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Transformation Through Diversity
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
USDA Forest Service Forum, African American Strategy Group
Nashville, TN—August 14, 2007


It’s my pleasure and honor to join you for today’s forum.


I don’t know if it was by choice or by chance that we ended up in Nashville—a Southern city, where the struggle for African American equality advanced. For most, it’s a little-known story; but in February 1960, Diane Nash boldly led a small group of students in their own version of a lunch counter sit-in in downtown Nashville. That act launched a revolution that transformed the city from a stronghold for segregation to the progressive municipality we know today.


It’s a fitting backdrop for our conversation. In the Forest Service, we, too, are undertaking what some would call a revolutionary attempt to transform the Forest Service. We want to do more than just survive in this new century. We want to design an organization that is poised to meet evolving natural resource challenges while serving needs of an increasingly diverse population.


Any design would be incomplete if we lost sight of our vision for diversity. A transformed Forest Service must be structured to redeem our individual and collective responsibilities to ensure fair treatment for each employee and every citizen. It must maximize our diverse skills, values, and cultures.


With your support, our new organization can do just that.


My plan today is to share a candid assessment on where we stand on diversity. Secondly, I’ll talk about what you can do to help us meet our aims for diversity amid this transformation effort. Finally, I’ll share my vision for expanding diversity beyond our doors.


My Story
Admittedly, I am a far cry from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice or Senator Barack Obama—but I know from recent experience it’s not easy being first or being the only one.


I’ve spent more than 30 years working for the Forest Service—and a small stint with the Bureau of Land Management. Like some of you, I often recount earlier days when women and minorities were implicitly told they need not apply for jobs. It was an era of often routine insensitivity toward women and minorities—especially those who dared to move into the fraternity.


I started my career as a seasonal on the Umatilla National Forest in Oregon. I learned firsthand how discrimination feels—even when it’s subtle. I was one of two women hired that year—an experiment. For some of the older hands, this was really hard. Kris and I were stationed in a cabin on the far southern end of the district while the men were all north. We all had fire training, but Kris and I were never sent on a fire. We completed all our work assignments, however, and the quality surprised them.


I understand the isolation you feel when you’re the only one—a woman in my case—being on a crew or a team or sitting at a decisionmaking table. As a pioneer woman forester, I remember the pressure (real or imagined) I felt that I had to be the best all the time at everything. And after six months as the first woman to serve as Chief, it doesn’t appear to get any easier. But I believe it’s getting better, for both women and minorities.


While the Forest Service’s advancement toward equality and diversity may not compare to the progress made by our country as a whole throughout our national history, recent progress is encouraging by our own modest historical standards. After many years, it seems we are finally getting it: We’re learning that a commitment to equitable treatment is not embodied in a program, graph, or statistic; it is infused in the ethical conduct of every employee as we recruit, complete a forest project, serve a community, or just sit next to someone at a lunch table.


One of my predecessors once said, “Our success as resource managers in working together with communities and individuals depends on our willingness to understand each other’s perspectives and treat people fairly. In the same way, we will only be successful within our organization if we concentrate our energy on working together.”


I am proud to be a part of this agency as it enters its second century—working with fellow leaders who really get it and want results. We recognize the blight on our own history. We’re eager to rewrite those pages of our story. Until every employee has a chance to fully reach his or her potential, has full access to all the opportunities this agency affords, and receives treatment that is fair and equitable, our jobs remain incomplete.


There is no better time to realize that vision than now—when we’re facing massive retirements in all our ranks. Most predict we will lose a sizable portion of our workforce in the next five years. We must be ready.


Our leadership team has taken this challenge seriously, despite budgetary and organizational constraints. We have been very intentional in developing strategies to recruit and fill leadership vacancies by identifying potential leaders, providing rigorous training, and developing a pool of highly qualified applicants. Moreover, we’re drawing more on nontraditional resources such as the Presidential Management Fellows program to attract the best and brightest. I am also proud of the work we continue to do with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.


Does that mean we have developed the ideal, diverse candidate pool we want? Unfortunately, we have not—but we’ve made progress.


It’s clear from the questions I see raised at our decisionmaking table that our leaders are thinking seriously about diversity when recruiting for and filling key positions. We fully recognize that we have more to do.


Transcending that, we have become more aggressive in confronting civil rights violations and sexual harassment. Efforts to reduce numbers of complaints attest to that. Yet there are still too many grievances, class action lawsuits, and untapped talents.


We can’t do it alone. We need you, too. That includes taking responsibility for your future and your work environment. How many of you still entertain inappropriate jokes and slurs that diminish or dehumanize individuals? What have you done recently to create a healthy work environment? How many of you have witnessed unfair treatment and have been content to talk about it in the break room or at the coffee pot?


On a personal side, are you positioning yourself to take advantage of new career opportunities? Does your preparation for a new job go beyond formal training and education? Have you volunteered for a special project or a challenging detail assignment that stretches your comfort zone, develops unused talents and raises your stock in a competitive process? Does your work ethic demonstrate a deep commitment to natural resource conservation and leadership? Are you willing to move—to take an assignment in the Washington or Regional Office or other regions? Are you taking steps to mentor employees new to the Forest Service? Are you nurturing someone who is close to “getting it”?


Thinking seriously about answers to these questions is more important now than ever—especially as we undergo agency transformation. Not every job will move, but the WO and RO organizations will be different—in size, number of people, locations, and position descriptions. When we complete the transformation, I expect jobs to become available; we’ll need people to fill them. We need you to be ready to take advantage.


Transformation. I wish we could transform the agency with only minor tweaks to our structure and little employee upheaval. But we can’t. As natural resource professionals who understand the life cycles of flora and fauna, I hope you’ll see the parallel to this organization’s need to change. Simply put, growing things change. Changing things grow.


You can help with that growth. I encourage each of you to use the channels we’ve developed and inform the transformation process—use the websites, change consultants, and your existing communication channels to help us create an organization that can grow and thrive amid daunting challenges. The transformation team wants your input. We need it.


Diversity will remain a high priority during this process. When we selected the transformation team, we deliberately chose members who represent a broad cross-section of skills, experiences, and points of view—from gender and racial ethnicity to administrative and natural resource expertise. I look forward to the results of their labor.


You can also help by doing what you can to reduce rumors and misinformation. Ask questions of the right sources; take responsibility for keeping yourself informed.


Diversity Beyond Our Doors
I have one final request: Help me enlarge our vision for diversity so it transcends our agency, going beyond recruitment, hiring, and retention. If we really want results, we can’t limit it to these three goals. To do that limits our future. We can’t afford this restriction at a time when national forests, all forests, must remain relevant to changing demographics.


When we talk about diversity, we must talk about it in terms of the people we serve and the services we deliver. Ultimately it’s about connecting people to the land. Our success in sustaining the nation’s forests depends largely on citizens’ connection to them—and their willingness to support them as well as their understanding that forests support us.


The citizens we serve tomorrow, however, will vastly differ from the folks we see today. America is changing in ethnicity, values, and the way people relate to the land. We’re not quite ready for it.


Last year, the American population topped 300 million. At least 77 percent of that total resides in cities or—at the very least—suburbs. Racial and ethnic minorities comprise 17 percent of nonmetropolitan residents and are more geographically dispersed across the nation. Despite undeniable population shifts, better than half of our support comes from traditional populations. California’s Angeles National Forest, for example, is within one hour’s drive of 13 million people, including a considerable Hispanic population, Asian peoples, African Americans, Russian immigrants. Yet 79 percent of forest visitors remain non-Hispanic whites. To be fair, the Angeles has some fabulous programs that are sure to improve our outreach.


Add to this our teenagers and youngsters—those I-pod-listening, American-Idol-watching, x-box-playing kids. In a competition with this hi-tech entertainment, I worry that forests left in the hands of these future leaders might wind up a loser. Most of our present and past leaders who became conservationists made their connection to nature as kids. Without that connection today, who will lead us tomorrow?


Any diversity strategy for this agency must include bold moves aimed at effectively reaching youth and must include both rural and urban youth. We must help kids recognize how vital healthy forests are to their qualities of living. Interestingly, future recruitment and retention of employees depend on our success today in helping kids connect with nature.


We’ve got to develop a language that resonates with them and discusses forests in terms they care most about. Take climate change. If you google climate change on the Internet, you’ll find hundreds of stories and articles, which prove that it’s high on the minds of Americans—especially the younger generation. The Forest Service certainly has a great stake in it.


I have been encouraged by the recent success we’ve seen with our Kids in the Woods program, which connects youth to the outdoors. With little effort, we generated more than a 100 news stories in 24 hours because we talked about the woods in terms of the nation’s growing concern for obese, sedentary youngsters. Throughout our history, we have had programs across the country that connect with kids. We need to ask ourselves how we can be most effective with the partners and resources available.


In fact, let me challenge each of you. Take a child to the woods this year. Take a child to some tract of undeveloped land, explore a lakeshore, examine tracks left by some animal, listen for different bird sounds, examine tree leaves … share the wonder.


But it’s just a beginning. Thinking differently about diversity opens new opportunities for all of us, including the African American Strategy Group. I hope you’ll talk about that in your casual discussions this week.


It’s no accident I started this talk with a reference to the Diane Nash story, of how a small, inexperienced group of African American students influenced Civil Rights history and transformed the city of Nashville. They accomplished much with just a little.


I have the privilege of serving an agency that employs a diverse, talented workforce that’s 40,000 strong. If we work together, make the most of our unique cultures, values, and creative skills to boldly transform the way we do business, just imagine what we will do.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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