We recently got the opportunity to interview James Edward Mills, a well-known freelance journalist and an independent media producer who focuses on the outdoors.
We’re sure you’ll enjoy this interview because Mills is not just any regular journalist. He specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.
Mills has written for numerous publications throughout the Midwest. He currently is a contributor to several outdoor-focused publications that include National Geographic, Alpinist, High Country News and more. He’s also the producer of a blog and podcast series that focuses on adventure culture called The Joy Trip Project.
He’s also the author of the book, The Adventure Gap, which chronicles the first all-African American summit attempt on Denali, the highest point in North America.
Watch the video and read the transcript below!
Tyfahra Singleton (Wakanda): Thank you James for making the time for this interview today. I really appreciate it and I know our campers will get something very special out of it. Just so everyone knows how influential you are, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you became an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion when it comes to the outdoors?
James Edward Mills: Well, first of all, thank you so much for the invitation. And I think that it’s really important that one comes to the world and life with a certain degree of humility. So I’m not going to suggest for a second that I am influential. But I’d like to think that I’ve had the rare privilege to be able to devote quite a bit of my professional life to things that I really enjoy.
And part of what made my career interesting for me—and hopefully interesting to people who read my work—is I have a love and passion for the outdoors that began at a very early age that was fostered by doting parents and a supportive community.
And when I graduated from college, I was actually able to indulge that interest further through a professional career in outdoor recreation marketing and sales, working for a variety of different companies, primarily based in the Bay Area. I worked for the REI Store in Berkeley, and I also worked for the North Face when it was still based in Berkeley as a privately-held company. And from that, I began a career talking and selling products in the outdoor industry.
But one of the things that I noticed—probably I think halfway through my career—was that, despite the fact that I felt that I had unfettered access to the outdoors and had no problems going to experiencing many of the things that were important to me personally, not everyone around me seemed to have those same privileges…at the very least, in the outdoor industry. There weren’t very many people of color who had the same levels of professional acumen and expertise that I did. Or, if there were many, there weren’t very many. And I felt that it was perhaps my responsibility, maybe, and my duty to be able to try to find more people who enjoy the outdoors as I do—as people of color.
And also, hopefully…ultimately…encouraging them to pursue not only a personal passion and a career in outdoor recreation but maybe going out and being able to find a job or start a company or lead an expedition or do something that had never been done before. And so now, as a journalist and as a leader of projects, I tell the story of outdoor recreation through my blog, The Joy Trip Project, and also through a variety of different publications that I get the privilege of writing for.
Wakanda: Thank you. We work with a lot of teenagers. What was your experience with nature as a teenager and how did that experience evolve over time? Oh, and did you ever go to summer camp?
Mills: Well, as a teenager, I was lucky enough to be part of a Boy Scout troop that—at the time and I think it still is—was the oldest continuing scout troop west of the Mississippi. It was actually founded in 1903 and it had a really great heritage of spending time in the outdoors. And from the time I was 9 years old all the way up until I graduated from high school at the age of 17, I had the opportunity to spend time in the outdoors, either camping or backpacking or rock climbing, backcountry skiing, snow camping, all kinds of things. And this is all growing up in Southern California.
And much of the time that I spent in the outdoors was being able to travel around Southern California, also in the Sierra Nevada mountains, being able to go to places like Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. And I think that one of the most impressionable things that I experienced was being able to go to summer camp. As a kid, we spent every summer on Catalina Island at Camp Emerald Bay. It was a Boy Scout camp.
And we would go out for a week at a time. I think one year we actually went for three weeks and we got all of our skills training for different merit badges from cooking and camping to hiking and snorkel sports, and a variety of other things. So being able to spend time at a summer camp was a big part of my growing up. So much so that, as an older teenager, I became a junior ranger at a summer camp. And I was also a camp leader at a summer camp that was affiliated with my high school. So definitely, camp and summer camp meant a lot to me growing up.
Wakanda: Wow, thank you. So you wrote your book, The Adventure Gap, several years ago and it has since become a feature film. What was it like working on that project and what do you think people, especially young people of color, can take away from the story you tell?
Mills: Well, I was really lucky just from the outset because, first of all, it was just a good idea because it was something that had never been done before. Now, there have been African Americans who’ve summited Denali since the first African American who summited Denali in 1964—a man by the name of Charles Crenshaw. But there had never been an all African-American team to attempt the summit of the highest peak in North America. And I thought it was really important that we did this project, not just because it was a cool adventure but because we wanted to quite literally create a set of new role models and new characters in the story about recreation.
And being inspired by Charles Crenshaw, we put together a team of nine athletes—six men, three women, ranging in age between 17 and 52. And our goal was to quite literally change the face of the outdoors and to be able to create a new set of heroes, a new set of teachers and inspirational leaders. And so, at the risk of spoiling the story, if you haven’t heard the story or read the book or seen the movie, the team doesn’t successfully climb the mountain…at least to get to the summit. But what’s important is that everyone came back safely.
They came back to their communities and they went on to have other adventures and lead other experiences—including a return trip to the summit of Denali—being able to put together the first team of African-American climbers to summit Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the African continent. I think, most importantly, the story created an environment where people could be encouraged to go outside of their comfort zone. To begin to pursue careers in outdoor recreation. To pursue an interest in outdoor recreation as a passionate pastime.
And I think, perhaps, one of the best examples of why the story is important is the fact that I met a gentleman in Atlanta, Georgia, who saw the movie, read the book and was so inspired that he went from being a non-climber to, within 18 months, summiting Denali himself. And when we met each other and he told me that story, I was inspired because it really let me know that we had done something right.
That we had quite literally created an environment where someone could envision themselves doing something that they never thought they would ever do before and then going out and doing it. And I think that anyone who sees the film or reads my book or hears the stories, they’ll be inspired to do these things too. And that’s the whole purpose in doing this: to make sure that people can see themselves as part of the natural world.
Wakanda: Wow, that’s amazing. Now let’s talk about something a little controversial. A lot of your work is based on challenging the idea that people of color don’t seek out or speak up about outdoor recreation. How do you think we can change that narrative so that more people of color can see themselves belonging in that conversation?
Mills: That’s really interesting because I want to make sure that we recognize that, despite the fact that historically we haven’t seen a lot of people of color in the outdoors, the reality is—and this is something that I learned through my own personal experience and also through research—that we’ve been here since the very beginning. We’ve been part of this narrative. And if we want to start with the modern recreation era, if we begin with the turn of the last century in the creation of the National Park System, African-Americans were part of that history.
Not very many people know that in 1903, over 400 members of the U.S. Army, a unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers, an all African-American regiment, was tasked with the duty of protecting and patrolling Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. So at the very beginning of the National Park Service, you had African Americans in roles of importance. So much so, that we could probably define them today as National Park Rangers. Now fast forward, just a few decades, and we have the beginning of the Jim Crow Era, and segregation is actually national policy.
It’s actually part of our federal government. So much so that those original soldiers in the early 1900s, when the Park Service was created a decade later, they literally could not become official formal National Park Rangers. And that didn’t change until 1953, okay? But the great thing about where we are right now is that, with the rise of social media, we’re seeing more and more people showing themselves as part of the story.
And when The Adventure Gap came out, one of the things that we really wanted to do was use social media to tell this story. And since that event, since expedition Denali—and that was almost six years ago now—we have people that are going out on their own and they’re taking their own pictures, they’re taking their own selfies, they’re traveling and they’re encouraging each other to spend time in the outdoors. So it’s become this self-fulfilling prophecy where people are actually going out and they’re defining for themselves their role in the outdoors.
So we can’t say anymore that people of color don’t spend time in the outdoors because we don’t see them. The reality is that we see them now every day. Clubs are being started, true to form, affinity groups are getting started. We’re getting people who are defining themselves as outdoor professionals, and that’s something that’s relatively new but it’s growing. And it’s something that I’m personally very excited about because I’m really hoping that we’ll be able to see more and more of it in future generations moving forward.
Wakanda: Thank you. So on your Facebook page recently, you shared an interesting article about a black man from Minnesota who said that outdoor recreation can be a form of racial healing. What are your thoughts about that?
Mills: Here’s the thing…I think that the outdoors can be healing in every way, you know? And I think that, for people of color, in particular, a lot of the trauma that we have felt and that we experience is indeed putting some degree of personal and, I think, really deeply felt pain in our lives. And I think that if we can overcome that by seeking out and encouraging more positive relationships with the outdoors, nature will actually do everything that it can to heal us. It will bring us oxygen, it will bring us food, it will bring us open space to move around comfortably.
And, in many ways, that means bringing each other into the space and supporting one another in these spaces. That’s where I think the healing can begin so that we’re not afraid to go outside…we are not concerned about how we’ll be treated because there are other people out there who not only look like us but are excited about having us be there. And they’re interested in hearing not only our stories, but hoping that people will share other stories about their experiences outside.
And I think that’s really where the healing begins because a big part of it, I think, is allowing the natural healing principles and healing dynamics of nature to be part of how we ultimately spend time in the outdoors. Because nature, in and of itself, doesn’t discriminate by race and I think, by definition, we shouldn’t either. We should respect and honor the contributions of everyone regardless of the color of their skin. And, ultimately, I think that we can heal the rift between all people if we can recognize the importance that everyone has a place in nature, and we just have to make sure that we make room and that we establish space for people to have these positive experiences.
Wakanda: Last question…is there anything else you want to share with our community?
Mills: I think the biggest thing—and I think this is true of anyone—is that it can be as simple as going out your back door. You don’t have to go to a national park, you don’t have to have expensive equipment and you don’t need a permit necessarily. You can literally go to a green space in your community. There’s water, oxygen, green space all around you. And I just really want to encourage anyone who’s watching this now to imagine themselves as part of the natural world because you are. And whether we realize it or not, it is something that we’re each entitled to.
And, frankly, our survival depends upon our having a positive relationship with the outdoors. We will not survive if we don’t get exercise. We will not survive if we don’t breathe deep and eat nutritious foods and move our bodies in a meaningful way. It’s critical to our longterm survival and I really want to encourage everyone to find their place in the outdoors, no matter how close or how far, it’s there for you. And I really want to encourage everyone to see themselves as part of the natural world.