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Building Space for Everyone on Trail

This BIPOC trail crew faces racism, but they’ve also found the power of being together in community | By Zach Toliver

Safety, fun and work — in that order. It’s the Washington Trails Association mantra, and every volunteer and staffer comes to learn it. But for those of us on the Leadership and Inclusion Crew — all people of color — a volatile interaction showed us just how differently we can experience these vital pillars.

As a part of WTA’s Trails for Everyone campaign, our six-person Leadership and Inclusion Crew is delightedly helping to launch this new, paid program that focuses on leadership development for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and LGBTQ+ folks. We come from communities historically underrepresented in the outdoor industry. For most of us, this is the first opportunity we’ve ever had to develop our technical skills, network with outdoor professionals or learn about environmental stewardship as a career. Or, more forlornly put, we’ve never been able to chat up park rangers or forest service employees at the proverbial cookout, but damn would we have liked to!

Back in October, in the spirit of developing our technical skills, Jay Tarife, WTA trail crew leader, led us through building box stairs on the Snow Lake Trail. Dozens of hikers thanked us on their way up and down the trail. It felt great to accomplish hard work while sharing some laughs together — even while hauling countless loads of heavy rock and gravel. We had just finished up our work day and wanted to celebrate by grabbing some gas station tamales and a drink (outside and socially distanced, of course!) in Snoqualmie Pass.

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Kailee stands on a wide, forested trail while flexing to the camera. She is wearing a gloves, a green WTA hardhat and holding a shovel is in her right hand. Photo by Britt Lê.

Leave it to racism to ruin the vibe. “You see this?” asked a hostile White stranger while waving around a dirty, discarded face mask he had found in the parking lot before walking up to us. “This is a Black Lives Matter Death Mask!”

No one at our table wore their political leanings on their sleeves. Nonetheless, this bitter, melanin-challenged outsider felt the need to circle us like a vulture while exclaiming his conservative viewpoints. He made sure to flash his military I.D. and boast about his familiarity with firearms. 

“I think you all will be real surprised with the upcoming election,” he said forebodingly. The stranger babbled on about his disgust with liberals and the Black Lives Matter movement. He also felt the need to defend himself by adding that he “actually liked black people” and had even visited Africa once … Cool.

Shortly after, but not soon enough, an employee kicked the man off the premises for not wearing a mask.

The stranger probably went on with his day, never again thinking of the encounter. Or worse, maybe he felt proud about “telling off” a table of Black and Brown people. It was our camp that was left taxed by the burden of his threats. 

The uncomfortable accosting prompted us to talk about safety in ways an all-White crew wouldn’t have to consider. 

We were in the middle of a tumultuous election season, and Election Day was only a few weeks away. NPR ran stories about possibly violent outbreaks. According to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, over the past year, hate crimes rose to their highest level in over a decade. Right here in Washington, Republican state Rep. Robert Sutherland of Granite Falls has told his constituents to “prepare for war.” As I was writing this, news came from Olympia that a right-wing extremist shot an activist in Olympia. And then later, as I edited this story, I saw unprecedented images of our nation’s Capitol under attack by Trump supporters spewing racist slurs at Black officers while carrying Confederate flags. The violent insurrection left several people dead

After our vexatious experience, our crew began thinking about strategies in case things ever went over the edge. Crew leaders Venice Wong and Britt Lê reminded everyone to fill our gas tanks in case we had to make a speedy exit and to keep an eye out for anyone following us or snooping around camp. We discussed how to de-escalate situations that could potentially turn violent. 

As fellow WTA staffers wrote in their article “Trails for Everyone,” in the last issue of this magazine, “Unfortunately, outdoor spaces are not safe or accessible for everyone, nor is our state’s hiking community always as welcoming or inclusive as it should be.” 

We knew this from the very beginning of the Inclusion Crew. On our first day, we all met in the Tiger Mountain region to discuss the program. A woman parked at the High Point Way Trailhead felt the need to question the validity of our program. Did race play a factor? Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is true from what is felt. But her overzealous “MAGA” bumper stickers and condescending comments about our group size gave us a clue. After all, race is always a potential variable in every situation of our lives. 

Run-ins like these only further validate the urgent need to diversify the outdoor industry. 

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Zach smiles while looking over the railing of a lookout tower. Snow capped peaks and forested hills can be seen in the background. Photo by Britt Lê.

Communal Learning 

Shoving a foot into conservation seemed impossible a few short months ago — despite having a love for the outdoors and a desire to get involved. We’re driven to do well by WTA and leave a lasting legacy for this program. What we build here impacts future Leadership and Inclusion participants who, like us, may see this program as their rare chance to finally chase a dream. Representation matters! We don’t take this opportunity lightly.

Throughout this program — thanks to the magnificent coordination efforts of our program manager, Clarissa Allen — we’ve had the privilege to work alongside some incredible outdoor industry professionals who kindly set time aside from their own busy schedules to teach us a thing or two about trail work. 

We’ve practiced cross-cut techniques, run chainsaws and used hydraulic demolition hammers. We’ve created new tread, decommissioned social trails, installed culverts and dug sumps. We’ve learned how to rehab trails down to the smallest details and minimize our impact while building a quality, sustainable hiking trail. I can’t fathom any other scenario where someone like me could have learned all these skills. 

No matter what we’re learning or how much rain is dumped on us, the days always end filled with sincere enjoyment. Our conversations with experts go beyond the work, often into what everyday life is like in their respective fields. And we’re constantly on the hunt for hot gossip from our instructors. There’s a love story between two Mount Rainier National Park rangers that could rival “The Notebook.” We really love hearing this stuff. 

Our crew meets every challenge with raving eagerness to accomplish the task at hand. We encourage one another. It feels like, together, we can accomplish herculean feats. I used to think mornings weren’t for me. Now, I realize that I needed something worth waking up for. 

Sometimes, our enthusiasm actually gets the best of us. On one particular day, Venice noticed our rushed, bad body positioning while hauling spall (golf ball-sized rocks) in Discovery Park. Thankfully, they stopped us with an important message. 

“I know as people of color we feel like we always have to go hard and prove ourselves in White spaces, but we don’t have to do that here,” they said. “Do good work but take care of yourself.”

Happily in the Mud Together

During our first week together at Mount Rainier National Park, our crew was almost immediately comfortable expressing our mental and emotional states. Our experiences with racism were a common topic. 

I asked Bea why she thought this was and, in between her unceasing regurgitation of Cobra Kai ethos, she sagaciously noted, “It’s easier to share lived experiences because I don’t have to explain certain things or worry about being exploited or tokenized.” 

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Crew members Bea (left) and Kailee (right) get a closer look at small white mushroom growing on small bit of bark. Photo by Britt Lê.

For most of us, our workforce experiences before this position were in White-dominated spaces. This is the first time, at least for me, that we don’t have to make an exhausting effort to teach coworkers about racism. (Or to simply convince them that racism exists!) Our companions in this space already get it, and we can breathe a sigh of relief. To our amusement, our race-related dialogs have turned the faces of some well-meaning White folks. These conversations hold awkward nuance for them. For us, they’re therapeutic.  

“It’s not like some ‘Hunger Games’ where I have to volunteer as tribute to explain racism or sexism to the privileged,” Bea told me.

Of course, we may be a BIPOC crew, but by no means are we a monolith. Our ancestors span multiple continents. We have different pronouns and diverse backgrounds. We all came to this squad for different reasons. But as I like to say, “real recognizes real,” and this crew looks truly familiar. 

I think by the end of this program, we’ll all be able to lead a WTA work party with confidence. Beyond that, our futures remain unfixed. Hopefully, every member of this crew goes off to actively diversify the outdoors and dismantle the White-washed histories of these recreational spaces. (Thank you, Bea, for enlightening me on John Muir’s infamous racism.) When employees — such as at visitor centers, or as various guides — are the first contact some have with nature, an increase in BIPOC staff would certainly help shed “outsider” anxieties many people of color feel. Our presence would truly put forth the unobjectionable fact that trails are for everyone. 

The Leadership and Inclusion Crew pilot program — initially slated to run from October to December — has been extended to April. To no surprise, the whole squad jumped at the opportunity to stay a part of this project. No distraught racist waving a dirty face mask can ever take away the passion and raw fun we have in this Leadership and Inclusion Crew.

Meet the crew

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The Leadership and Inclusion Crew. From left to right: Leonardo, Zach, Beatriz, Kailee, Britt, Venice. Photo by Britt Lê.

Leonardo Velazquez (he/him): Leonardo joined the crew because it was an opportunity to work in the outdoors and experience a new environment. His favorite thing to do on trail is to build stairs. When he is not on trail, he enjoys taking amazing naps under trees. 

Zach Toliver (he/him): Zach was so thankful for landing a spot on this crew after realizing that working as a content writer was the exact opposite route in life he was supposed to take. His favorite thing to do on trail is to clear debris from drains that are holding back tons of water. When not on trail, Zach is probably reading about the complex social life of fish.

Beatriz Rojas Vazquez (she/ella/they): Beatriz joined the crew because she wanted to be a part of systematically disrupting the status quo, find community and connect with nature. Her favorite things to do on trail are decommission, demolish and rebuild structures. When she’s not on trail, she enjoys long walks on the beach, talking to Orca whales about how to dismantle the patriarchy ... you know, normal stuff. 

Kailee Go (she/her): Kailee joined the crew because she loves all things nature and her connection to the earth. Having found work in the outdoors for her is a blessing and she hopes that other people of color can find fulfillment in their work as well. Her favorite thing (ever) to do on trail is new trail construction. When she is not on trail, she enjoys spending quality time with friends, reading/writing poetry, and dancing her heart out.

Britt Lê (she/her): Britt jumped at the opportunity to co-lead the crew because she’s happiest when she’s spending time outside with others. Britt likes a lot of things about trail work, but loves those moments at the end of a project when the crew can look back and feel pride in all that they’ve accomplished. In her spare time, Britt can be found biking around town, falling in love with fictional characters, yelling at her sewing machine and eating candy for dinner.

Venice Wong (they/them): Venice joined the crew because it was an opportunity to build community while sharing their knowledge about trail work. Their favorite thing to do on trail is building structures, but making crush (small rocks) is a close second. When they are not on trail, Venice enjoys making friends with neighborhood cats and living out the existential diasporic life cooking and baking food that speaks of home, if there is such a thing.