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Empowering One Another: A Personal Reflection on My Experience With WTA's Emerging Leaders Program

Posted by Jessi Loerch at Apr 26, 2022 03:00 PM |

I recently finished 12-week's in WTA's Emerging Leaders Program, a paid development opportunity for individuals who are historically underrepresented in the outdoor industry. Now, as I'm moving onto a permanent position at WTA, I'm looking back on what I learned and the power of the connections I made.

By Leina Seeley

We couldn’t have finished our last trail work project on a better day. Basking in the sun and enjoying the slight breeze as we sat around a picnic table at Discovery Park, it was a sweet farewell to the trail work component of the Emerging Leaders Program. 

The WTA Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) is a 12 week paid development opportunity for individuals who are historically underrepresented in the outdoor industry. Together, we gained trail maintenance skills and participated in professional development opportunities to kickstart our futures in the outdoor recreation industry.  

A person in muddy rain smiles while holding a shovel and wearing a green WTA hard hat.
Leina Seeley was a member of the 2022 cohort of the Emerging Leaders Program. She's now a WTA employee. Photo by Zachary Toliver. 

The five of us met at the beginning of the program back in January. Besides all identifying as people of color who enjoy being outdoors, it seemed like our similarities were few and far between. But as the weeks progressed, I really enjoyed getting to know each person as an individual and am so grateful for the experiences, knowledge and support the cohort has shared with each other. 

We all had varying backgrounds before the program. Bri was wrapping up their last quarter of their undergraduate program focused on inclusivity in environmentalism. Tiffany was a former software engineer turned into a youth wilderness instructor. Sarah worked as an assistant crew leader for WTA’s youth volunteer vacations last summer. Zenwa was a restoration crew member for a local environmental nonprofit. And I recently graduated from my undergraduate program focused on food systems. All together, we formed the 2022 cohort of ELP. 

I went backpacking for the first time, dug trenches into the frozen ground and watched an otter scamper across the beach alongside my cohort members. All of these moments — and many more throughout the program — really revealed how much I craved experiencing the outdoors with other individuals who also innately knew the experience of being a person of color.

My fellow ELP cohort member Zenwa said it best when I asked everyone for their thoughts on the program. Zenwa said that being part of an all person of color crew was “a really refreshing experience [and] being able to openly talk about and relate our joys and frustrations as people of color made for a comfortable work environment that is often a rarity in the predominantly White PNW.” 

Two people carry a large rock with a rock net.
Two ELP cohort members carry a rock with a rock net. Photo by Zachary Toliver.

His statement resonated with me. As a half-Japanese and half-White woman, I grew up and attended school in a predominantly White community. I really struggled with the internal animosity I had for myself and frequently perceived that life would be “easier” if I was just White. And as racial disparities and systemic violence against people of color has become abundantly clear within the past few years, I felt isolated exploring my racial identity on my own. Especially when I would try to find respite out on trail, I was only reminded how infrequently I see other people of color enjoying the outdoors. 

Yes, this program has been beneficial to me by teaching me trail restoration techniques and giving me opportunities for professional development, but I was also gifted with the space to exist as my own person and not as a tokenized representation of my race. I was able to find joy and reflect more critically, yet gently, about my experience as a person of color thanks to the nurturing environment the cohort members created within this program. 

It has been about a month since ELP has concluded and we are now pursuing our separate journeys (Sarah is headed off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail!). I miss seeing the cohort daily, but the lessons and stories we share will stay with me forever. I recently joined WTA as a full-time staff member and I am excited to take my experiences with me to advocate and champion for people of color everywhere, but especially in the outdoors.

A group of backpackers walk along a sunny ocean beach.
The ELP cohort hiking on the beach. Photo by MJ Sampang.


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CosmicSpec on Jun 01, 2022 08:12 PM