Changing the Picture

Ocean Conservancy’s Emily Okikawa chats with Glenn Nelson, founder of The Trail Posse, a non-profit journalism initiative devoted to highlighting and increasing visibility of people of color in the outdoors.

When Glenn Nelson was in college, a story he wrote about his school’s historic basketball season ended up on the front page of the local newspaper. Astonished, he walked over to the local newsroom, knocked on their door and told them, “I’m the one who wrote the story. You should hire me.” And they closed the door in his face.

But, he kept coming back, day after day, asking for a job all the while thinking to himself, “I wrote this front-page story for you guys. I’m good.” Until eventually they reluctantly told him,

“Well…We do need somebody to clean our toilets and sweep the floors—”

 “I’ll do it! I’ll do it,” he said, the words tripping upon their exit, already buoyed by the thought racing through his mind: I’m finally working in journalism.

From that moment on, he was hooked. From working at the Seattle Times to ESPN, Nelson has become an award-winning reporter on the sports and environmental beat. Then, after many years travelling the world as a reporter for the Seattle Times, he and his wife began their dream of touring the National Parks. But despite the scenic beauty of the outdoors, there was something constantly tugging on the back of his mind.

“Where the hell is everybody?”

“I kept thinking, why are we the only non-whites everywhere we go?” Nelson told me, “Then one day, I read a story in the New York Times about how visitation at national parks is 78 percent white. After reading that, my wife said that I had to write an Op-Ed about it.”

So, in 2015, Nelson published a New York Times Op-Ed called, “Why Are Our Parks So White?” in which he stated that “the most recent survey commissioned by the park service on visitation, released in 2011, found that 22 percent of visitors were minorities, though they make up some 37 percent of the population.”

But the blatant lack of diversity doesn’t stop at National Park borders. From environmental nonprofits to outdoor activities, people of color are often missing from their ranks. One of environmentalism’s greatest fallacies is maintaining that this lack of diversity is because communities of color do not care about the environment, rather than addressing the historical context and systematic obstacles that prevents them from entering the field to begin with. The lack of representation within media only serves to perpetuate this belief.

So, Nelson created The Trail Posse, a non-profit journalism initiative devoted to highlighting and increasing visibility of people of color in the outdoors.

“I wanted to change the picture of the outdoors and the way it was presented in mainstream media to be more inclusive,” Nelson told me.

“I just wanted to tell stories about people of color because we are doing outdoor things, we are doing science and we are doing everything else. Just because we’re not portrayed that way doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. I just wanted to be a journalist and change the picture.”

Today, what started as just a one-man enterprise has grown into an interconnected network of contributors that span the country. Nelson was awarded second place in Outstanding Beat Reporting for small-market media outlets in the Society of Environmental Journalist’s 2016-17 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Stories and photographs from The Trail Posse have appeared in newspapers, magazines and blogs around the country. Most notably in publications like Outside Magazine, High Country News, The New York Times, Crosscut, The Hill, Mountaineers Magazine and The Seattle Times.

Transformational change like this is happening in other fields, as well. Environmental NGOs like Ocean Conservancy are starting to focus on issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, as are philanthropic organizations like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Without pioneers like Nelson constantly fighting for increased representation for people of color within the environmental arena, I would not have the incredible opportunity of being a RAY Marine Conservation Fellow at Ocean Conservancy. As a woman of color stepping through the door of environmentalism, I am constantly negotiating for space in a field that continually erases my existence. But while progress has been incremental, it is progress nonetheless. The dogged tenacity and commitment to the story that serves him well as a reporter, has also made Nelson an inspiration to many young environmentalists of color, including me.

I am here now in this space because of giants who have trod this path before me and have given me the tools to change the picture. It is their voices that constantly remind me not to settle for allowance. It is not that I am merely allowed to be in this field, but rather I deserve it.

I deserve to take up space. I deserve to speak up. I deserve to be here.

And, like Nelson, I am going to stay.

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