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The sun sets on the Olympic coast. Photo by Charlie Lavides

WTA’s Emerging Leaders Program is Creating a Welcoming Space to Learn and Grow in the Outdoor Community

Charlie Lavides faced hurdles entering the outdoor industry. WTA's Emerging Leaders Program granted them an opportunity to foster and find community on Washington trails. By Charlie Lavides

I stand at the shore, looking out at the horizon as my eyes follow the blurred lines where the water and sky collide into the sunset, with the magnitude of the forest behind me. Though, here, I don’t have a body. I’m simply a floating consciousness witnessing brilliant shades of orange, yellow and blue dancing on the water's surface. The colors flirt with the boundaries of the water and the sky, waiting to connect, merge and create boundless possibilities. An abundant feeling of inspiration and empowerment courses through me. This place transcends time, grounding  me in the present moment. As I stare at the power of nature’s gift, my bird’s-eye perspective shifts to the oranges, yellows and blues reflected on the water. Here, above the water, I hear a message. 

“Even when you cannot see beneath the water’s reflection, you must plunge into the unknown to discover what’s there.”

This moment was all within a dream, but a dream whose immense impact follows me to this day. A deep part of me knows that voice was some form of an internal guidance system reminding me of the depths within myself. The message, conveyed clearly and directly from nature’s ancient knowledge, reminded me to take reasonable risks outside of my comfort zone.

That entreaty to  “enter the unknown,” is how I ended up in this year’s 2023 Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) on my first-ever backpacking trip. Working on a paid WTA trail crew consisting of all BIPOC members gave me a sense of inclusion and comfort that I hadn’t really realized was missing in my life. Through this program, we found community among one another without having to code-switch and self-regulate. Instead, we upheld respectful cultural sensitivities for each other in outdoor spaces where our historically marginalized identities have been erased, where we’ve been told by societal norms that we don’t belong. 

I have always been curious about hiking, camping and outdoor recreation, but life circumstances kept me from opportunities to explore the outdoors until adulthood for a variety of reasons: lack of representation, lack of access and lack of awareness of BIPOC communities in the outdoors.

WTA's Emerging Leaders Program cohort poses on the beach. Using their arms, they form a triangular shape in formation.
The ELP cohort enjoyed playful time together at Dungeness Spit before heading to Cape Alava — part of the Ozette Triangle — where they shared a meal. Photo by MJ Sampang

It was only through deep determination and intentionality that I found a way to work outdoors with the Emerging Leaders Program: a ragtag team who carry shared identities and who allowed a space for safety, respect and a curious exploration of life paths to open between us. Coming from an education and operations background with tutoring, research assistantships and odd jobs that paid the bills, I wanted to try something new. I found WTA during the summer of 2022 and worked as an assistant crew leader for the youth volunteer vacations. I stayed connected with WTA and later applied for the ELP cohort to continue learning about working outdoors, trail maintenance, DEI work and discovering the many possible paths to take.

After months of getting to know each other, on trail and off, our lovely team put boots on the boardwalk early on a March morning this spring. We were traveling the Ozette Triangle on the ancestral lands of the Makah Tribe. 

Our ELP leadership team, MJ Sampang, Angelic Friday and Beatriz “Bea” Vazquez, prepared and taught us about safety, personal preferences regarding backpacking comforts and fun activities to stay engaged during our time together. The cohort members included me, Shanice Snyder, Michelle 美薇 Mouw, and L Kravit-Smith, all on the search to satisfy professional endeavors through this program — whether that meant discovering trail work positions, outdoor education roles for underserved communities, farming trades or diversity, equity and inclusion work. 

Nervous jitters and excitement for new experiences gathered before this trip, but transparent communication, group agreements and discussions about safety on all levels — including the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels — helped us to collaboratively create a meaningful, fun and, at times, surreal experience. I must say, if you want to be open to spontaneity and the unknown, then a backpacking trip with a trusted and cherished group of people is a good place to test it out yourself. 

Hikers smile and pose at the trailhead at Olympic National Park. They're wearing rain gear and backpacks, but smile ear to ear.
The ELP cohort snaps a successful selfie at the trailhead. Photo by Angelic Friday

The ELP leadership team cultivated an atmosphere of encouragement and inspiration, along with a group agreement to “show up as you are.” This atmosphere set a tone for inclusivity and vulnerability. That, in turn, helped genuine connections form and allowed us to play, learn and explore professional aspirations together. 

I’ve heard so many BIPOC and LGBTQ+ stories about survival, resilience and trauma. Although those stories are important, I want to shift the narrative to center our joys, hopes and visions for healing, processing and self-care so that we may all move toward a more equitable future. I want to center our multifaceted and intersectional identities as human beings on a spectrum of experience, where different is just different. Not bad or good. Not black or white. Rather, we are a kaleidoscope of possibility. Representation is needed on trails, in outdoor spaces and in all walks of life because we are here and have always existed. 

The snapshot moments imprinted in our minds’ eye are those of beach dinners with our feet in the sand — accompanied by a sunset very similar to the one in my dream. Hues of orange and blue colored the sky while our laughter and companionship filled the air. Our inner children came out to play and make connections, freed from the hetero-normative and White gaze that follows us everywhere outside of these shared spaces. We were simply a group of friends listening to the ocean through the night, witnessing seal heads curiously popping up in the morning, sitting among the sea stacks with deer nearby as bald eagles and ospreys soared in the wind. 

We took in the present moment, inspired by the scenic views. We danced and sang along the coast for miles. We laughed through the physical pains that backpacking can bring, but we lifted one another up when needed. When packs were too heavy, we shared the load. When social batteries waned, we allowed solitude. When emotions arose, we leaned in. When we were thoughtful, we looked at the waves.

Five backpackers hike along a pebbly stretch of trail, right next to some tidepools.
The Ozette Triangle was a beautiful way to connect with the ELP cohort as the program came to a close. Photo by Charlie Lavides

The push and the pull of the tide reminded us of the coming and going of these moments together. It highlighted the impermanence of things and how the changing currents of our physical and conceptual worlds are always shifting. So how can we shift narratives into a more inclusive, diverse and equitable direction? There are as many ways to do so as our creative minds will allow. 

On our trip, we navigated coastal tide patterns for windows of safe crossing in the same way we navigated our emotional landscapes with one another: with an attentive and caring eye to the shifting dynamics of our situation. The cold windy nights will pass. With the right gear and company, we can empower each other on our respective journeys, with a reminder that our connection to the outdoors is simply right outside of our door. 

I’ve learned from my cohort that backpacking is but one way to experience the outdoors. If you enjoy walks in the park, sitting in your backyard, camping, climbing, hiking, swimming in lakes or even just sitting outside with a warm beverage on your porch, then you are “outdoorsy.” We define how we build our own relationships to the land and what communities we want to embrace, respect and grow.

The ELP cohort hike along the beach. They're wearing backpacks. On one side is the beach, and on the other side is a forest.
The ELP cohort hikes the beach between Cape Alava and the Sand Point campground. Photo by Charlie Lavides

In the little moments — when we shared our cultural backgrounds, past experiences and inside jokes — we wove our identities into the fabric of our community. Bringing cultural familiarity into our shared space, like being called “ateh” (an endearment for older sisters in the Philippines) by a fellow Filipino team leader, MJ Sampang, brought so much personal cultural joy to me. Hearing the other members reference BIPOC musicians or artists expanded my pop cultural perceptions and seeing everyone relax into themselves brought an unfamiliar peace I’d been unknowingly looking for. 

At the end of this backpacking trip, while nearing the end of the ELP’s time together, cohort members talked about moving forward and utilizing their developing trail maintenance and leadership skills for outdoor careers, DEI work, environmental education and farming trades. 

Whether it was through shared worries, a love of music and movement, endearing cultural nicknames or a revitalized passion to move through the world as wholly ourselves, I’ve found us all to be emerging leaders across our intersecting communities by showing up in the moment and working together.

WTA’s Emerging Leaders Program

In its third year, WTA’s Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) is a diverse cohort of individuals who want to form an inclusive community and build leadership skills to support careers in natural-resource stewardship and outdoor recreation. WTA hopes that by investing in paid development opportunities for future leaders in the outdoor industry, those leaders can build upon professional and personal aspirations while contributing to an outdoor community where all people feel included and valued. 

Learn more about ELP and our 2023 ELP cohort at

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.