The Morning Shakeout: Mario Fraioli interviews Faith E. Briggs

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We started Prokit to amplify and spotlight the voices of powerful storytellers. Whether it’s through the profound or the everyday, the expert or the novice, the famous or the unknown, there are answers and inspiration hidden in words that often go unnoticed. Our new Best of Podcast series features full length edits of conversations previously only available in audio. In our first, podcast host and running coach Mario Fraioli interviews runner and filmmaker Faith E. Briggs for The Morning Shakeout about diversity, representation, media and our natural playgrounds.

Mario’s Intro

Faith E. Briggs is a runner, documentary filmmaker, and advocate currently based in Portland, Oregon. Her work focuses on diversity and representation in the media and outdoors. Her latest film, This Land, is a story about land access told through a journey of inclusion and empowerment. She and a few other runners ran 150 miles through three US national monuments and assessed what is at stake if previously protected lands are reduced and if the public is largely unaware about it.”

Faith and I talked about the mix of excitement and trepidation she’s feeling midway through 2020. She’s working through some confusion she’s been experiencing of late and talks about why representation in the media is more important now than ever before. She told me about the appeal of mountains, trails, and ultras to someone who ran in the 400 meters in college. She also redefined what a conservationist is, explained her love of words, language and storytelling, and shared a lot more.

All the Feelings on 2020

Mario Fraioli: As of today (July 1), we are halfway through 2020. How are you feeling right now?

Faith E. Briggs: It’s amazing how this year can feel so short and so long at the same time. I’m definitely having a lot of feelings about everything that’s happening in the world. 2020 is an election year and I think we forgot about that for a while in the midst of everything else. I’m feeling both a mix of excitement and trepidation about where we’re at right now. 

Where’s the excitement coming from?

I’ve been struggling to find the words for what’s happening right now, this newfound understanding, interest, or visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement on a wider scale. My initial response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery was the same tragedy that I always feel, but then seeing a large number of white people respond was really confusing for me. It’s not like I didn’t want them to respond, I just was confused. I was thinking, “Why now?” We’ve learned so many names. My first response was skepticism and confusion, and it has transformed into excitement. So much of what I do in my life is about representation and inclusivity and addressing the real history of our country and what our everyday context is. So it’s pretty exciting to see people say, “Hey, this is important enough for us to talk about every day.”

How did you work through some of that confusion that you were experiencing?

I definitely talked with friends. I have an amazing community of people that do justice work, whether they’re DEI consultants, or work in marketing, or are consultants for brands. I’m part of different communities of affinity groups, like Brown Folks Fishing. There’s another wonderful group of Black women in the outdoors that I’m in contact with. These are people that I’ve talked to every day, online or otherwise, and seeing how those folks were feeling was definitely helpful. It was good to know that I wasn’t the only one feeling a chip on my shoulder about why people are here now. People in these communities were also saying, “If we wanted people to pay attention, they’re paying attention now. Shouldn’t we be capitalizing on that energy?” It was the question that needed to be asked. We needed to look at the big picture. 

I’ve always been okay with accepting flawed attempts. Sometimes the first, second, or third time you try something new, it’s not going to be perfect, but I’d rather see an effort. I got to a place with this movement where I was seeing a huge effort. And if you have some tools to share because you’ve been doing this work, then that should be the focus right now.

What do you think was the spark that made more white people care? What made them start noticing these injustices and then take some steps to do something about it?

I think there’s a few answers to that one. George Floyd’s killing was so slow, and that video, without a doubt, showed a choice being made. In many of the other videos of Black people getting killed by the police, there was also a choice being made, but it was easier for people to be in denial when they saw things happening quickly, like fast gunshots. This killing was so slow and intentional, with the cop knowing he was being filmed and looking out at the person filming, I think that really shook people to their core. If denial had been the easy way out in the past, this one was really hard to deny. 

I think that Ahmaud Arbery being on a run made a difference to people. There are so many people that go on runs or identify as runners in the United States. To finally see a community respond and say, “Hey, that’s one of us,” was really interesting. White America hadn’t responded like that before. There was something about Ahmaud Arbery being in the process of running that made people feel connected. 

Not only was Breonna Taylor innocent in her home, but the people that the cops were looking for were already in custody. These 1-2-3 egregious actions by the cops really affected people. Then there was the Amy Cooper, Christian Cooper altercation. I’ve talked to white women friends for whom that shook them the most. Amy Cooper, not related to Christian Cooper, called the cops on this black man who had just asked her to put a leash on her dog. She’d criminalized him and created him as a threat. I think that for a lot of white women, they could see themselves there, and it was not what they wanted to see. I think that the slight differences of white people finally being able to see themselves in what was happening made a difference.

One of the common threads is that all of these incidents were recorded and put out for public consumption. As a documentary filmmaker, you share stories with other people. How powerful is that element of the movement right now? How much more powerful will it be moving forward?

It’s difficult in a few ways. Yes, we’re able to video and see a lot more of these tragic killings happening, but the street camera footage that showed the beating of Rodney King existed and that in itself wasn’t enough. Obviously, the racial makeup and the political makeup of the times was different, but I don’t think the visual evidence on its own is creating the difference today. I saw the George Floyd video by accident, and that was so devastating. I didn’t want to see it because I had seen so many other killings, but the fact that I literally couldn’t avoid it, that seems really different. 

More people are able to make films and more people are able to get access to things. I’m able to be a documentary filmmaker because cameras are becoming more affordable and I can pitch people because I can DM them. In the past, that wasn’t the case. Networking is more accessible now. This matters so much because representation matters so much. 

It’s not just who’s in front of the camera, it’s who’s behind the camera. All of us bring something to it. The idea that journalism is objective is being disproven more and more every day. The objective lens that the person behind the camera brings is going to impact the story. The subjective lens of the editor deciding what stays in and what is cut out impacts the direction and meaning of the story. It matters that more people have access to tools and training to share visual images. But man, it’s even hard for me to put documentary filmmaking and journalism next to these brutal videos. We shouldn’t be watching people die.

There’s the ability to document anything these days. The other part of it is the ability to share it so easily and have it spread so quickly through social media. That’s what’s really unique about this day and age.

Right. I completely agree.

You said you’re feeling excitement and trepidation. We talked a bit about the excitement, so where does the trepidation come from?

It’s a few things. The 2020 elections are coming up, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I’m not a supporter of the current president. I know how difficult it is to unseat incumbents, but it has happened in our lifetime, which is exciting. I very much fear what four more years of this inaction and this terrifying rhetoric would do to communities of color and marginalized communities, in particular. It’s very scary to see such inaction when we need proactive leadership, so I have trepidation there.

I went hiking the other day with one of my best friends from college and his parents who were visiting. His dad is a former Black Panther, and we were talking about how he’s feeling right now. He said that it’s so wonderful to see such a diverse group of people out there, because it didn’t used to be like that. But then he said “We’ll see if they’re still there in three months.” I think that’s the big question a lot of us have. How long is this going to last?

The trepidation I have is from wondering if people are going to think this is a trend or a hashtag, and that there’s an end in sight for the fight for racial justice and equity. There’s not. It’s been going on since before I was born. There’s isn’t a single law that can be passed that will immediately fix it all. We have systems to dismantle, and it’s a lifelong work. I know that everyone has a different role in this work, but I fear that people won’t make it a habit. Either they’ll be tired, or they just won’t understand that there is no end of the contribution to creating a more just society. I see that as an American responsibility, as a human responsibility. But I’ve had to. That’s been the kind of group in which I live my life, so I don’t get to tap out. I think there’s definitely a fear that people will tap out.

I hope that if we can see real change this year, that could be another catalyst for people. Hopefully, that will inspire people to keep going beyond this election in November.

Totally. I think, politically speaking, it’s good to not just think about politics at a federal level. I think we’re understanding who we elect, with the visibility of people like AOC, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar. Look at someone like Mitch McConnell, that is a state’s job. We’re deciding on much smaller scales than the presidency. I know sometimes people think their vote won’t make a difference, but it might. We saw that a small number of votes made the difference in the 2016 federal election. I think that it’s much more important with local and statewide elections. I really hope people are starting to see that more. 

The other day, I was talking about how exciting it is when people begin to understand the political process. A lot of us need a review from what we learned in seventh, eighth and ninth grade about how these things work so we can get excited about local politics. When I moved from Brooklyn to Oregon, I got to meet my representatives pretty quickly. I’ve sat in DC offices with three of my different representatives. I wasn’t doing that when I was in New York, and I get really excited about people understanding that they do have access.

I think it’s also worth reiterating that if we want to see collective change in our country, it starts with us as individuals, in our own communities. It doesn’t start from the top down, it starts from the bottom up. 

Totally. It never has started at the top. The Montgomery Bus Boycott happened for over a year, and the Freedom Rides lasted for seven months. A massive amount of people were walking to work, that’s how important it was. I just love knowing history because it allows you to see the precedents that were set, but it also allows you to see what it took and how dedicated people were. We can learn so much from actually being aware of what happened. People think the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a day or so, but no, it was over a year long. 

Representation and Why it Matters

I want to come back to your interest in history, but first, you’ve mentioned the word representation several times. Would you define what that means?

As a documentary filmmaker and a creative, I work in a lot of different areas. When people ask what my work is about, I say, “Representation.” For me, representation means whose stories are told, how are they told, and why are they told by whom. I use the example of motherhood. If you’re watching TV and you only see three kinds of mothers, that’s the messaging you’re getting around what motherhood looks like, what relationships with children are, and what roles, etc. 

The more shows that come out with different family dynamics and makeups, the wider the scale of messaging we get. It creates a greater spectrum of what motherhood can look like, not only for someone wanting to be a mother, but for a child with a relationship with a mother or a mother-like figure. By creating more images, we can affirm more people. We can let people know that what they’re doing is valid and that there are other people like them, that they’re not alone.

In undergrad, I studied African American Studies and Film Studies with a specific focus on representation in media. I looked at the dominating and controlling images of Black women, specifically the Mammy, the Sapphire, and the Jezebel. There’s a wonderful book by Donald Bogle, as well as a film called Ethnic Notions, if people want to learn more about those controlling stereotypical images. I wanted to know what images existed that controlled our understanding of Black women in America. How do they continue to exist and continue to reinforce stereotypical ideas about Black women, Latinx folks, or Indigenous folks? What are we being told about how people exist in the world? How does that make it really difficult for us to interact with other people?

I’m in the middle of the Just Add Water Project. It’s a series of film screenings, and we have panels with the people from the films. There’s a film called River of Return featuring a Shoshone-Bannock couple, Jessica and Sammy Mattsaw, who started a nonprofit called River Newe. One of the things Jessica Mattsaw said about Native American life was that everyone thinks it’s just “feathers and leather.” This is partially because of our media. We don’t have an idea of what contemporary Native American life is like. We don’t understand that Indigenous folks exist doing the same things we do. Instead, we have these images that exist. I don’t even like saying the word “Redskins,” but these images allowed that mascot to continue because we don’t believe in people, we believe in these stereotypes.

So when I say representation, I mean, who do we get to see? Who do we get to believe in, not only just to understand people better, but for younger kids especially, to know what their potential is. It’s a lot harder to imagine yourself being something if you’ve never seen anyone who looks like you doing it. We internalize these images of who gets to be a surfer, or a marathoner, or a politician, and who doesn’t.

When did your interest in representation really come to be?

I’m biracial. My dad’s Black, my mom’s white, and I’m the youngest of three kids. By the time I was born, my parents wanted to give me books about biracial kids, because my sister was having these racist experiences as a five-year-old. My favorite book was called Black is Brown is Tan by Arnold Adoff. That was always a part of the conversation happening in my home, and I’ve always been really interested in people. Spike Lee was my favorite director growing up and, I don’t know why, but one of my high school teachers allowed me to have my English class watch Bamboozled. Kids were leaving the room crying, so upset about this film. When I got to college, I wanted to be an anthropology major. I’d never heard of sociology, which is probably what I would have been doing. I took one film class spring of freshman year and was pretty much hooked then. That’s when I started referring to my interest as representation. 

This question is personal, but what can I and others in the “running media” do better from here on out as it relates to representation? 

It’s about race, but it also has to be about more than race, too. I did this film called The Movement with Camp4 and Jaybird, and they kept asking, “Running wasn’t cool, right?” I told them that running has always been cool. But they were talking about different kinds of running, like distance running and who was on the cover of Runner’s World. When I grew up, I didn’t even know any of those people existed. I only knew about Flo Jo and sprinters. I only knew about track and field, and maybe that was because that’s who looked like me, so that’s what I thought I could do. I could be on a track. 

It’s a question of a few things. One, what are you showing as valuable? In the outdoor context, as well as in a running context, are the only things that we see as valuable the longest, the farthest, the fastest, the highest, and the never before done? Do we only tell the stories of epic adventure? Or can we also tell stories about incredible people running in cities? I love seeing Ricky Gates running around the streets of San Francisco, talking to people. Yeah, it’s epic, but not in the typical, traditional sense. I think we need to redefine what the adventure is, what the journey is in our sport, and share stories that maybe don’t fit the typical running story that we’re used to telling. 

I think about all different kinds of representation, not only race and ethnicity, but also creed and language. When’s the last time you saw someone not speaking English in a running film? We have a few athletes that run in a hijab and are still getting kicked out of races for that. It’s the running media’s responsibility to really be thinking differently about whose stories they’re showing. 

Also, who is the running media employing and collaborating with to find these stories? We’ve been finding the same kind of stories over and over again because we’ve been looking for the same kinds of stories. We’ve been putting the same people on the job to find the stories. Diversification when it comes to storytelling makes a difference. If more people see themselves, they’re more likely to show up, whether it’s for races or other things. Who are you inviting to your races? Who are you supporting with the funding that your race can come up with? Will people pay $1 more to support a local organization, whether it’s the Y or the closest reservation? What can we really be doing with the platforms that we have?

What can brands and events in the running and outdoor spaces do better when it comes to representation, diversity, equity and inclusion?

I’m certainly still learning so much about my own craft within representation media. Yes, I have ideas about what race directors and brands can do, but they really need to do the work. They need to come up with an equity plan. Every single organization should have an equity plan that they check in on monthly. Each month they should ask, “How did we do? What else do we have to do? What can we do better?” I’m getting better at not thinking that I need to answer all the questions because I think people have to do the work to learn. If someone just tells them what to do, they’re not going to have the process of learning. It’s more than just having an equity plan and hiring consultants once a year. It needs to be part of the fabric of an organization.

Doing the work to learn is so important, regardless of who you are and what you’re involved in.

Totally. I have a little habit tracker that I try to fill in at the end of each day. It tracks things like, “went running,” “drank water,” or “drank alcohol.” It’s things that I aspire to do and things that I aspire not to do. One of them is “do something bigger than myself,” and another one is “educated myself.” I’ve always thought that it was so important for me to keep learning, so I can be better and contribute. People ask me questions about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I’m still saying, “I have so much to learn.” We all have so much to learn, and making it a habit is really important.

Evolution of Running: From the Track to the Mountains

Let’s go back to your childhood. You were a 400 meter runner at Yale. Your dad was a track athlete. When do you remember running first coming into your life?

My siblings and I are one, two, three, in terms of years being born so my parents had three little toddlers. If we went on walks as a family, there would end up being a race. I don’t remember this, but apparently I won a crawling race in my church when I was two. I still have this stuffed rabbit that I got as my first ever trophy.

Running was always a part of our lives. My sister is two years older than me so when she started on her first track team, I was going to the track with her and my dad. While they practiced, I was learning about the distances of the races. I’m sure we were watching the Olympics, and I was reading books about Flo Jo. I was asthmatic, and Flo Jo was asthmatic. Learning about her was a way my parents let me know that I would be able to run and be great, even with asthma.

Being the youngest of three, were you naturally competitive from an early age?

Is the sky blue? Oh yeah, I was extremely competitive. 

Did it only apply to running? Or has it extended to other areas of your life as well?

I was competitive about everything. I have certainly calmed down. I think I would have imploded at some point. I think that’s partially why my parents were supportive of me going to Hotchkiss, a boarding school. My sister and I were on the same track team, on the same relay team, and running the same events when I was in ninth grade and she was in 11th grade. It was incredible, so fun. But we were so neck and neck, my parents thought it was really important for us to have our own things as well. When I went to boarding school, I had a great coach and an awesome team, but not as much competition. I remember years later, my dad told me that that was probably the best thing that could have happened to both of our track careers and our relationship with each other. The story is, and we’ll never know, but if I had ever beat my sister, we might not be as close as we are now. I think that was a fear of my parents.

What did you love about running at that point of your life, when you were just getting into it?

I was a tomboy. I was never the coolest kid. My sister was always the most popular person in any school we went to. I was always smart and nerdy. I read a ton of books. With running, it felt good to be good at something that wasn’t going to get me made fun of. No one’s going to say, “Man, she’s so wack, she’s so fast.” That that wouldn’t make sense. 

We moved around a lot when I was younger, and when we lived in South Carolina, I definitely got bullied for being biracial. We lived in the middle of 300 acres, down these dirt roads, and it was just freedom to be able to run. When you’re spending a lot of time by yourself playing outside, there’s only so many things you’re going to do. Seeing how fast you can run is definitely going to be a part of that. I think running has always felt like freedom to me.

What role does running play in your life now?

Ooh, during this pandemic, I’m having a very difficult relationship with running. All the confines of where you can and can’t go, mask or no mask, made me feel very overwhelmed, so I hadn’t been running that much. I actually just started heading back to the track and getting back to basics. It’s been really nice. Back at the track, I’m in my home place, a place that makes sense. 

I do a lot more trail running. I’ve been challenging myself to do a lot more distance running. Last summer I produced and was the subject of a documentary film called This Land. I was running 20 miles a day, which coming from a 400 meter background is very different. Running has become a way for me to think, a way for me to connect with my own thoughts. I can be very productivity-oriented, and it’s kind of hard for me to pause. It’s nice to have something where I’m not on my phone, and I get to tune out and reconnect with how I’m feeling. A lot of things become clear when I think about them while running.

After college, you didn’t stick with sprinting, but you stuck with running. You just described how it’s evolved for you. What were the next steps in that evolution after college? 

First of all, I was in denial that I was done with the track. I had had a bunch of injuries in undergrad, so when I graduated, I still had some eligibility. I went straight to film school at USC, and I thought maybe I could walk on to the track team. I was still at the track putting myself through workouts. People would ask me what I was training for, and I would say, “Life.” I didn’t know what else to do. I was also swimming a lot because I had six different stress fractures in my shins during college, and I was trying to figure out what I could do. 

Around that time, I read Born to Run, and it was mind-blowing. I could never really understand why I had all these different stress fractures. I’m definitely a minimalist runner, and I had been wearing minimalist shoes before college, unintentionally. I just wanted shoes that looked cool. I was wearing whatever green and yellow, Jamaican-colored Pumas I could find. I moved into smarter, more supportive shoes in college, had a longer season, and ran on the indoor, banked track. My legs couldn’t handle all of those things. I ended up with a pair of those five finger Vibrams. At first I was super embarrassed about them, but I was trying to work on my legs. 

I dropped out of film school and moved back to New York. I didn’t know what on Earth I was doing with my life. I moved pretty close to Prospect Park, and I just started running to the park or biking to the park and running. I got those Vibrams, and you’re supposed to build up mileage at first. I would run a mile and then run barefoot. I’ve always loved running barefoot. My legs started feeling better. A mile became three miles, three miles became five miles, five miles became six miles. I think I hit my first runner’s high after six miles, and I was like, “Whoa, what is this?” 

At that time, everything felt unclear except for that. I had left film school, and I was thinking about reapplying and transferring into different master’s programs. I was working as a barista. I felt that for the first time in my life, people weren’t proud of me. Part of me was stoked about that. I had been in such high pressure environments between Hotchkiss and Yale, and even before that, being the kid who got straight A’s. I liked that now people didn’t get to use those accolades. Instead, they had to actually learn about me and what I was doing. It felt really good, but it was also really hard. Learning how to run differently was a huge part of my coping process. I felt like I was in control of something, which is how I started road running. 

One of my classmates from Yale, Gabby Kelly, had been running with TrackMafia in London and told me about Black Roses. I ran with them for about three years and started entering races. I did my first two half marathons and my first trail run with that squad. After running with Roses in New York, I got cast in a YouTube series called Directors of Toughness with Columbia Sportswear. That’s what moved me out to New York to Portland. The Directors of Toughness team signed me up for a surprise, 100K stage race. That was my first experience with running 20 miles a day. It was assigned to me as part of my job, but through the experience, I pretty much fell in love with mountain running. That was my first time doing mountain running. I was running in the Andes, and it was just incredible.

It seems silly to even ask you this question, but what was it about being in the mountains and being on the trails that felt so incredible to you? 

Actually, I got injured. I’d never run distances like that before, and I overtrained and went into the race hobbling. I finished day one in tears. I had been crying on the trail. Then two things happened. I called my dad because I didn’t know if I was going to keep going. I told him, “Nobody even knows I’m a runner.” I was so upset about that part. It was a huge, humbling experience. He said, “Who cares if people know you’re a “runner?” You are a runner because you’re out there running.” But also, he asked me what the race was really about? Was it about that finish line number or about running? So that was one thing. 

Then there was a guy who was two tenths down from me. He had heard me crying. He asked me if I was okay. Later on, he told me that I had to enjoy the experience. He was injured too. He said he was out of the trails, hanging out, and making people laugh. He said, “It doesn’t matter.” I just remember thinking, “How can I be like that tomorrow? Tomorrow, I’m going to enjoy it.”

So what did you do? 

I had a great time. I was taking selfies with people. I still am in touch on Facebook with some of the people in Argentina. I ran with another guy who was injured. We had seen each other on the first day with our knees both wrapped similarly. We did 10 to 15 miles together, with him leading for a little bit and then me. We had fun, making fun of ourselves. We got lost, and we got time added to us because the race had been shortened, but penalties were added. It was crazy, the whole thing just felt insane. Somehow, on day three, I could run for four or five miles and was suddenly able to put weight on my right knee. I was ecstatic. I finished the last day at twice the pace I had done every other day. I went back to the finish line and saw the people I’ve been running with the other days, hugged them and met their kids. It just felt so big. It was one of the best races I’ve ever had even though it was one of the slowest.

Did the community feel different to you?

It did, but it might have been me. I really don’t know. I have definitely waited for all of my teammates to finish before, but I have had this incredible luxury of always having been fast. I didn’t know what it felt like to not be at least competitive. That experience was really humbling. It reminded me of all the other lessons there are to learn beyond racing yourself and racing the clock. I do think that community was different, but I also think that I was different.

I just wish more people could experience that. There’s a lot of hesitation for folks, whether it’s getting into trails or ultras, but the community is just so welcoming. I think if you come from a collegiate running background, it can really open your eyes to what more running can be.

Oh, I agree. I almost feel like I sold the community short in my last answer. The community is incredible. There’s this understanding that what you’re doing is hard enough, so let’s just be chill. Let’s not make it any harder. I was running with Paddy O’Leary a couple years ago, and as a road runner, I would stop my watch when things were happening. Paddy was running at the end of the trail to this Porta Potty, and with his Irish accent, he’s yelling “The poop counts!” He was saying that it didn’t matter, clock everything, take the hours on everything. The poop counts. I think about that all the time. 

Paddy is a good friend of mine and former podcast guest. He just enjoys himself, and that’s a pretty refreshing perspective.

Totally. When I was first getting into it, I got to meet Joe Avott??, Amy Sproston, and Rory Bosio. They’re so chill! At first, I was so intimidated. I didn’t think they’d want to run with me, or I’d have to keep up, and it’s not that way. I do think that it’s something about the community. They’re just so excited that you want to be a part of it. When I meet other trail runners, whether it’s Olivia O’Neill, Addie Thompson or Sarah Forney??, it’s so easy. I just met Sarah and we had all these friends in common through trail, so now we’re just friends. There is this understanding, which I really appreciate.

Along those lines, I’ve been putting more energy into trying to get more people from marginalized communities and folks who live in more urban environments out into nature to experience trail running or just the outdoors, in general. In the trail and ultra running space, we just don’t see a lot of people, especially women, of color. How can we change that?

For my first trail running experience, I was running on trails in areas where I had hiked before. I just never thought to run there. I think it’s a question of introductions and invitations and knowing that it’s not going to work the same way for everything. I work at a youth-focus nonprofit, my last nonprofit was youth-focus, and I was a camp counselor for many, many years. I think about what introductions we are making for younger people. A lot of times people want to do stuff with kids from BIPOC communities, and they’ll do a park cleanup. Okay, but is that fun? If the first experience kids have isn’t fun, or if it’s work-related, will they want to come back and keep doing it?

I was already a runner before I fell in love with trail running. My introduction was little by little. Here in Portland, Yassine Diboun from Wy’east Wolfpack does cross country camps and things with younger kids. I don’t really know the answer, but I do know that being invited feels really good. I think those introductions might not necessarily be, “Come do a 5K on trails with me,” because for some people that’s going to be a really intimidating thing for them.

I just had Yassine on the podcast, and he talked about how one thing he’s really passionate about is reaching the youth and giving them the opportunity to get to the outdoors. You said invitation, he said opportunity. I think that’s what it is. If you do it consistently enough, it may stick, and that’s how it’s going to grow.

Yassine coached me for the monument project last year. Really, if I keep doing anything, I’ll be going back to Yassine. As my coach, he has a difficult job, because I really take time off.

Storytelling: Highlighting Land Conservation and What’s Up Next

The monument project is your latest film, a documentary called This Land. You ran 150 miles through parts of three US monuments at a time when there was controversy around public lands. What was the impetus behind that project?

It was really to understand what was the controversy of public lands. At the time, I was trying to decide if I was going to stay in Portland or go back to New York. I was running a lot with a crew of trail runners here in Portland, including Addie Thompson, who pulled me into her crew. Addie has a background in documentary, sustainability, and marketing. I was working at a conservation-focus nonprofit, so we were always having conversations about public lands. When it was announced that Zinke was doing this review of the monuments, our initial reaction was, “What is that going to mean?” Then I would be talking to friends back in New York, and they didn’t know what I was talking about. I realized I was in this bubble where it seemed like the biggest headline, but so many people weren’t aware of it. I wanted to figure out how I could bring that news to my community. 

Addy was thinking about what it meant for us women to be out there running. Originally, the whole film was going to be all women running, and Addie and I were going to do the whole thing together. Then she got into grad school, and over the course of trying to find funding, a few things changed. In the end, it worked out because it allowed me to bring more people in to run with me in different places and to share how they were using running in their lives. Those people included Jen Castillo, Jose Gonzales and Dustin Martin. They’re all good friends, so it just felt good to have friends to talk and run with.

One of the things you said in the film that really stuck with me is that you wanted to redefine “conservationist.” I’d love to understand a little bit more what you meant by that.

Thanks for supporting the film. I’d heard about conservation here and there throughout my life, and it always seemed really distant. When I was working at Discovery, I got involved in some of the different environmental issues that were facing us and how we could create films around them. What I learned was that I wanted people to be a part of the conversation. I’d be the first eyes on a lot of things that got sent in that were never going to make it to the network because there were language barriers, or the quality of the footage wasn’t quite there, or the story wasn’t quite there. I was seeing all these incredible stories coming out of Indigenous communities that were standing up for their homelands. I saw all of these amazing people-centered stories that weren’t going to make it to a network in the same way.

It also reminded me that people of color are so often on the front lines of environmental disasters. There’s an incredible film that recently came out called Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. I bawled the entire time, and it’s one of the most important films I’ve seen recently. We’re on the front lines, but we’re not involved in these conversations. Historically, we weren’t invited to be a part of them. 

When I was in grad school, I fact-checked this book called Spectacle by Pamela Newkirk. It is about a person named Ota Benga, who was “pygmy” who had been put in the Bronx Zoo. Through the story of how that came to happen, you learn about the “fathers of conservation” and how a lot of them were eugenicists. That was mind blowing to me. Eugenics and conservation have a very closely related history, which is really scary. It’s no surprise that we were removing native peoples from their lands in order to make way for “America’s best idea.” 

In order to be a part of conservation and reclaim it, I needed to redefine it. For me, when I say conservation, I mean clean air, clean water and access to green spaces. I think everyone deserves that. If we see conservation as a question of community health, then we’re going to be doing all the things that not only protect plants and animals, but also protect people.

I want to take a quick pivot and get into the roots of your creativity. When did your interest in storytelling start? 

Hmm. I don’t know if anyone’s ever asked me that. My mom’s incredible storyteller in the very official sense. She tells great stories at dinner, but when she’s reading a book to kids she really embodies all the characters and does all the voices. I always loved books. When I was working at these summer camps, we did a lot of storytelling and pageants. The kids we worked with were ages six to 12, and I saw how much media was impacting their lives. 

When I went to Hotchkiss and to college, I got to read all of these things from these incredible black women, writers that specifically impacted my identity and my sense of self. I knew that my kids weren’t getting that. They’re not getting Audre Lord’s voice or Elizabeth Alexander’s voice. They’re not getting the children’s version of Zora Neale Hurston. I didn’t want that knowledge to only exist in an ivory tower. I wanted it to be more common. I think that’s really what pushed me in this direction. 

But I definitely think I was influenced by my mom’s shameless storytelling. She acted everything out, and I loved seeing that and seeing people be fascinated, excited and even appalled. 

Does your love of language and words come from her as well?

Yes, and also from my dad. My dad is a ceramics professor, and he was doing his PhD when I was younger, but he also was a pastor for different periods of time. If I wanted to know what a word meant, I had to go look it up. “Go get the dictionary,” was very common. He would break down the Hebrew words in the Bible and what they meant. We were always encouraged to learn the etymology of words. I took Latin for a couple of years, and then when I switched to Spanish, I think I got even more excited about language and the origins of words. Being a competitive little kid, I got fuel from knowing words other people didn’t know. I’m very glad I don’t have that amount of competitive nature any more. As the youngest kid, you’re always trying to keep up and know something that someone else doesn’t know.

Where do you take your work from here?

That’s been a big question for me during the pandemic. I’m increasingly interested in how environmental policy can really reflect the needs of communities, particularly the communities that are most at risk. I’m curious about how Indigenous and Afrocentric approaches to community can be reflected in the way that we make policy. I’ve been wondering about trying to address that in a more formal setting through filmmaking. I’m definitely encouraged also by everything that is happening in the world because it feels like people are now understanding how much they need stories that get into the messy, difficult conversations about identity, politics, and our relationships with each other. So hopefully, more film, more nerd stuff, and more lobbying. I’m working with Protect Our Winters now and hoping to be able to get some more tools to do more political engagement, so I’m excited about that.

Well, I’m glad to hear it. I encourage you to keep going. I’m a big fan of your work, whether it’s a post that you put up on Instagram, a film that you’ve released, or your advocacy. Thank you for all that, and thank you for coming on The Morning Shakeout.

Thank you. It’s so nice to get to talk in this way. Thank you.

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