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So, You're Non-White And You Really Want To Work For The US Forest Service?
July 14, 2021
So, You're Non-White And You Really Want To Work For The US Forest Service?
Melody Mobley, the first African-American woman forester in the storied land management agency, offers suggestions following a career punctuated by adversity
The Forest Service and other federal land management agencies say they are trying to be more inclusive in their hiring but what matters equally is the on-the-job atmosphere that awaits non-white employees when they arrive. This photo was taken as the 75th anniversary of Smokey the Bear's creation. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service
EDITOR'S NOTE: A few summers ago, Mountain Journal published a guest essay from Melody Starya Mobley on her long career working for the US Forest Service, becoming the first African-American forester in the history of the agency and confronting challenges, including criminal behavior, that most would find unspeakable. As a result of that dramatic piece, there is now interest in turning Mobley's story into a major documentary. Below is a new essay from Mobley based on her often being asked whether she would recommend that young people of color consider pursuing careers in federal land management agencies.
by Melody Starya Mobley
I recently completed a career fair at an elementary school for kindergarten through fifth grades in Arlington, Virginia. I was there representing the career category of “professional forester.”
At least 60 percent of the students in the school are categorized as racial or ethnic minorities in the United States. Some speak no English. Some appear to be financially disadvantaged. A good number of them may be the first in their family to pursue college studies. All, like all of us, want to have a meaningful life.
The teachers had given the students a set of general questions to ask each “expert” participating at the job fair. Over and over I answered this question, “What’s most difficult about being a professional forester?”
I spoke with a few hundred students and teachers and the more I answered that question, the simpler my answer became: it’s being the only AfricanAmerican woman forester in my organization. I wrestle with whether to tell a young person my truth.
I am retired today from the US Forest Service but when I was active for nearly three decades I was subject to all forms of racism. As a woman and a person of color in a male-dominated profession, my credentials were constantly tested. The agency, like the military, highly values regular movement among remote locations. At each posting I had to prove, once again, that I was indeed a degreed, professional forester. I had to be three times as good at my job as other foresters and employees in general. I had to be physically and mentally tougher than other employees, especially at the beginning of my career when I was doing field work.
Mind you, I’m originally from Louisville, Kentucky, a very urban area, and, taking care of my terminally ill mother as I was growing up. I didn’t have the benefit of regularly hiking around the woods like my colleagues who entered the Forest Service ranks did, although my mother did take us camping and exploring out in the country when she could to spark and support our love of nature.
I admit: I had never even heard of the Forest Service until my sophomore year of college.
I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to demonstrate my scholastic abilities and high-level skills and I hoped they would materialize in the agency that manages more than 190 million acres of public land. I had the physical ability to do the job, but I didn’t know the tricks to surviving it all healthy.
There’s a right and wrong way, for instance, to carry a pack of a few hundred seedlings around your hips; to carry a five-gallon bag of water on your back to fight fire; to use each hand tools without getting hurt; and on and on. No one shared the knowledge with me, maybe because they thought I wasn’t worth the investment, or that I would wash out or perhaps it was because I was different.
I was always isolated. I was the first African-American to spend the night in several rural towns and I was reminded of it by the people who lived there. I did not have adequate transportation to get to larger locations for things like groceries and other supplies. Townspeople would invite employees to go along or lend them their vehicles; but not me.
As I moved into higher-grade levels, I was routinely passed over for promotions because my skills were doubted. Unlike the men I worked with, I was considered too aggressive if I spoke up in meetings, whereas they were considered appropriately assertive and rewarded. (I suspect many woman encounter this gender bias). One supervisor ordered me never to speak up in meetings, yet I had just been selected for the deputy forest supervisor position on a national forest.
I was regularly subjected to sexual advances and remarks. I heard time and again that “Black women are only good for one thing,” meaning sex. Townswomen would accuse me of having sex with their husbands while I was working in the field. When I attended a private meeting with a top official of another agency, he physically put both of his hands on my breasts. I told my supervisor, but nothing was done. I was raped by a colleague, an experience I wrote about in a story for Mountain Journal.
Despite insights I gleaned, I was denied opportunities for exposure by not getting to brief staff at the Department of Agriculture on my programs. After I filed successive Equal Employment Opportunity complaints—though they were resolved—the retaliation was brutal. I was ostracized by my peers.
Hispanic/Latin X and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are often forced out for false reasons. The harassment combined with getting the silent treatment or peers pretending that you don’t exist takes a toll, as it would on anyone. I put my heart and soul into being a loyal civil servant and steward of the environment. During the time of all of this, I developed severe lower back pain and clinical depression that my doctors certified were attributable to a stressful and toxic work environment.
I was typically viewed as physically threatening and as having criminal tendencies not because anything I did, but simply because I am an African-American. A supervisor stated in official records that “the expression on my face” made her feel that I “threatened to beat her up.” Another supervisor accused me of making illegal calls on office phones during a period while I was away from the office at a conference. I was accused of divulging the bids on a timber sale contract. The district business management staffer, in fact, later came forward and testified that she received the bids and locked them in her safe without me ever seeing or touching them.
I can tell you from first-hand experience that things have got to change. If you want to get a sense of how uncomfortable the Forest Service has been in talking about creating an inclusive environment for African-Americans, read the language in a speech delivered by former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth in 2006. It was titled "Blacks In Government, Forest Service Forum." While I respect Bosworth's professional skills and his sincerity, the rhetoric in his talk reveals the discomfort the agency had then in discussing the relationship and history of African Americans with nature.
There are a lot of bright young people who could make major contributions to our land and wildlife management agencies—kids who love nature and represent the kind of talent and experience that is representative of America. But when a young person of color asks me at a job fair if I would recommend he/she/they/them should try to get a job in the Forest Service, I have to stop and think about it.
Should I bolster their dream of working for an agency like the Forest Service and recommend that they pursue a career in college that might get them there? Should I do this knowing that I might be setting them up for facing a harsh reality that has the potential to leave them dispirited and cynical?
How can change happen? I have suggestions that address the issues raised above and may help in attracting and retaining aspiring Hispanic/Latin X and BIPOC who want to pursue a career as a land management steward.
Hispanic/Latin X and BIPOC students are more hesitant than their non-Hispanic white peers to enroll in these programs. And yet forestry is not only an important skill related to ecosystem health but it’s at the forefront of how public lands might be used, in the federal 30 X 30 plan, for example, to confront climate change.
In the future, more Americans than ever before will be Hispanic or BIPOC at the same time the percentage of white Americans shrinks. If the goal of land management agencies and conservation organizations is to have the broadest range of people devoted to their mission and of science-based stewardship, the gap needs to be closed quickly.
How can this be done? Here are a few areas that should be prioritized:
Beef Up Recruitment of Minority Students
We must encourage Hispanic/Latin X and BIPOC to pursue degrees in natural resource-related fields, then support them throughout their entire collegiate experience. Most Hispanic/Latin X and BIPOC in the US dwell in or near urban centers. I serve as a speaker in urban schools and often ask students “What in the classroom comes from a forest?”
Most times, the response is silence. There are pencils, desks and chairs made of wood. To make the recruitment more than a token effort, counselors must encourage students of color to choose math and science classes and support them to excel in these classes. We need to hire the best and brightest in our profession to solve today’s global natural resource-related problems, and that must include all races.
Employers must devote resources to interest students of color in natural resource-related professions, support them throughout their scholastic pursuits, then have jobs ready for highly qualified candidates. Once hired, support their needs. For example, in the United States, African-Americans in general have a disproportionate number of single-parent families. They may need childcare facilities or flexible hours be most productive. If an agency or organization does not offer these to employees of color, they may choose to leave, thus negatively affecting workforce diversity.
Create An Accepting/Welcoming Atmosphere Among Colleagues
If a Hispanic/Latin X or BIPOC successfully competes for a job, they must be considered qualified. We must stop constantly testing qualifications. Stereotypes are very harmful. Non-Hispanic whites, especially personnel staff members and recruiters have told me time and again that African Americans aren’t interested in nature or that Black people are afraid to work in the woods. None of these assertions are true so let’s stop repeating them. We need to increase and enhance points of contact between young people and nature. They don’t have to travel to Yellowstone or Grand Teton to prove they are passionate about wildlife and forests and rivers. The most important contact happens at or near home and exposure needs to occur regularly and often.
Ending Sexual Harassment
All harassment of any kind must stop. Supervisors and mentors should regularly check in with all employees to make sure this is not happening. All employees must be able to do their jobs and live in remote locations without fear of assault. Action must be taken immediately, at the first hint of a problem. Multicultural training is not enough. Monitoring is required.
There must be a safe way to report incidents and action must be taken against the perpetrator immediately. Rules must be changed so that the action taken against the offender and the name of the perpetrator are no longer protected. Serious or repeat offenders must be removed. Top leadership must be held doubly accountable to set the behavior of all employees. There must not be retaliation against employees for reporting incidents.
The other BLM: Members of a trail crew help to maintain a recreational pathway on a Bureau of Land Management tract. This BLM, like other federal agencies, are trying to create an array of ways that young people can explore professional options in natural resource and conservation agencies. Photo courtesy BLM
Granted, I get the fact that some national forests and national parks and other public lands are located in parts of the country indigenous presence is strong because these are their homelands but there might not be many other non-white people.
Sending white employees to training sessions about workforce diversity or developing interpersonal skills or writing letters of policy are not enough. Coming together respectfully, in the office and in local communities, is a life-long learning process. All of us need to get to know one another and recognize that races and genders are not monoliths.
Communities are comprised of people who share common aspirations but those aspirations have not been equally attainable. Employees must be held accountable for their actions if they violate laws and principles, with visible penalties for infractions, while those fostering equity and inclusion should be recognized for their contributions. Evaluating how well employees of color are thriving in the workforce is a good measure of the effectiveness of this training. Crucial is that they be allowed to freely speak their minds as everyone else is encouraged to do.
Inclusion from the Top Down
Randy Moore to lead the Forest Service, the first African American ever selected to be chief of the agency. This is an example of what I'm talking about and it sends a message, the same as Deb Haaland becoming Secretary of the Interior did. Beyond this, we need to ensure that high-value assignments continue to be distributed equitably. Being given opportunities to complete challenging tasks and mentored along the way to do them well is how people grow. On June 12, 2019, then National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins issued a bold statement that he will no longer accept invitations to serve on panels that consist of all non-Hispanic white males.
Breaking up the bias that prevents Hispanic/Latin X and BIPOC from achievement in natural resource-related professions must begin at the top. According to Dr. Paul C. Gorski, who told me this in a personal communication, “The most efficient and sustainable way to change the culture is to change the leadership—to find organizational leaders committed to the change you want to see. Or at least leaders who are willing to be trained to see things differently. Leaders have so much power to guide institutional culture. I suppose change can happen from below, too, but if there are no leaders who hold people accountable for not adjusting to the new expectations, the change is optional. And that never works.”
As noted above, having advocates is crucial and that means ensuring that every employee of color has a mentor. Mentorship is a widely practiced method of leadership development in corporate America. A good mentor provides advice and guidance, especially in career-making and difficult decisions; serves as a sounding board; monitors progress; watches out for and guides the employee through situations of harassment; and, optimally, provides some level of protection from inequitable or illegal treatment.
Sharing the Mic
We need a paradigm shift to allow women and employees of color to speak up equitably in meetings. When we do not take advantage of every brain in the room, we are wasting resources, not being as creative as we could be, losing out on possible alternatives that don’t get mentioned, and, causing the disillusionment of whole segments of the workforce. Assign appropriate staff to work on projects and allow everyone to participate and contribute ideas. Ensure that leadership is deliberate, consistent and intentional about speaking out about the value of including employees of color.
Inside land management agencies, we need to build a sense of belonging and community for employees of color. There are outside organizations that can help. We should ensure that employees of color are included in informal and formal social events. In remote locations, make sure they have transportation to places of importance, for example, restaurants, churches, hair salons, and other facilities.
We must build cultural awareness means more than, in the case of African Americans, recognizing Black History Month in February. It’s essential that we find ways to show and demonstrate that employees of color are welcome, valued, included, invited, and appreciated on a regular, routine basis. As leadership sets the message, middle management and every employee must be on board with retention of employees of color. Most employees in general don’t have an opportunity to meet with the agency leadership, but they do meet with their supervisors and managers. Everyone must behave and perform as if they value retention of employees of color.
Recruit Hispanic/Latin X and BIPOC in non-traditional places that generally have large numbers of students of color, in particular, culturally and ethnically diverse areas such as intercity schools and after-school programs or summer programs. We must reach new audiences. Many churches have disproportionately high populations of only Hispanic/Latin X and BIPOC on Sundays. These are also great places to spread the word about employment opportunities. Do not assume that Hispanic/Latin X and BIPOC are not interested in careers in natural resource-related fields.
This is a commonly held and convenient myth. “There’s this narrative that Blacks aren’t interested in the environment; how can you not be interested in the land you walk on, the air you breathe, the water you drink?” asks Dr. Dorceta Taylor, former director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan and an environmental sociologist known for her work on both environmental justice and racism in the environmental movement.
So, what is my answer to the kids attending career day? I say, “Go for it” but be prepared.
With all of the challenges associated with being the only, or one of few, African Americans in a large or small organization, why would I recommend it? Because being in natural resource-related professions can be the dream of many Latin X and BIPOC if they first know the opportunities exist. For me, working in the woods or on a prairie is like being in church, surrounded by beautiful vistas. It’s so rewarding to know that my work contributed to protecting natural lands while delivering products that people need. Even with the negative experiences I had, I would still recommend that Latin X and BIPOC like me choose natural resource-related professions. But a Latin X or BIPOC who chooses a career in natural resources must be equipped with survival skills. What are they?
· Choose your battles
· Know your science and increase your literacy about ecology
· Tolerate minor offenses but don’t be a pushover
· Follow laws and regulations
· Develop strong interpersonal skills
· Build bridges, open doors, and encourage others to consider your point of view
· Work with all races of people
· Develop excellent communication and negotiating skills
· Enjoy the journey
We must hire and retain the best and the brightest of all races and ethnicities to be highly competitive in today’s world and to successfully address today’s issues in natural resource-related professions.