A Conversation with Conservationist and Outdoorsman James Mills

James Mills stands in front of some 50 people in Slocum Commons to speak about diversity in the outdoors. He is at Colorado College touring with his film An American Ascent, which documents the first attempt on Denali—North America’s highest peak—by an all-African American team. “There is no racial component in how to stay warm,” Mills stated. Still, the narratives displayed in the outdoor industry are dominated by white faces. Mills, an outdoorsman, film producer, and adventure writer, has worked on diversity in the outdoors as well as conservation and sustainability throughout his 20+ year career as a journalist. After he addressed a group of students, I had the chance to speak with him about how he became involved with the outdoors.

James Mills, author of “The Adventure Gap”, and producer of the film, “An American Ascent”.
Photo courtesy of James Mills.

JP: What drew you to the outdoors?

JM: My experience in the outdoors is identical to most people, at least of my age. I was in the Boy Scouts. I was the son of a prominent attorney in Los Angeles so my family wasn’t hurting for money. We took family vacations at the cabin. We went fishing, we went skiing, we had those opportunities growing up. The biggest thing that draws me in is that it’s so different from the everyday. To me the outdoors is this wonderful, constantly changing environment that is always going to test me as a human being in a different way.

JP: How does imagery affect diversity in the outdoor industry?

JM: Up until very recently you would never see a person of color in Climbing Magazine, Outside Magazine, Backpacker, or even Alpinist Magazine, which has published several of my articles now. I’m not suggesting that was deliberate, it just wasn’t explicit. People typically show images of what they consider the ideal of something, that’s what advertising is. When you’re talking about outdoor recreation, a person who spends time in the outdoors, I’m just going to say it,  it looks like you. An affluent-looking white person with a beard and a comfortable sweater. That’s what you expect to see. In order to make someone who doesn’t look like that feel welcome, you need to show them that image, because those images do indeed exist.

JP: It seems that the stories of people of color in outdoor history are present, but erased. Do you see that happening?

JM: If you take a look at the Western cowboy, statistically one in five of those cowboys was black. Is that reflected in a John Wayne movie? When you systematically scrub an entire demographic of the population from a narrative, you will have a generation of young people growing up and thinking they have no place there because they haven’t been told in these stories.

JP: How does “An American Ascent” differ from the standard outdoor story?

JM: Our team doesn’t summit. Had they summited, I think we would have gotten more attraction. I actually had the guys at Reel Rock tell me, “they didn’t summit: how is that a story?” As far as I’m concerned, the expedition was incredibly successful. The fact that this is still culturally and socially relevant, the fact that we can actually move this conversation forward. If we’re talking about a generation of people who have been told outdoor recreation isn’t for them, and they even attempt the highest summit in North America, to me that is a great story.

JP: Do you ever feel pidgeon-holed as a writer?

JM: Yes. And I’ve got to tell you I desperately try to avoid that, being put in that position. Because frankly, it’s very limiting to me as an artist. Frankly, for me it’s boring. More to the point, I never wanted to be this guy. I was more interested in just being a competent adventure writer than a competent adventure writer with a specialty in diversity and inclusion. Sadly, that limits my audience.

I’ve had people berate me for constantly stirring up trouble. For being the guy who imposes controversy where there is none. I’m not an advocate really, I just write about what people do, and try very hard to put it in the context of something that’s meaningful. I don’t make stuff up. I don’t embellish. I want the average person to say, “Yes, I can think of myself in those circumstances, and now I think about this in a completely different way.”

There are many more people working on this now than when I first started, so now I can start working on other things. A big project that I’m working on right now is private land management and how ranchers and farmers work with the lack of topsoil. There’s not a black person in this story, and there’s not a disproportionate influence of people of color. This is as far as I’ve been from this topic in a while, but still talking about the environment, because we need to know where our food comes from.

The reason why I started this work in the first place was because no one else was doing it in a substantive, meaningful way. I think a large part of what made Expedition Denali successful was that I already had a pedigree of doing this stuff for almost five years. I needed to be that guy, at least long enough to get this story out.

Now that it’s out, and people are talking about it, I can be another guy.

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