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A Black Woman Who Tried To Survive In The Dark, White Forest

Updated: Apr 27

Originally shared on our medium page on June 4, 2019 ·

By guest blogger Melody Mobley

This guest blog post was written by our colleague Melody Mobley and as such, the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any member of Resolve Conservation. We are always looking for guest writers and if you are interested in contributing, please send an email to connect@resolveconservation.com

This blog post was first published in the Mountain Journal but is being re-shared with the permission of the author.

I still love the U.S. Forest Service.

Actually, I should qualify that: as an American woman of color who has had a lifelong passion for ecology and conserving natural resources, I love the idea of the Forest Service. I love its unrealized potential.

It’s the institution I have a problem with, how it has failed to live up to what Gifford Pinchot, the agency’s first chief forester, described as the Forest Service’s ethos: delivering “the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time.”

I am certain that a large percentage of Americans aren’t familiar with what the Forest Service is, and that a small percentage of non-whites could ever imagine going to work for it. I find this most disappointing.

You see, once upon a time, I believed the agency was sincere in its stated desire to be more welcoming of people not traditionally well represented in its ranks.

Everywhere we turn on social media these days, there are activist memes such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. They are supposed to represent the forward push of progress in breaking down barriers of exclusion and inequality.

I am writing this piece for Mountain Journal because readers need to know the hashtags are just slogans unless you can put a human face to them. Long before the public became aware of abuses in federal agencies, many people carried on struggles that might seem unfathomable to young people.

I speak from experience. Yes, we hear a lot of talk about how government land management agencies like the Forest Service and National Park Service need to reflect the true diversity of our country. It’s the only way, after all, to guarantee public lands are perceived as relevant to Americans beyond those who have most benefited.

Half my life ago, I trusted in that vision. My perspective was born of idealism but it is tainted by a harsh reality that still exists. It makes people feel uncomfortable to talk about. My own agency remains in denial. It’s why I’ve chosen to title this piece “A Black Woman Who Tried To Survive In the Dark, White Forest.”

° ° °

In 1977, I was hired by the Forest Service as the first Black female professional forester in the history of the agency. It started with a summer internship. In 1979, I was the first African-American woman to graduate in forest management from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Throughout my 28-year Forest Service career, I was typically the first Black woman to do this or that because there were so few of us.

I only wish those achievements were as auspicious and positively trailblazing as they sound.

While still in college, I entered a Forest Service training program and took jobs as a seasonal employee. During my second summer, as a 20-year-old, I was sexually assaulted by a colleague while staying in a Forest Service bunkhouse in Skykomish, Washington, a town surrounded by the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. I was too afraid to report it, even though there was a witness.

Women in general had it hard to be treated with respect in those days. The Forest Service, like the military, has always been notoriously sexist, especially with its field jobs. Women were often objectified and condescended to by men. Being a woman of color was doubly jarring and because I was isolated and had no peers offering mutual support, I apparently represented a vulnerable target for my assailant.

Looking back, I realize my mere presence made people feel uncomfortable and it wasn’t long before their own insecurities expressed themselves in various forms. The summer of my rape in Skykomish represented a shattering of innocence and the indescribable enthusiasm I had for wanting to make a positive ripple in the world.

White males may never appreciate what I am taking about. Townspeople in Skykomish treated me as an “other”; they made it clear they thought the Forest Service was no place for someone like me. “What is this African-American woman [they used harsher language than that] doing here?”

Rumors circulated and I have no idea how they originated. I learned that people in town accused me behind my back of luring their husbands to engage in inappropriate behavior while working in the woods. As far as the rape, I really had no one I could confide in.

My mother had died from cancer when I was 15. I didn’t want to tell my grandmother who was also sick at the time and protective; she would’ve insisted that I immediately quit and come home.

I knew that managers would never believe me. As a survival mechanism, I tried to bury the psychological pain and I vowed that no one would make me quit because I was unwilling to give up my dream.

In the Forest Service there’s an unofficial slogan which has bred a mentality deeply rooted in the agency’s inability to change. The slogan has to do with never making waves, never saying something your supervisor doesn’t want to hear, that you must “go along in order to get along.”

Smart, wide-eyed and innocent, Melody Mobley, was euphoric about becoming the Forest Service’s first-ever Black woman forester. This photo was featured in a special brochure promoting diversity and it was taken around the same time Mobley was sexually attacked.

I’ve heard that women in various branches of the military and the National Park Service similarly have had to accept abuse if they wanted to move up. When it comes to sexual assault, you never “get over it.” It’s something you think would never happen at work. It affects your ability to trust in other people. The incident was so traumatic that it continued to affect the way I thought about myself and how I interrelated with others.

For the most part, I smiled at the slurs and insults, kept my mouth shut. And I rose up the ranks as a prized minority, but anxiety was building inside. I resented the submissive box I was placed inside.

Finally, in 1996, 19 years after the incident in the bunkhouse and following encouragement from a few women friends, I decided to disclose the assault to the agency.

I told my senior managers and those in human resources what happened and who the perpetrator was, even the name of the person who witnessed it. Nothing really became of it; in fact, precisely the opposite; I was thereafter considered a person making trouble.

I’m hardly the only woman in the Forest Service who was sexually assaulted. Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with other women. There are stories about some of the abusers being people in top leadership positions. At a professional conference, a fairly well known senior manager from another agency, a married family man, approached me and put his hands on my breasts.

Everybody knew about the abuses women endured, but nobody would stop it. I was told to keep quiet or my career would end.

° ° °

So here I should answer your question because I’m asked it often: if such things were happening, why didn’t I just leave?

Why do any of us stay in jobs?

Do you remember those first sparks as a teenager when it dawned on you what you could possibly become, how you were told that you can anything as long as you work hard and apply yourself? Teachers told me I was smart and had a scientific mind. They encouraged me.

Science, using facts and data to better understand how things fit together, is my great passion in life.

I was born in 1958, in Louisville, Kentucky, a large, metropolitan area. My mother, Coarvaedda Sawyers Mobley, would take us out in the woods in her 1963 Ford Falcon on weekends to explore and relax. I was always excited to leave the city and play in nature. I especially loved animals and seeing wildlife thrilled me. It still does. I fished as a girl and caught frogs and crawfish and watched birds and hiked and slept under the stars without a tent.

Like many reading this, I watched those National Geographic television specials featuring Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau. I learned about grizzly bears in Yellowstone and the research of the Craigheads.

In the last year before I became a teen, I celebrated the first Earth Day at my middle school. Someone once told me that I could do anything I wanted, and I daydreamed about becoming a ranger or a biologist. When my first year of college arrived, I studied zoology at the University of Louisville but hearing that the big animals were in the West, I transferred to the University of Washington to study wildlife management.

The Wildlife Management program was taught at the university’s College of Forest Resources. My first fall in Seattle I attended a Society of American Foresters meeting. There, I met professional forester, Lyle Laverty, who became a personal champion of sorts. He was instrumental in ensuring that the Forest Service offer me a position in their Cooperative Education program.

This program was perfect for me because it secured a permanent job with the Forest Service once I graduated. But to participate I had to switch my major to Forest Management. The Forest Service, I was told, desperately wanted to find and groom its first Black female forester. It would send a signal. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Forest Management and achieved what appeared to be a win-win for both me and the agency.

There were some who thought I didn’t deserve to have a job. Because the Forest Service is typically located in remote areas, I often felt like I was living in a fish bowl with few, if any, other people of color. It was unnerving never being able to be anonymous or private, especially as a young woman.

My preferred place of worship was not available. There was no one within distance of public transportation who “did Afro hair.” In Skykomish there was not even a grocery store and I did not own a vehicle.

People who owned cars rarely reached out to help me meet my needs although white colleagues were regularly loaned vehicles by the locals. Myths about the inability of women and people of color to do forestry work were also pervasive.

I have heard it stated that “Black people don’t go into the forest” because we allegedly associate it with terror, either out of fear of nature or the history of white lynch mobs that acted with impunity in the South and other rural places.

The former is an erroneous cultural construct meant to suggest that Blacks do not see a place for themselves or feel comfortable in nature inside or outside of cities; the latter may hold some degree of truth but it too is used to derogatorily stereotype an entire group of people.

I felt at home in nature. During my childhood it was imprinted upon me as a refuge. It was a place where I could be me. When you are in the outdoors, where the natural world does not exert prejudice, you feel free.

Back in the Forest Service offices, that was never the case. I take pride in the fact that I was tasked with important assignments and became part of very talented teams. We worked on a national watershed assessment system for the Forest Service. Did you know that national forests represent catchment areas for rain and snow that are the source of clean drinking water for more than 60 million people? While working in Denver and other cities nationwide, I also worked with state and local foresters as a consultant in devising strategies for sustainable forest management. I have fond memories of traveling through forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

I will never forget the look of surprise whenever I walked into a room. My credentials were routinely challenged by my colleagues and supervisors. I was usually the only person of color and often the only woman at meetings and training sessions.

° ° °

In a recent essay for Mountain Journal, former Forest Service wilderness specialist Susan Marsh described what she called “the Forest Service’s good old boy” culture. Her story really resonated with me. Not long after her story appeared, Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke resigned amid reports of inappropriate behavior with subordinates. The agency, flooded with reports of abuses throughout its ranks, announced it was starting a new program called “Stand Up For Each Other” in the wake of a special report on sexual misconduct in the Forest Service which aired on PBS NewsHour.

I applaud the effort. Let’s see if it has positive impact. But it isn’t only a problem of sexism, sexual misconduct and misogyny in the Forest Service and Park Service but racial prejudice, too.

I heard many times over the years that “Black women are only good for one thing” and they weren’t talking about forestry work or compiling ecological inventories.

As I moved up, I was given different assignments that took me across several western states to Florida, South America, Africa and collaborations with the Smithsonian, World Wildlife Fund and National Zoo. I even joined law enforcement, while armed with a semiautomatic rifle, during a crackdown on illegal marijuana growers in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest of Nevada.

Racism abounded in a variety of forms — forms that may seem invisible to others. In the Washington D.C. Office, a colleague who worked in Information Technology once hit me so hard with his fist that I fell into a partition and fractured a vertebra in my spine. It was I who got blamed because I held my ground in a discussion we were having. I was given a “Letter of Caution” for “causing an employee to lose his temper.”

Mobley toting a semi-automatic rifle while on a team to locate illegal marijuana growers on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada.