01 Mar James Edward Mills Receives National Geographic Explorer Grant
At some point I went from indulging a childhood fantasy to setting a life goal. I know that in the mid 1980s I imagined creating a career of adventure, but the realities of making an honest living relegated my job prospects to positions first in sales and marketing, then in print journalism. More than a decade ago I started to attend the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta to report on the culture of environmental filmmaking and action sports. It was there that I began building relationships with many of editors and content managers of National Geographic. When the picture below was taken in 2015, I’m pretty sure that way back then I had set my intentions on making that relationship official.
Over the years I’ve written a few stories for National Geographic on framed athletes like polar explore Eric Larsen, Everest mountaineer Conrad Anker and the Oscar winning photographer and film producer Jimmy Chin. Naturally I shared my reporting on these remarkable adventurers with a good margin of envy to go along with my admiration for all they and so many others have accomplished as world renowned adventurers. That’s why it is with great humility that I announce today that I have received a grant to become a National Geographic Explorer.
When I told my wife Shamane, she asked what you’re probably thinking. “What exactly does that mean? You’ve been working for National Geographic for years!” As a point of fact that’s true. The handful of articles I’ve written for National Geographic Adventure and National Geographic Travel have afforded me a lot of bragging rights, but this is different.
The National Geographic Explorer Grant is a recognition by the National Geographic Society in support of my work to report on a specific storytelling project in the field. Though I am not at liberty at this time to share the details of our upcoming “expedition”, this initiative is based on the program I conducted last summer we called the “Black Men Northwoods Retreat”. Working in cooperation with the National Forest Foundation, the Rebalanced Life Wellness Association, the Ice Age Trail Alliance and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources we organized a first-time overnight hiking experience for a group of Black men and their sons from Milwaukee and Madison through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Though hardly a death defying feat of wilderness exploration, this adventure sponsored by Yeti, Outdoor Research, Seirus Innovation, Osprey Packs, Merrell Footwear and others, created a safe and supportive environment in the midst of the global Covid-19 Pandemic for these men and boys to escape the confines of city life to enjoy the restorative and healing powers of the natural world.
Through much of my career I’ve worked to create opportunities for people of color to get into the outdoors for sake of adventure. Particularly at a time when Black Americans and other marginalized communities are most susceptible to contracting the Coronavirus while also being subjected to the risk of racially motivated violence and abuse, there is no more critical time than right now to help our people find a place in nature.
The project I am currently working on through my National Geographic Explorers Grant will create a new opportunity for a small group of Black and Brown folks to recreate safely outdoors. We’ll explore the various barriers that limit access to natural public spaces that include our national parks, forests, riverways and lakeshores. Through photographs and character profiles of our group members I hope to share a few thoughtful narratives to reveal some of the challenges we currently face as a nation to make access to our natural resources diverse, equitable and inclusive.
With any luck this next project will inspire other similar initiatives in the future. And though I can hardly claim to be a great adventurer I hope to be worthy of the title National Geographic Explorer.
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