JAMES EDWARD MILLS AND I MET some years back when I eavesdropped on his conversation at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Utah, with Michael Kennedy, then editor-in-chief at Alpinist. Mills and Kennedy were discussing a team of African American mountaineers who were training to climb Denali. Mills, in fact, was in the midst of drafting a piece for Alpinist about what he termed “the adventure gap” (later published in Alpinist 40). What were the reasons, wondered Mills, for the underrepresentation of African Americans and other people of color in the great outdoors?
I finally got a chance to interview Mills myself last year, and we chatted about Expedition Denali, his 2014 book The Adventure Gap and the power of narrative. This November, I called him again, post election, to gauge his thinking about the future of his projects.
[A longer version of the first interview appeared in Sustainable Play. What follows has been edited and condensed from those two conversations.–Ed.]
Brad Rassler: Let’s start out by talking about your journalistic mission and the inspiration for your website, The Joy Trip Project.
James Edward Mills: Through the course of my journalism career, one of the things that I started doing was trying to tell stories about people who engage in outdoor recreation, not exclusively for the purpose of recreation or exclusively for first ascents and highest, fastest, longest, deepest, farthest kind of accomplishments: I wanted to engage people doing things that actually had some positive social outcome. People doing things for the common good. I wasn’t terribly surprised to see that a lot of people whom I’ve known in the industry for years had that aim as their primary ethos. So I developed a broad conversation with people in the outdoor industry about their use of recreation and adventure to help make people’s lives better.
Rassler: At the same time, the adventure sports and the outdoor industries have lacked racial diversity.
Mills: Even after two decades in the business, I still found myself being one of very few African Americans in the outdoor industry. I started shifting some of my editorial priorities to look more at the roles that people of color have played, not only contemporarily, but through the history of the environmental movement as we know it today. I had the opportunity to interview Ken Burns about the National Parks documentary before it was released. Burns told me about the 400 African American members of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, who were stationed in Yosemite in 1903, and who essentially became America’s first park rangers. That was a galvanizing moment for me, because even after so many years in the business and going to Yosemite dozens, if not hundreds of times, I hadn’t heard that story. If I hadn’t heard that story, that means that millions of people hadn’t heard the story, either. [For Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson’s tale of the Buffalo Soldiers, see Alpinist 56.–Ed.]
Rassler: Galvanizing in what way?
Mills: So it kind of got me on this jag to start talking more about people interested in environmental conservation as it pertains to increasing racial diversity–in getting people involved in both the outdoor recreation and outdoor conservation movements. So that led to a long series of magazine articles and radio stories. I just happened to be working on a piece for High Country News on diversity in the National Park system. Through the course of my conversations with different organizations, I interviewed the very first Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Three weeks later, she called me up and said, “Hey James, what would you think if we were to put together the first team of African Americans to try to summit Denali?” And I just said, “That sounds great. Can I come too?”
So over the next year, we put together a team of nine climbers. I was originally on the climbing team, but because of a diagnosis of osteoarthritis, I had to have my hips replaced. Ultimately, I remained on the team, but as a journalist. So it was my opportunity to tell about the journey made by climbers from towns quite literally all over the country. They ranged in age at the time from 18 to 56. It was a very dynamic group of individuals, not only were they good athletes who had the ability to climb a mountain, but they also had the ability and the wherewithal to return to their communities and to tell their stories to young people. So we were in Denali National Park for three weeks. Spoiler alert: unfortunately the team didn’t summit. But everyone came back down safely after a severe electric storm forced a dramatic retreat from near the top of the mountain. After they returned, they went onto college campuses and into high schools and churches and community centers, and they told their stories.
Rassler: And you told theirs….
Mills: I told the collective story in my book called The Adventure Gap. We’ve also created a feature film called An American Ascent that tells the story of what has now become known as Expedition Denali. So I’ve been on kind of a national speaking tour, telling this story and also the broad story about how we need to make sure that outdoor recreation includes everybody. So that we’re not talking exclusively to a segment of the population that is exclusively or primarily one particular race or ethnicity, not one particular socio-economic status or cultural or national orientation. Outdoor recreation is for everybody.
Rassler: What do you say to people who believe that the adventure gap will narrow organically?
Mills: The reality is that if you have a constituency of voters who have no direct relationship with the natural world, why would they ever vote, allocate federal tax dollars to support it in perpetuity to the future the way it is now? I really think that if we can increase the diversity of outdoor recreation, of people who participate in adventure sports, we can ultimately protect and preserve our National Park systems, our wild and scenic places, and our natural resources for another 1,000 years.
Rassler: You believe that increasing the visibility of outdoor recreation narratives that include people of color can be a leverage point of sorts. Talk a little bit about that.
Mills: At the core of a person’s interests or future development is the ability to see possibilities. If you’re a young person, it’s difficult to know exactly what you’re capable of doing if you don’t have affirmative role models. So if you grow up in an environment where none of your brothers, your sisters, your cousins, your aunts, uncles, grandfathers have an interest in or relationship with the outdoors and they don’t share the outdoors with you, it’s not going to be part of your ethos. Also, if you don’t see film and you don’t see images, if you don’t hear stories, if you don’t see magazine articles or newspaper stories that show people who look like you involved in the outdoors, you probably will say to yourself, “Well, no one like me has ever done such a thing, so I probably won’t either.”
Rassler: In The Adventure Gap you make clear that there have been role models all along. Charles Crenchaw and Sophia Danenberg, for starters.
Mills: There has indeed been a long history of people of color who have been directly involved and engaged in outdoor recreation, quite literally going back to the founding of our country through the age of exploration, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Rassler: So you’ve been traveling around the country for two years and a month promoting the book, and now the movie. What are you hearing?
Mills: The response to the book and the movie has been incredibly positive, which is what a first-time author is always interested in hearing. But it’s also been challenging, because one of the biggest criticisms that I get is, “Is the adventure gap really a problem?” Or if it is indeed a problem, won’t it just take care of itself over time?
Rassler: Will it?
Mills: I think that it’s possible. But I refuse to believe that it would just go away. I mean, why would it? Especially when we take a look at how much more urbanized we’re becoming as a culture. It’s not just a matter of whether too few African American or Hispanic kids are spending time in the outdoors. There are fewer people in general spending time in the outdoors. While I’m happy to entertain the possibility that this is a problem that could very easily fix itself, we’re not taking a passive approach to addressing racial disparities that still exist across every aspect of our society. There’s the education gap. There’s the technology gap. There’s the digital divide. Why would we put effort and interest into those divides and not into the racial divide in outdoor recreation and adventure? I honestly believe that if someone is given the inclination and the opportunity, anybody can establish a relationship with the outdoors. I think that everyone should be given the opportunity to at least try. Like anything, you try it on for size. If it suits you, great. You can embrace it and enjoy a life with it. If not, you can move on to something else. But at least you had the opportunity to try at least once.
Rassler: How might the aftermath of the presidential election impact the adventure gap?
Mills: The shift in the conversation concerns me because nearly everything the administration elect is talking about is in relation to the economy and national defense and border security. They’re saying very little in way of environmental protection, environmental justice, civil liberties…. I think we have the potential of losing ground we’ve managed to secure since starting on this work over a decade ago.
Rassler: At the time of this conversation, The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported more than 400 incidents of “hateful harassment” since the election [That number has now grown to more than 800–Ed.]. Those are worrying statistics.
Mills: If this administration is going to be taken seriously, we have got to make it a point to hold the parties in power accountable. To say to them, if you’re not racist, then do something about these incidents. If you’re not denouncing racist behavior, in my opinion, you’re condoning it and encouraging it.
Rassler: What’s the bottom line for the environment from the standpoint of the ethos inherent in the adventure gap? Does it reflect a bigger gap as well?
Mills: If the new administration eliminates regulations and the EPA and makes it easier for businesses to pollute again, there would be a rise in CO2 emissions and pollutants, an increase in toxic chemicals that get leached into our soil, our water and our air. Access to clean drinking water could become a problem. We could continue to see refineries crank out toxic gasses as is happening in Port Arthur, Texas. Also the oil pipeline in North Dakota–if things aren’t regulated and those pipes are put in and they leak for whatever reason, they would contaminate the watershed of the Missouri River, which provides water to millions of people. People in marginalized groups, in lower socio-economic groups, who can’t afford to buy bottled water or water filters, people who live in substandard housing–they would be directly impacted by this.
The reality is that it all boils down to how we treat one another. If we can start treating each other better and recognize that everything that we do directly impacts people not just adjacent us to us but miles away in areas farther downstream, that’s where we have the potential to confront much bigger problems.
Rassler: What, if anything, do you think climbers can do to encourage people to treat both each other and the environment better?
Mills: That’s always such a difficult question to answer. Personally, I think that climbing is among the most frivolous and self-indulgent of all human endeavors. I for one try to acknowledge how privileged I am to have so many opportunities to enjoy spending time in the outdoors, and I think that in addition to walking gently on the Earth we also have to realize that not everyone is so fortunate to have the disposable income and leisure time for similar experiences. As a climber, I think it’s important to show humility and respect for the natural world. I think we should set good examples of best practices in “leave no trace” principles for the general public and whenever possible try to encourage or even help to facilitate the ability of others to access the wilderness areas and high mountains we love.