Community | Featured | Veterans

Building a community of service in difficult times

Mike Banaszewski

In a recent Hatch Magazine article, Chad Brown – Navy veteran and founder/president of the non-profit organization Soul River, which focuses on bringing veteran mentors and inner city youth together in the outdoors – made a point that captured the gravity of today’s moment for the environmental conservation community.  

While sharing some of the personal instances of outright racism directed his way as  an avid conservationist and fly angler, Brown said, “[George Floyd’s death] is our opportunity to create alliances and new friends and to learn from one another to build better and safer communities – both in the urban and the outdoor worlds. This is our opportunity to dismantle racism and lean into creating communities with strength that will support our youth for tomorrow.”  

Chad Brown

 Chris Wood captured this perspective in his June 2 letter to all Trout Unlimited staff, as did Beverly Smith – TU’s Vice President of Volunteer Operations – in her blog entry two days later. It’s a perspective with which I couldn’t agree more, and as TU’s Director for Service Partnership it serves as my North Star for not just building more equitable community but doing so with the cooperation and participation of both first responder and military communities whose service Trout Unlimited continues to celebrate. 

TU’s Service Partnership formally begins on July 4, 2020, and reflects the continued growth of TU’s Veterans Service Partnership. Since 2011, TU’s VSP program has served active-duty military, reservists, veterans and their families by engaging them through conservation and the recreational therapy of angling, with the sustaining support of the TU community. 

As we seek to serve our first responders, we want to reflect the evolution of TU’s recognition of “service” to include not just our active duty service men and women, reservists, veterans and military families, but  also other members of our communities who selflessly risk life and limb daily to keep us safe. Specifically, this means our friends and neighbors in the fire service, medical, and law enforcement communities. 

That these same patterns of ugliness (e.g., divisive politics, pervasive cultural propaganda, domestic militarization, social violence) are now occurring in the country to which I and millions of others – like Chad Brown – dedicated our lives shakes me to my core.  

Mike Banaszewski

It is immeasurably important that this difficult period serve as a moment of healing for our country. As a near 30-year veteran of the Department of Defense, I have seen ugliness in the world that can result from unaddressed legacies of systematic exclusion – whether cultural, political, social or legal. That these same patterns of ugliness (e.g., divisive politics, pervasive cultural propaganda, domestic militarization, social violence) are now occurring in the country to which I and millions of others – like Chad Brown – dedicated our lives shakes me to my core.  

In the midst of the national conversation, some have denied the existence of racial exclusion in outdoor spaces; that the outdoors exists for all without prejudice. I fear that as well-intended and self-reassuring as that perspective may be, it simply denies reality. Chad Brown is no propagandist. He is an honorable and passionate advocate for conservation, inner city youth of all races and the healing power of community. As uncomfortable as it may be to admit, his experience illustrates there is significant work to be done by all of us who are passionate about the outdoors until we can truly say the outdoors is equally open to all. And without action by those of us in positions to affect change, the legacies of implicit and explicit exclusion will remain unaddressed.  

Now more than ever we must address issues of equity within Trout Unlimited. I asked Chad how he felt about the expanded focus of TU’s Service Partnership during this tense time in our nation’s history. His supportive perspective was that, “Reaching out to both law enforcement communities and diverse communities will help break down systematic racism and rebuild community and trust through fly fishing. Learning from one another, through the art of fly fishing, will dismantle the hate and discomfort where learning becomes light for both and reveals a new relationship in the community. Reaching out to both communities is the right thing to do because they both need the healing and the earned trust between one another in order to move forward.” 

TU’s Service Partnership will aim to serve a unique role and address existing divides in the conservation space. It will be both a source of comradery, conversation, and recognition for those men and women of every race on the front lines and passionate about their communities and their local watersheds. It will also serve as a means to bring those same service-oriented, culturally and racially diverse, future leaders into Trout Unlimited for the long-term. Those served by – and those who continue their legacy of service through – TU’s Service Partnership will help provide a means to preserve TU’s vital role as the largest non-profit dedicated to coldwater conservation nationwide. They will also further strengthen us through the diverse alliances and friendships created within every chapter around shared passions for the outdoors.   

That is a legacy – and a plan for the future – of which I think every member can be proud, and with which I am proud to be associated.  

Of note: Chad Brown will be hosting a discussion titled “Systemic Racism in Urban and Outdoor Spaces. How Do We Move Forward?” on June 17 at 9 PM EDT. To RSVP to join the discussion, head here.