Our Interview With Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps
Building Trails To Build Careers
Agnes Vianzon’s experience in land management led her to create Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps (ESCC): a better opportunity for people from underrepresented populations to get into the industry. Backcountry sponsors ESCC as part of our Breaking Trail Program to help these groups further their efforts for a more inclusive outdoors. Read on to see how this Trailbreaker is creating targeted trail crews that help people build skills and gain experience that they can apply to future opportunities.
What inspired you to create ESCC?
In my experience, the value of extended amounts of time living and working within a National Park with a group of peers is priceless. But, I wanted that love and magic to be available to more folks, and some of the agencies I worked with were not willing to make adaptations to be more inclusive.
There were negative experiences, numerous barriers to change, and many conversations and requests for things to be done differently that created frustration and motivation to create something that would be different—more inclusive, more welcoming, and designed based on the lived experience of the folks working for and serving with us.
Tell us about an unforgettable experience you’ve had with ESCC.
There are so many. On a recent backcountry hike [on a trail our crews worked], I reminisced on who built the structures, the teachers I had, and participants who jumped in a snow melt creek for the first time. The lessons from an experience like this are not immediate. They continue to give. Once a week after community meetings, our folks share their gratitude with each other. It’s a powerful exercise.
It’s the stories or letters or texts that come months or years later. A thank you from someone that got a permanent job as a wildland firefighter. Or from someone who has overcome obstacles because ESCC showed them what they are really capable of doing.
What are the most common barriers to outdoor experiences for your community?
I am part of many communities. A queer one, a female one, a nonbinary one. First generation. Filipino. I cannot speak on behalf of an entire community. The communities we serve vary wildly even within an all queer crew or all BIPOC crew. But most common is feeling like folks aren’t welcome to participate and lack access to gear, transportation, and knowledge.
What does your community need to feel safe in outdoor spaces?
It’s not for me to say if we provide a safe space. We do what we can, but it’s up to our participants to determine if they feel safe. And it’s very fluid—we can’t parade around our Queer Crew in Redding, CA like we do in San Francisco.
What does it mean to you that the first crew of ESCC was all femme?
While I was building up my outdoor career, it was the norm, like in many other places, to be the only female or only person of color. On my first crew, there were only 5 out of 18 women. Once while I was preparing for a panel, I counted that I had previously worked for 23 white, cis, male hetero supervisors.
I didn’t fully realize the immensity of what having this [all-femme crew] meant. ESCC’s crew worked alongside two other organizations that brought all-male crews and we got just as much if not more work done. The role models that our crew had was all female. It means that we can show folks that they belong. That they should feel welcome.
“[I wanted to create] something that would be more inclusive, more welcoming”
You hosted the first Queer WILDlands Technical Trail Crew—what impacts did that have?
We’ve been a part of and seen how impactful an affinity space can be. This crew was the first of its kind that we know of. We were recognized for something that shouldn’t be so special. The thing is, that crew was amazing. They got work done, they challenged themselves in spite of some people not being supportive, and hopefully, there will be many similar crews to follow behind.
What do your participants gain from ESCC?
Confidence, courage, transformational growth. They are paid a living wage with access to health insurance. They learn skills that are relevant to any job or relationship they have moving forward.
You’ve said that ESCC participation leads to a pipeline of jobs in the industry. Tell us more about how that works.
Part of this is very personal. I didn’t grow up hiking or backpacking. We were lucky and visited many National Parks, but I didn’t have an appreciation for them until my participation in an AmeriCorps program where I got to live and work in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park for 5 months. I brought all the ‘wrong’ gear, my pack was heavy and unbalanced. My boots were the worst and gave me massive blisters. But I got to maintain trails 25 miles away from pavement, and I fell in love with it. I wanted to capture that experience in a mini version.
Our In The Wilderness program is an 8-day, 40-mile backpacking and stewardship trip. We’ve taken first-time backpackers up and over the Sierras. They get to live and work with a crew that is spending months out there. They go from never-been-hiking to living in a National Forest and getting paid to build trails. You learn and grow with the folks right beside you—sometimes you encourage them and sometimes they encourage you. It is hard not to become an advocate for the land after this experience.
We’ve had a number of folks graduate through our programs to build up their skill set. Some stay in the trails field, becoming employees for the National Park Service. Some have created their own guide businesses. Some are leading similar-type trips for high school folks. When you are immersed in an environment like that it transforms you, whether you want it to or not.
“The lessons from an experience like this are not immediate. They continue to give.”
What are the biggest impacts you’ve achieved through ESCC?
That folks are listening and seeing things can be done differently. The impact we make on our couple dozen participants each year still changes the world. We are, in a very real way, directly changing the faces of those working for federal land management agencies which have been white male-dominated for too long.
What projects are you focusing on right now or in the near future?
We need to set up our organization to be more sustainable. We are uncertain from year to year in the amount of fee for service contracts we will receive or how much we are able to fundraise. Both things directly affect how many folks we are able to serve. I (Agnes) am the only full-time year-round employee, which is not sustainable either. We already work all over CA and want to be sure that if we expand beyond that, we are ready to provide the same level of experience.
If you could change one thing about the outdoor industry, what would it be?
Put the caretaking of land back into Indigenous hands.
If you could tell the outdoor community anything, what would it be?
If you don’t understand why the work of social justice is important, you need to step aside.
What’s your experience in the outdoor advocacy community been like?
The JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) world is not as big as it should be, but we have been supporting each other in many ways and we will continue to find ways to uplift each other and share resources.