Road less traveled: A Black woman's journey in forest management
For Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the question was, “To be or not to be?” However, in 1994, the question for me was, “Do I work for the Forest Service or the BLM?” At that time, I had completed my academic studies at Oregon State University to qualify as a “forester.” After 20 years in administrative positions, the Forest Service offered me a line officer job, which was not to exceed 1 year. The BLM offered me the field manager position in Baker City, Oregon. I took the BLM job. It turned out that I was the first female African-American field manager ever hired in the BLM!
My career spanned from 1974 until 2007. During those 33 years, I can count on one hand the number of times that I was in a meeting in which there were other African-Americans. Even today, it is unusual to find an African-American female in a natural resource career, let alone as a forester. When I decided to go into management, I was definitely blazing a road less traveled by other African-American females. I had no role models. I wanted to be excellent in all of my endeavors, so I studied the professionals in the BLM.
Folks are always curious about my experiences—how I accomplished what I did and why I picked a career in natural resources when so few African-Americans were in the field. Most importantly, I did not dwell on the fact that I was an African-American female. If every move I made or every decision I delivered focused on that, I knew early on that I would spend a lot of energy on it, rather than focusing on being the best that I could be. The latter worked better for me.
To tell the truth, my biggest issue as an African-American in the agency and in my community—don’t laugh—was my hair. In some of the rural places where I worked, I could not find “Black” hair products. That said, I learned to do my hair myself—biggest issue gone! Smaller issues cropped up from time to time. My temporary assignment in Silver Lake, Oregon, comes to mind. I was driving through in my private vehicle, checking out the area before reporting to duty as the acting district ranger. When I got to the end of town, I turned around. As I was driving back, a policeman in the middle of the road directed me to stop. He came over to the car and said, “You lost?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well I saw you come through town and turn around; I thought you were lost.” I said, “No, I’m not lost. I’m the new temporary district ranger, and I was just checking out the area before reporting in.” The officer’s jaw dropped. I’m sure he didn’t realize how long it took him to speak, but it was well over a minute. Finally, he stumbled and said, “I . . . I thought you were lost. You . . . you know I know those folks over there. We . . . we play baseball with y’all. I’m, um, glad you’re not lost. I, um, guess you need to be on your way. You take care now.” In many of my first-time experiences meeting people, I found they were surprised, maybe even shocked, to find an African-American female living among them.
Most of my experiences confirmed that BLM and Forest Service managers are treated with respect. I found that if you communicate with and listen to people, and if you have a good reputation for knowing your job and making good decisions, people are willing to give you a chance. If you respect them, they respect you (regardless of color). I did not experience any outright prejudice. Employees and the public at large were more interested in how well I did my job than the color of my skin. The uniform and the position commanded respect. At the same time, the individual in the uniform had to earn that respect.
I attribute my success in the BLM to the professional employees who worked for me. Most were awesome and knew their jobs and the geographic area I was responsible for. The professional women in the BLM also contributed to my success. They are a close-knit group, and in joining them, I found advocacy, support, and advice. Many of these women have become lifelong friends of mine and have supported me on and off the job. Elaine Zielinski, who was a BLM state director in the Pacific Northwest, turned out to be my best role model.
I picked natural resources because I love the outdoors and being able to make decisions that make a difference in the environment and the communities we serve. I wanted one moment in time when I was more than I thought I could be. The BLM gave me lots of those moments that will last for an eternity.