–submitted by Andrea Kaminski
August 1 guest speaker James Edward Mills grew up in a family steeped in the civil rights movement in Los Angeles. His father, who served on the city council and was called the “de facto Mayor of LA” for a time, was an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. His parents strove to make it possible for children of color in their community to achieve, excel and become anything they wanted. They supported James in what he wanted, which was to excel in outdoors adventure.
Right out of college Mills took a backpacking trip from the rim to the floor of the Grand Canyon. He explored Yosemite National Park and climbed the tallest mountain in California, Mount Whitney. He couldn’t help but notice that there were not many adventurers in these places who looked like him.
It’s true. African Americans make up only two percent of the visitors to the National Parks and an even smaller percentage of those who participate in more strenuous adventures. Mills wanted to change that. In 2012 he was part of an expedition of six men and three women who were the first all African American team to climb Denali. In 2016 he won the lottery – that is, the lottery to have a permit to raft through the Grand Canyon. On that adventure the guide told Mills that he was the first African American to join one of his rafting trips in his 40 years on the Colorado River.
As a freelance journalist who has worked in several roles in the outdoor industry since 1989, Mills wants to change the narrative. He learned from documentarian Ken Burns, who produced the series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” that African Americans have long been engaged in the preservation of natural areas. For example, the “Buffalo Soldiers” were members of peacetime all-black regiments of the U.S. Army in the early 20th century. Burns said they were, in effect, the first national park rangers, and they were instrumental in preserving the giant redwoods in California.
Mills figured that if he had not heard that story before, most other people had not heard it either. He launched a blog called The Joy Trip Project (joytripproject.org) to document stories of African Americans engaged in outdoors adventure. Mills also is the author of a new book, “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.”
Mills believes that if equality means you can do anything, that includes climbing mountain peaks. He takes literally the words in Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York… from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania… from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado… from the curvaceous slopes of California!”
But you don’t have to go to one of these spectacular places to change the narrative, Mills said. He lauded places in Madison, such as Troy Gardens, the Ice Age Trail and the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, which are making intentional efforts to show a broad diversity of people who enjoy natural areas and work to preserve their beauty. He said children need to be introduced to nature from a science perspective, not just for recreation.
“Nature isn’t just the national parks,” Mills said. “Every time you enjoy a sip of water, a fresh salad or a breath of clean air, you benefit from the preservation of natural areas and resources.”