Way back when we first starting planning the Expedition Denali project I had one secret goal. And during one of the most remarkable weeks in recent history that objective was finally realized. In a private screening before almost 200 high school students and representatives from several youth-focused nonprofit organizations our film An American Ascent was presented at the White House.
Expedition Denali team members Rosemary Saal, Tyrhee Moore and Billy Long made the long journey to Washington D.C. along with my co-producer Andy Adkins. Although I had never mentioned it to anyone directly I had hoped that our mountaineering adventure would one day come to the attention of the administration at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Our plan was already very ambitious. We aimed to put the first team of African-America climbers on the summit of the highest peak on the continent, Alaska’s Mount McKinley, also known as Denali. Even though our primary goal was not successful, we’ve achieved a number of small victories in the two years since the team returned safely home. Over the past 24 months members of Expedition Denali have shared their incredible story with tens of thousands of school children, young adults and prospective new outdoor enthusiasts across the country. They’ve visited churches, college campuses and communities centers from coast to coast in order to show that despite all evidence to the contrary people of color, African-Americans in particular, do indeed spend time in the outdoors and some even climb the highest mountains in the world. But all the while I privately hoped that we could share our story with the President of The United States himself. Our invitation to the White House is testament to the importance of our work to improve the circumstances of diversity and inclusion when it comes to outdoor recreation and environmental conservation.
Andy and I received the call for a command performance only a week before the event. In a mad scramble to book plane tickets and clear our schedules to attend with at least a few of our Expedition Denali team members we all hoped that President Obama would be there too. But major events throughout the week made a personal visit with the Commander-In-Chief all but impossible. The fatal shooting of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina had drawn the nation’s attention to much more important matters.
On the day of our film screening the President was scheduled to give the eulogy at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. The popular preacher and state senator was shot and killed by a racially motivated terrorist during a bible study in the church where he served as pastor. In a despicable act of hatred meant to insight a race war, the gunman attempted to undo decades of healing within a community torn apart by discrimination and violence perpetrated against its Black citizens. In a state where the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter and the Confederate Battle Flag still flies over its capital there is a sharp divide between those who cherish equality and others who aim to deny the brotherhood of all mankind. These same divisions still exist as well in many regions throughout our country. And though we had hoped to celebrate with President Obama our vision of an America where all people regardless of race or ethnicity claim for themselves the freedom to ascend to the very heights of our democracy, we understood with no small margin of pride and great admiration the reason for his inability to be there with us.
While we were in Washington D.C. our team had the opportunity to bear witness to two landmark events in our nation’s history. The Supreme Court of the United States passed down rulings to preserved the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The Justices sided as well with the plaintiffs in a case that challenged the right of same-sex couples to legally marry. Within one 24-hour period the freedoms of the American people we expanded to protect the vulnerable and disenfranchised against the tyranny of corporate greed and bigotry. Under the President Obama’s administration millions more U.S. citizens will be able to enjoy the safety and security of legal protections that can allow them to pursue happiness wherever it might lead free of excessive medical costs and with the support of a loving spouse.
“Today we can say, in no uncertain terms, that we have made our union a little more perfect,” said the President.
So it was with great consolation that our team gathered together at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Grounds to screen our film. As the exciting narrative unfolded the young people in the audience, most of whom were African-American, sat watching, their attention riveted. Afterward we fielded several questions about the expedition and the prospects of getting more people of color into the outdoors. But the query of one youth in particular made the entire project, everything we had done over the last four and half years completely worthwhile.
“Do you think I can do something like that one day?” he asked.
These past days marked an incredible week in American history and I am very proud that our team of climbers were able to become part of it. By sharing our film at the White House we represented the interests of environmental protection and the effort to make the outdoors accessible to everyone. We can only hope that by encouraging more people to cross The Adventure Gap we can inspire a new generation of social activists to defy the boundaries convention and outdated traditions.
Just hours after our screening, an African-America woman named Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina State House to remove the Confederate Flag. In a rebellious act of defiance and nonviolent protest she unclipped the banner of hate and took it down.
“We can’t continue like this another day,” Newsome said in a statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”
Prepared to be arrested and face the consequences of her actions Newsome did what she believed was the right thing to do. Taking precautions for safety with a helmet and climbing gear she made a bold statement encouraging others to follow their passion despite fear and apprehension in the face of vocal or event violent opposition. When she reached the ground Newsome was respectful arrested by police officers and taken into custody. Although the flag was put back in place an hour later this act of civil disobedience will stand as an enduring expression of freedom.
Despite the wonderful success enjoyed by the White House in the remaining days of the Obama Administration the important work of social justice must continue. In recent weeks as many as six Africa-American churches in the South were set on fire in suspected acts of terrorism. In the hopes of frightening and intimidating otherwise peaceful citizens with random acts of racially motivated violence these conservative radicals aim to put a stop to our progress toward a free and open society where everyone is made to feel safe, secure and welcome. Rather than restrict our movements behind locked doors, clinging to guns and suspicious of our neighbors, we must go instead boldly outside into the sunshine in search of adventure. As we actively work together as a united people to protect and preserve our natural resources, our public land, our fresh air and clean water we might to risk our lives, not in fear of death but rather in celebration of our liberty.
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