SHIFT: The Joyful Transfer of Power

On the last night of the SHIFT Festival in Jackson, Wyoming the organizers hosted an after-party at the Organic Lotus Restaurant. By 1:AM a steady beat of house music still roused a group of at least 30 Millennials to dance away the night well into the morning. Damp with sweat I sidled over to the bar for a drink of water. Even after a double hip replacement it doesn’t take much to get this aging Gen-Xer out on the dance floor. Inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of young people more than half my age it’s hard not to celebrate. Busting out signature moves I first perfected as an undergrad at Berkeley back in the 80’s, I managed to work up a thirst that called for something more hydrating than the local IPA.

As I took a sip from my plastic cup of ice water, I felt a broad hand clap my shoulder. Turning slightly I looked around to see the smiling face of Len Necefer, the founder and CEO of Natives Outdoors. “It is so good to have you hang with us like this man,” he said with a hint of beer on his breath. “I gotta tell you, your film made me want to start climbing.”

The night before, the folks at SHIFT had screened a short clip of An American Ascent. Along with a variety of guest speakers and a few other films that illustrate the importance of bringing more people of color into the world of outdoor recreation, the three-day event made a compelling case for the values of diversity, equity and inclusion. Truthfully, when I was asked 5 years ago by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to help put together the first all-Black team of climbers to attempt a summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America, I had every intention of inspiring a new generation of environmental activists. It was my hope that we might get these young people to take on the cause to which I have devoted much of my life and ultimately assume positions of power within the outdoor industry and the conservation movement.  So as Len shared with me his praise for the movie I worked with so many others to create, I couldn’t help but beam with sheer delight.

“I know about native people and their relationship with Denali. That story really inspired me,” he said. “I want to put together an all-native women’s expedition someday.”

Modeled after other affinity groups, Natives Outdoors aims to encourage people from the sovereign tribes of North America and aboriginal cultures across the globe to spend time in nature. Just as organizations like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors have worked to identify and promote role models in the African-American and Hispanic communities of the U.S., Len wants to see members of the First Nations follow the affirmative principles and best practices of outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. In a growing movement of advocacy, he and other young people from across the country, were brought together at the SHIFT Festival to become part of the Emerging Leaders Program.

Trained at the Teton Science Schools in Jackson, this cohort of youth ambassadors represents the next generation of stewards who will help to preserve the integrity of the natural world through the next century and beyond. These are the new leaders to whom we old-school environmentalists will one day succeed our power. With particular interest in protecting land designated for public use, these emerging leaders are more than ready, willing and able to take on the many challenges that put the environment at risk.

“The coalition of stakeholders working to protect our public lands has the potential to become a movement,” says Christian Beckwith, the Director of The Center for Jackson Hole. “Outdoor recreationists, land managers, and conservationists realize their greatest opportunities for effectiveness when they address issues of common concern with a unified voice. Working together to achieve shared objectives, our ability to champion our public lands in a time of unprecedented threat is extraordinary.”

The 2017 class of Emerging Leaders includes a diverse assembly of young men and women working diligently in their communities to achieve lasting change. Jacky Elizarraraz is an equal employment opportunity specialist for the Bureau of Land Management. Jessi Johnson is the public lands coordinator for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and the co-founder of Artemis, a new group focused on encouraging women to take on leadership roles in the conservation movement. Robert Vessels is an Army veteran and leads the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program, which connects 14,000 service members, veterans, and their families to the outdoors through field outings and leadership training. Justin Forrest Parks is the logistics assistant for Chicago Cares, a volunteers organization where he focuses on diversity and inclusion in outdoor recreation by introducing communities of color to rock climbing.

Covering many areas of interest, these Emerging Leaders and many others are taking bold steps toward a future of environmental advocacy that represent a broader cross-section of the America people than ever before. Though members of my generation and the Baby-Boomers who came before have done much to further the cause, I am pleased to realize that our efforts have inspired so many conscientious youths to continue this very important work. Clearly the future of environmental conservation is in good hands and now we must do all that we can to support and encourage these young people to lead the way.

“I think it’s time for those of us old silverbacks in the conservation movement to consider an intergenerational transfer of power,” said former National Park Director Jonathan Jarvis. “We don’t have to leave the movement, but we should be ready to hand over the reigns to this new generation of leaders.”

As my age-peer colleagues slept I danced until almost 2:AM.  When the Lotus bartenders announced last call I grabbed my camera and snapped a few photographs before the lights came on. Excited by the prospects of a future led by such passionate young people, this silverback was pleased to know that I had helped to inspire at least a few of them. As the music faded, I hugged my new friends goodbye, put on my coat and headed for the door. Strolling out on the chilly streets of Jackson, we went our separate ways. Though my own journey will surely continue, I am more than happy to share with these Emerging Leaders what power I have to speed each of us forward into a brighter future. It’s time to make this shift happen.

#SHIFTJH2017

Special thanks to Nancy Johnstone owner of The Alpine House who very graciously hosted my stay in Jackson. 

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Author:James

I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.