James Edward Mills is an accomplished journalist and adventurer. In 2013, he worked with the National Outdoor Leadership School to organize the first all-African-American expedition up North America’s tallest mountain, Denali. His book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, recounts the project, called Expedition Denali, and explores how minority populations relate to the outdoors.
Mills also founded the Joy Trip Project, a “newsgathering and reporting organization that covers outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living” (joytripproject.com). In the following interview, the NFF’s Greg M. Peters and Mills discuss Mills’ various projects, what it takes to change the face of the outdoors, and what’s next for this pioneering journalist and activist.
NFF: How did you discover your love for the outdoors?
JEM: I think my entry into the outdoors began like most people. I was exposed at a young age to camping and wilderness travel through the Boy Scouts and enjoyed many wonderful experiences playing and exploring outside. Our trips included winter camping, rock climbing, canoeing and bicycling. I was really lucky to have a wide range of opportunities to spend time in the outdoors.
NFF: You’ve worked in various outdoor-industry related capacities: as a guide, an outfitter, a sales representative and now as a journalist. How have your previous careers impacted your journalism?
JEM: I think much of my professional career I have spent as a storyteller. Even back when I was a salesman, a big part of my work involved crafting compelling narratives that helped to persuade a particular point view. And since I was in the business of selling outdoor equipment, footwear and apparel, I had a lot of chances do some serious “product testing” in natural areas across the country and around the world. So I’d say my previous careers helped me to acquire and hone many of the skills I use today – especially as a freelancer. I run a small business with an entrepreneurial spirit, and I am constantly looking for interesting stories that I can develop and sell to prospective editors at various news organizations. I’m just really lucky that I can earn a modest living still pursuing many of the topics and areas of interest I enjoy most.
NFF: What is the Joy Trip Project and how did it get started?
JEM: Well, the Joy Trip Project is basically my professional online identity. The JTP was originally a podcast where I produced stories and interviews along the lines of my reporting priorities of outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.
When Facebook, Instagram and Twitter came along, I was able to expand the podcast into photography and video production, which I shared through a small network of interested people around the world. So, with a laptop, digital recording equipment and a cellphone, I’m pretty much a one-man news organization.
NFF: In 2013, you organized an all-African-American expedition on Denali. What inspired you to take on a challenge like that?
JEM: To be fair, I only helped to organize Expedition Denali. The bulk of the work was lead by my colleagues Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin and Jeanne O’Brian at the National Outdoor Leadership School. This project was inspired by our mutual disappointment in the apparent lack of people of color in outdoor settings. Our hope was to encourage an elevated discussion of who spends time in the outdoors and who doesn’t. We wanted to create a modern adventure story that depicted people of color as central characters and hopefully inspire minority youth to seek out exciting outdoor experiences of their own.
NFF: What did you learn from the expedition?
JEM: The most important thing I learned is that just like climbing a mountain, tackling complex social issues is a team effort. I suppose you could try to go it alone, but I don’t recommend it. I think this work means more when it’s shared as a process of community engagement. I learned that changing the face of the outdoors is a journey of discovery and not a destination or single goal. Making the outdoors enjoyable and accessible to everyone is a life-long ambition.
NFF: What surprised you the most?
JEM: The biggest surprise, or maybe just an observation, was how well everyone worked together, not just as teammates, but as real friends. All through training and several meetings for planning, every member of the team, as well as several of our partner organizations, came together seamlessly to share in this very ambitious project. There were no significant conflicts or rivalries, nor were there the typical problems of clashing egos and personalities. We all got along beautifully. Now three years later, we continue to work together to tell this story wonderful story.
NFF: How did the outdoor community react to the expedition?
JEM: I think the outdoor community as a whole embraced Expedition Denali. Several organizations have been very helpful and supportive in our efforts to bring the message of diversity to a broad audience. But to be honest, I was disappointed by some of the comments I received in a few of the articles that I and others have posted about the project.
People who identify themselves as outdoor enthusiasts have objected to proactively introducing people of color to nature. They claim that we’re bringing controversy into an environment where none exists– as if outdoor recreation is above the complicated issues of racial bias, privilege or discrimination. Our documentary of the climb, An American Ascent, was rejected by two of the most prominent outdoor-facing film festivals despite having won several awards at other events and being screened at The White House. So, despite our best efforts to connect with the outdoor community, we still seem to have fallen a bit short.
NFF: Which was more difficult, climbing Denali or writing The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors?
JEM: Well, it should be said that
I didn’t personally do the climb of Denali. During training I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and had to have both my hips replaced. I actually wrote the opening chapters of the book from my hospital bed during a three-week recovery. But I did manage to fly into basecamp to see the team off on the expedition, and I reported on their progress from Denali National Park. During the weeks and months after the climb, I wrote furiously to meet a very tight publishing deadline and managed to have The Adventure Gap ready to print a year after the expedition. As much as I love to write, I kind of wish I could have just done the climb and moved on to the next project. That might have been a bit easier.
NFF: You’ve dedicated your journalistic career to exploring the connections minorities have with nature and encouraging them to embrace outdoor sports. Why is this so important in a time when police shootings and mass incarceration of minorities has captured the public’s attention?
JEM: You ask me that question as if issues of environmental justice are restricted to urban violence and crime. My reporting career includes stories on high rates of gun deaths, homelessness and poverty as well as National Park preservation and the protection of public lands. Frankly, I think all of these things are connected because each speaks to important issues of the human condition, the environment in which people live and how we treat one another. I think that the problems you mentioned, police shootings and mass incarcerations, are the reflection of a community in crisis. The hopelessness and cynicism that causes us to devalue human life, I believe, are the result of failed systems that limit our access to fresh air, clean water and open green spaces for recreation.
I believe that if we can make it possible for everyone to have the disposable income and leisure time necessary to enjoy experiences in nature, many of the social problems we face today would be diminished. That means we need to insist for everyone to have things like a living wage, affordable housing, health care and education. If we can make exposure to the outdoors available to more people, especially those underrepresented minorities who are disproportionately impacted by financial insecurity, pollution and crime, we can dramatically improve life on the planet for everyone.
NFF: What are some of the biggest obstacles that minority communities face in accessing natural environments?
JEM: There are plenty of practical barriers. The cost of equipment and clothing is one. Transportation is another. And of course there’s skill and expertise to function competently in challenging environments. But I think the biggest obstacle is the misperception that they don’t belong there. I’ve been told many times that “black people don’t camp, ski, hike, swim, etc.…” If we can just decide that anyone can do anything that they want to, we can go a long way toward bringing more people of color into natural environments. From there I believe it’s simply a matter of creating role models and mentors to provide positive examples and images of what is possible. That was the whole purpose behind Expedition Denali.
NFF: Aside from writing and organizing Expedition Denali, what else are you doing to get minorities involved in nature and conservation?
JEM: Expedition Denali was designed to illustrate the literal height of adventure in North America. Though I don’t expect everyone to climb the highest peak on the continent, I think anyone can find some kind of natural experience in their lives. I’ve been working on introducing people to the rivers that flow through their cities where they can go fishing or paddling. I encourage them to find urban parks, gardens and hiking trails to explore. Natural is all around us. And I think that if we learn to love it as part of our daily lives, we’ll fight to protect it.
NFF: What advice do you have for African-Americans who are interested in outdoor sports, but unsure of how to get involved or intimidated by the fact that most outing clubs and conservation groups are predominantly white?
JEM: Well, first let’s not call these activities “outdoor sports.” That implies that we’re talking about an organized activity that requires a lot of specialized equipment and membership in a sanctioned organization. I think everyone should explore their curiosity and follow it wherever it leads. As a writer, of course I’m a true believer in learning through books. But the best way to grow and build a body of knowledge and experiences is through building relationships. Find someone you trust and ask them questions. It might be a club or an organization that has few people of color as members; part of the challenge is allowing yourself to be vulnerable and open to the idea of learning something new. It can be frightening and uncomfortable, but the rewards outweigh the risks.
NFF: How can organizations like the National Forest Foundation more effectively connect with and inspire minority communities to get outside and engage with nature?
JEM: I think all organizations need to be aware of the discomfort and apprehension potential members might bring to this new relationship. It’s not enough to claim that you’re “open to everyone” when you’re not prepared to make everyone feel welcome. Groups like the National Forest Foundation have to learn to relate to minority communities using language and images that are culturally and socially relevant to people who may have no previous experience with the outdoors.
NFF: You participated in the Forest Service’s Capitol Christmas Tree project last year, joining the tree for a portion of its trip from Alaska to Washington, DC, where it was placed on the Capitol Grounds. What did you hope to achieve through your involvement?
JEM: My job for this project was to tell the story of the Capitol Christmas Tree along its journey across the country. I wanted to help draw a direct relationship between “The People’s Tree” and the Forest Service’s efforts to protect and manage public land. But my purpose in this reporting was to make this story relevant to as many people as possible. I tried to address the perspectives of the First Nation Tribes, for example, that have such a deep spiritual connection with the [Chugach National] Forest where the tree came from. I worked to include photographs and videos of people across a broad spectrum of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I wanted to make sure that it was indeed “The People’s Tree” and that anyone who saw it on the road or online could recognize it as relevant to their life experience regardless of their religious or cultural identity.
NFF: What is your proudest “outdoor” moment?
JEM: I think my proudest outdoor moment might have been in October of 2001. It was just a month after the tragedy on September 11th, and I climbed Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48.
I did it as a solo climb because my partner had to bail out unexpectedly. I made it safely to the top to see several memorials to those who had died just a few weeks before. It was a great moment of solidarity and healing at a time of incredible sorrow, and I was convinced that there was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished with enough hard work and perseverance.
NFF: What else is on your outdoor adventure bucket list?
JEM: My next project is a 16-day paddling trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Then I’m heading back to Alaska for a week-long trip on the Hula-Hula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the fall, I’m planning a 400-mile bicycle tour through the Sierras into Yosemite National Park. But I wouldn’t call my project schedule a “bucket list.” My career and lifestyle gives me the flexibility to pursue one story after another. There’s always going to be something next
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