirror horror that is the Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series “This Is America.” But this piece about Georgia state representative Jason Spencer gets me closer. The man literally dropped his pants and yelled the hard-r version of “nigger” several times for programming purposes. Though he’s since resigned his position, it took too long. As Jamil Smith correctly notes, “There is no massive push to excommunicate these men from our politics,” he says of the many open white supremacists who are now running for office. The corporate sector has led the way on accountability. “We are ill-equipped, as a democracy and as a republic, to handle this rise in naked hatred that we have seen since Trump seriously began running for office three summers ago.”Rolling Stone

Why are white supremacists thriving once again on social media?
Julia Carrie Wong does the work in this essential piece, asking why Facebook, YouTube and Twitter haven’t been able to deliver on their promises to better manage violent hate speech and organization on their platforms. A year after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, many key groups are back in force and organizing on all platforms. One issue is that it’s easy to hide in plain sight.  “They’re much more reactive than proactive,” Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center says about Facebook. “If you take just a few steps to halfway cover your tracks, you can avoid Facebook’s policies, or find yourself in just enough of a grey area that they won’t ban your group.”
The Guardian

Excising bias from non-profits
People of color make up 40% of nonprofit employees, yet they account for only 10% of CEOs and board chairs, and just 16% of all board members — a situation that has remained static for years. Equity in the Center, a social sector talent development initiative has published a program designed to create what they call “organizational racial equity.”  Race To Lead: Confronting The Non-Profit Leadership Gap digs more deeply into barriers facing non-profit leaders of color (yes, it is an uneven playing field); click below for Awake To Woke To Work: Building a Race Equity Culture. The blueprint would work for team-building as well, for anyone who wants to move past representation to culture and systemic change.
Awake To Woke To Work

The Woke Leader

The Native Harvey Weinsteins
I missed this when it posted last year, which is odd because I’m usually a faithful reader of Adrienne Keene, who is an extraordinary writer, academic and interpreter of cultural appropriation. (Here’s a good example.) She re-upped this piece after another scandal relevant to the Native community; they are particularly wrenching stories because powerful men are so few and the women they prey upon are so vulnerable. And yet, they can’t speak up because the need for activism is so great. “We have elaborate dances we do to avoid abusers at conferences, at powwows, at Indian Markets, and at community events,” she says of the whisper network that’s developed. “We dip and dodge and sometimes still have to stand cautiously next to or end up on a conference call with the ones who hurt us or hurt our loved ones.”
Native Appropriations

By erasing Islam from Rumi’s poetry, we all miss his point
Rumi’s love poetry has been a revelation for seekers of universal wisdom around the world for centuries. But the New Yorker’s Rozina Ali argues that his popularity, particularly within high tone circles - Madonna, Tilda Swinton and Coldplay’s Chris Martin are among his current celebrity fans – have allowed publishers to erase Rumi’s Muslim essence from his work to our detriment. But don’t blame rock and roll. “It was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots.” It was Rumi’s unique experience at the intersection of Sufism, Sunni Islam and Koranic debate that informed his voice, and animated his desire for oneness with God. But a committed contempt for Islam persuaded scholars over the years that Rumi was “mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.”
New Yorker

On being a responsible storyteller
As a documentary filmmaker, Saeed Taji Farouky has filmed the war in Afghanistan and the refugee crisis and stays close to the themes – human rights, colonialism and occupation – that informed his life as a child of Palestinian refugees. “One of the challenges I have to face in all of the stories I tell are not only the issues themselves, but how those issues are portrayed,”  he says in this moving TEDx talk. The issue with the media today, he says, is the imbalance between who the stories are about and who controls the creation and distribution of them. “What happens when we don’t have a role to play in the telling of our own stories?” In the best case scenario, the stories are simply terrible. In the worst case, they do real harm.


We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America "an asylum for the oppressed," are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control and we continue to follow our national motto and deliberately blind ourselves to all "distinctions of race, creed or color," the type of native American of Colonial descent will become as extinct as the Athenian of the age of Pericles, and the Viking of the days of Rollo. Race feeling may be called prejudice by those whose careers are cramped by it but it is a natural antipathy which serves to maintain the purity of type. The unfortunate fact that nearly all species of men interbreed freely leaves us no choice in the matter. Races must be kept apart by artificial devices of this sort or they ultimately amalgamate and in the offspring the more generalized or lower type prevails.
Madison Grant

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