Civil Rights in the Forest Service: Dispelling Preconceptions

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Forest Service Forum
Baltimore, MD
— August 25, 2009

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

An Ongoing Civil Rights Struggle

Here we are in Baltimore, with its rich history in the civil rights movement. Segregation in Maryland was at one time as bad as anywhere in the nation; all public facilities were segregated—schools, buses, movie theaters, parks, restaurants—everything. But Maryland in general and Baltimore in particular were also on the forefront of the civil rights movement.

One story is about a big department store in downtown Baltimore. It had a segregated dining room, and in 1960 the owners got wind that students from Morgan State University were going to stage a sit-in. The owners decided they couldn’t afford the publicity, so when the students came in, they were served. But the students hadn’t expected that, and they hadn’t brought money. The restaurant ended up serving them for free.

Not all sit-ins turned out so well. It took real courage, but it paid off. Acts of courage like this made all the difference in the world. By the mid-1960s, restaurants in Baltimore and the rest of Maryland were no longer segregated. Other public facilities stopped segregating as well. Baltimore gradually turned from a stronghold of segregation into the progressive city we know today.

As a nation, we have made tremendous progress. As recently as a year ago, people said it couldn’t be done. People of all colors thought that in their lifetimes they would never see a person of color as President of the United States. But last November, as millions of Americans cast their ballots, they made history … and today, we have Barack Obama as President.

But that doesn’t mean the civil rights job is done, not in the United States in general … and not in the United States Forest Service. Here are just a few indicators.

  • African-Americans are underrepresented in employment overall. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is about 60 percent higher than for whites.
  • African-Americans are underrepresented in the nation’s highest ranked business schools. In 2005, the percentage of African-Americans among first-year students at the top 24 business schools was only 4.4 percent. As you might know, African-Americans make up more than 13 percent of our total population.
  • African-Americans are underrepresented among national forest visitors. In 2005, less than 1 percent of our visitors were black.
  • And African-Americans are underrepresented among Forest Service employees. In July of this year, African-Americans made up just 2 percent of our women and 2 percent of our men.

The African-American Outdoor Heritage

One of the dangers is explaining that underrepresentation is through preconceived notions about certain ethnic groups not being interested in certain kinds of work, or not wanting to live in certain parts of the country. I don’t believe it, and history doesn’t bear it out. African-Americans have a rich history of experience with natural resources. I’d like to take a moment to recount some of that history.

Some of the earliest explorations of America included African-Americans. An African named Esteban served as translator for Cabeza de Vaca in Texas in the 1520s. An African-American slave named York played a prominent role in the Lewis and Clark expedition. African-Americans were among the mountain men who trapped and traded for furs. African-Americans worked on railroads and as cowboys, and African-American ranchers and farmers helped settle the West. African-Americans known as Buffalo Soldiers, roamed the West in cavalry units and patrolled the early national parks in California. In 1903, the acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park was Captain Charles Young, an African-American West Point graduate.

So African-Americans have a rich heritage of knowing the woods and using them. Especially after the Civil War, they often translated that knowledge into personal gain, either by moving out West and using the resources there or by managing the woods back East. When professional forestry took root around 1900, African-Americans were involved; it’s said that the first African-American professional forester was Ralph Brock, who graduated from a forestry academy in Pennsylvania in 1906. In 1910, despite all the discrimination they faced, African-Americans owned almost 200 timber companies. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed about 200,000 African-Americans; during World War II, African-Americans made up the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which helped pioneer smokejumping. From the late 19th century into the 1960s, African-Americans made up a quarter of the entire forest products industry, and they still own and manage a lot of forestland, especially in the South.

The Importance of Diversity

African-Americans have a lot to offer the Forest Service. That’s always been clear to me. When I first started with the Forest Service, there were two things I thought I’d never have to focus on: safety … and diversity. I thought safety and diversity were simply commonsense and the right thing to do. To me, it seemed obvious, and I thought everyone would get it. I thought everyone would automatically be practicing safety and promoting diversity.

I was wrong. A safe and diverse workforce does not just happen, it takes work.  It is our responsibility at the Forest Service to provide an open, inclusive, positive work environment. Every employee should feel welcome and supported in a work environment that is completely free from bias and prejudice. It is my responsibility … and the responsibility of every Forest Service employee … to live by that principle, every day in every way, both at work and outside the workplace.

I firmly believe that, simply because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the ethical choice, and that should be reason enough.

But beyond ethics, it’s also commonsense. There are practical reasons for it. An open, inclusive, positive work environment that welcomes and promotes diversity makes for a better organization, with better people making better decisions. We have to be able to compete for the best and brightest, and we can do that only with a work environment that is open and inclusive. Diversity promotes diversity of thought, which leads to better decisions. Good decisions are hard to obtain without diversity.

Fortunately, we do have a lot of diversity in our work. I recently met with the summer interns in our Washington Office, and I asked them what things about the Forest Service we should mention in recruiting new employees. One suggestion they had was pointing out just how many different kinds of jobs there are in the Forest Service. They were amazed by that diversity. People from every educational background can have a career with us. We have wildlife biologists, soil specialists, hydrologists. We have scientists of all kinds. We have journalists and writers. We have law enforcement officers and lawyers.

It wasn’t always that way. In 1960, a sociologist named Herbert Kaufman published a book called The Forest Ranger. In it, he explains how uniform we all were back then. We were almost all white male foresters from the same forestry schools with the same backgrounds and experiences. We were pretty much interchangeable, so under the same set of circumstances we could be relied on to all make pretty much the same decisions.

In a way, that was a strength, because it gave us organizational cohesion, but the narrowness of our perspective ultimately proved to be a terrible weakness. Many of our senior leaders can remember those times, and every one of them I’ve talked to thinks we are a far better organization today. The diversity we have today, with employees from so many different disciplines and backgrounds, broadens our perspective and makes for far better decisions.

So the right thing to do—to promote an open, inclusive, positive workplace where diversity can thrive in every form—is also the best thing to do for a strong organization.

Preconceived Notions about Race

But African-Americans are still badly underrepresented in our workforce. So why is this? That brings me back to those preconceived ideas about ethnic groups that I talked about earlier.

Some people might assume that people from certain ethnic groups, because of their own preconceptions, might not be interested in working in a particular location. For example, some people might think that an African-American might not be interested in working in a small rural town in a conservative part of the country. That’s not necessarily true, and we shouldn’t make that assumption. A lot of African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, or Asians might be very interested in such opportunities. We need to let individuals, indeed encourage individuals to make that decision for themselves. Whenever we do outreach for any position, anywhere in the country, we need to avoid factoring in any preconceptions we might have about ethnic groups, about the job, about the location.

Perceptions can be problematic. We can’t let them drive what we do. For example, there’s a preconception out there that African-Americans are not being selected, especially for leadership positions. They might make the top of the list, but then they’re not selected. That preconception can be very damaging if it stops African-Americans from applying for Forest Service jobs.

But is it really true? If it were true that African-Americans are not landing the leadership jobs they apply for, then we would expect to see that reflected in salary grades. We would expect to see a significant difference in salary grades between African-Americans and whites. Do we see that difference? Not as far as I can tell. On July 21 of this year, the average grade of permanent employees was 9.17 for whites and 9.28 for blacks. Is that a significant difference?

What I worry about is that people either develop their own preconceived ideas, or they listen to others. My example: there was a time that for 8 straight years I was applying for jobs. For 8 years, there were at least one or more jobs that I was applying for. Some were for promotions, some were for laterals, some I would make the top three, some I would not even make the cert (not qualified for DR). I share this example not because I am proud of my track record, but as an example of what if. What if I would have listened to folks who believed that I could not compete for a promotion, that I was lucky to have the job I had, or asked why I would want to move?

We are all in this together, and it’s a two-way street. African-American employees need to do what they can to help dispel these preconceptions by making sure they apply for the jobs they want, and the experiences they want to have during their career. They should take advantage of every opportunity there is in the Forest Service. They should not let perceptions stop them from applying for a job. If we hear that perceptions stopped someone from applying for a job, we need to do what we can to address it—and reverse it. Careers are different for everyone, and we need to be very careful not to push our ideals on others, but to encourage everyone to take advantage of what this Agency, the Forest Service has to offer.

Continue Moving Forward

That brings me back to the civil rights movement. Segregation was also based on a set of preconceptions about ethnic minorities, especially about African-Americans. It took vision to see through those well-established myths, and it took acts of true courage, like sit-ins, to overcome those rigid preconceptions about people of color.

Today, it is up to us to keep moving forward—to keep showing that same vision, that same courage, that same leadership. Leadership from all of us. It is my responsibility to ensure that we have the policies, the procedures, and the direction to ensure that we have a positive, inclusive work environment, that there are no barriers to our outreach for vacancies. But it takes more that that, it takes leadership from all of us. It takes leadership to mentor employees, to encourage people to apply for jobs, and to encourage people to apply for their first job with us. It takes leadership to make sure that employees do not buy into perceptions that don’t apply to them. It takes leadership to maintain a work environment where people cannot wait to get to work everyday.

Diversity is one of the components necessary for success. It is the difference between a good organization and one that excels. The Forest Service needs to excel!  Thank you.