An interview with Amanda Jameson, Community Relations Director at Big City Mountaineers Big City MountaineersJoan Fishburn | School of Public Affairs Apr 1, 2020
Amanda Jameson, Community Relations Director at Big City Mountaineers
Big City Mountaineers’ mission is to instill critical life skills in under-resourced youth through transformative wilderness mentoring experiences.
How did you get involved with Big City Mountaineers?
I first learned about BCM in 2013 when a friend of mine raised money for the organization by doing a thru-hike of all of the 14ers in Colorado. I had never really done a long-distance hike, but I knew that if I was going to do one that I wanted to give back in that way as well. And so, when I hiked the Colorado Trail in 2015, I raised funds for BCM. When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, I also raised funds for BCM. Then I just happened to be looking for a new job when this position came available at BCM and I knew the organization, I knew the good work that it did, and I really wanted to be a part of it.
What’s involved in your role as Community Relations Director?
I’m in charge of all of our social media, the newsletters, pretty much everything public-facing that isn't a grant. I also do a lot of outreach to volunteers and support programs and other internal communications as well. It's a lot of talking and writing.
What’s the biggest challenge and/or opportunity that you’ve seen in the nonprofit outdoor field?
There's a lot of interesting dialogue going on right now in the outdoors industry as it relates to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). It feels like we're continuing to have the same conversations over and over again. And when that happens it's usually not necessarily that people weren't listening the first time, but more that it doesn't seem like it’s a “need-to-have.” But in my opinion, in any organization, JEDI should be the first and the last thing that you consider before you make any big decisions or before you go public with anything. Certainly, certain companies are making strides and taking risks and making mistakes that they’re learning from. But it seems to me that a lot of other companies are looking to be handed a solution that doesn’t require changing the way that business is done. So, I wonder sometimes if there is the will in the outdoors to make this as much of a priority as it needs to be.
But I think here in Colorado, we're very lucky to have folks be more attentive to those topics and to be doing the work and to be talking and listening to the people that they need to. But there are also a lot of different organizations in the public sector where there is still the savior mentality and deficit thinking around people who the system has disadvantaged. And to be a more inclusive society and to make any progress on JEDI, that's something that definitely needs to change. But that's a whole paradigm shift for a whole lot of people.
How does that challenge and opportunity translate into the work that you're doing as Community Relations Director?
For me, the topic is very near and dear to my heart. I was very aware when I first started long-distance backpacking that I was probably going to be the only black woman on the trail. On the PCT, I'm pretty sure I can count on both hands the number of black people that hiked in 2016. And I knew most of them! So just being very tuned into the concept of JEDI from my personal outdoor recreation has made me want to bring that into my work.
And BCM is striving to make this a priority. When they brought me on they laid out their values and said, “We want to live up to them.” And I was like, “OK, I'm going to hold us to that.” So, a lot of my job is making sure not only that the decisions we're making are in line with our JEDI values, but also the way that we're communicating is in line with our JEDI values. And I'm not going to say that I don't make mistakes, because I'm human, but it's certainly something that I'm thinking about, and it's something that I strive for in our communications.
Particularly in times of crisis, we tend to lean back on the things that we know. And so, our initial reactions are rooted in “this is what I'm comfortable with, and this is what the general wisdom is.” But the general wisdom often isn't just or equitable or diverse or inclusive. And so even in a time of crisis, being able to bring us back to values and to have that be celebrated, has been a really heartening part of working for BCM.
How is the situation with COVID-19 impacting what BCM is currently doing and what your work might look like afterwards?
We definitely feel like the work that we do is valuable to the communities that we work with. We've seen it, we've heard back from alumni who’ve had life-changing experiences, and we've been really proud of that. But in this particular moment, there’s a question of how relevant our programs are. Yes, they provide hope. Yes, they provide something to look forward to in the future. But for the communities and the youth agency partners that we serve, is our service something that they need right now?
We want to stay in line with our mission. We want to get youth out for transformative wilderness experiences. But the question that we seem to be asking ourselves a lot right now is, do those have to look like the way that they've always looked? Or is there a way to make our programs more relevant in this moment? So those are the conversations that we're having right now, both internally and externally. And then it's on us to figure out how to deliver on the mission in a way that is supportive and does what’s best for our communities, this year and in the future. I think that this particular situation is providing us with a hard evaluation point for relevance.
What other lessons have you learned working at BCM or in the nonprofit outdoor field?
I think that there are a lot of really amazing people doing a lot of really amazing work in the sector. And I think that it would behoove us as a sector to move forward with a sense of community and collaboration, rather than competition. In the nonprofit sector there's always this inherent feeling of competition. We're all competing for the same funds. And I don't think that that's an effective way to be in community, and ultimately, to me, that is what nonprofits should be doing. They should be supporting, fostering, and growing community.
Finally, what has helped you get to where you are, and what advice would you have for others who want to achieve something similar?
I have had a very circuitous route to the place where I am right now. I started doing completely different work that was only tangentially related and then found a place and activity that made me passionate about the outdoors. And then I used that to deepen a passion for writing, then moved into not only teaching in the outdoors field but also doing writing in the outdoors field. So, everybody is going to have different entry points for doing this type of work. My biggest point of advice would be just to keep an open mind. Whatever you find yourself doing might not be the end-all-be-all, exact thing that you're looking to do, but if you have a passion, and it's related to the outdoors or the outdoors industry, pursue that. The outdoor industry is a very small place, both on the public side and on the private side, and it seems to me that once you get your foot in the door, you start meeting people. And relationships are what make this business run.
And just like any other industry, you're not always going to jive with everybody. Just thinking about JEDI, there's still a long way to go. And so, if that's something that you're passionate about, like I am, there's a long road ahead. But even in that, you will find like-minded people, and you will find people that do the type of work that you’re passionate about. And once you know those people, a lot of folks are really open to collaboration and are very approachable and just very, very cool. There are a lot of very cool people in this industry.
Interview edited for length and clarity.