Melody was one of the early pioneers in the Forest Service. As a black woman, she had the worst of both worlds and still she persevered. Here are some of her experiences and lessons she learned. Thanks for posting this, Melody, and for your work with the Forest Service! Here are links to a Mountain Journal piece, and a blog post.
In 1977, I was hired by the USDA Forest Service and became the first Black female professional forester in the nation. In 1979, I was the first Black American woman to graduate in forest management from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Throughout my 28 year career with the Forest Service I was typically the first Black woman to do this or that because there were so few of us. I would like to share with you a few things I learned along the way.
First and foremost, having a strong faith in God allowed me to never give up even though there were so many times when I felt like doing just that. When I was only 20 years old, I was sexually assaulted by a colleague while in a Forest Service bunkhouse. Townspeople were already accusing me of doing inappropriate things with their husbands while I was in the woods doing my work so I chose not to confide in anyone. I knew they would not believe me. I heard many times that “black women are only good for one thing”, and they were not talking about forestry work.
In my last position with the Agency, my director said she felt physically threatened by me during our many contentious discussions. It was so similar to the story we have all heard about a woman clutching her purse on an elevator when she is alone and a Black male enters. I remember administering a timber sale contract and having the contractor say they were “working like niggers” when I casually asked how things were going, and having my colleagues, whom I supervised, laugh. It was during these times, when I was at my lowest, that my relationship with God kept me going. I sincerely believed that “God does not make junk,” that I would never truly be alone, and “if God is with us, who can succeed against us.”
Another thing I learned that truly served me well was choosing my battles and having “thick skin.” I made sure that I was the best and the brightest. I was hired because I was a Black female. I was retained and promoted because my work was exemplary. I knew my science and was articulate. I did not like wearing uncomfortable, unattractive uniforms every day but I did it to gain some level of credibility. I did not like moving around the nation about every 1 ½ years and being isolated in towns with populations as low as 100 people, but I knew that being knowledgeable about a wide range of ecoregions would give me knowledge that many of my colleagues did not possess. I knew that as a lower level, entry level employee I had little power or influence within the Agency; but years later national program manager, I knew that I could successfully file credible formal complaints. It took many years but along the way I developed patience, another one of God’s virtues.
In what we may consider the worst situations there is always good. I had to spend a lot of my career living in tiny towns but they were in some of the most beautiful places on Earth. And, in communities where everyone knew and depended on everyone else, I made some of the strongest imaginable friendships: Kathee Kiefer in Skykomish, Washington; Wilda Vanderboegh in Mt. Hebron, California; James Hart in Eustis, Florida. These are the things that truly matter.
I learned that skin color does not always determine like-mindedness or friendships. In 1996, when I had finally reached my limit in tolerating discrimination based on my race, gender, and age and filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, it was my Black brothers and sisters who were afraid to be seen with or associate with me in public because of the stigma associated with filing complaints and the retaliation and reprisal that comes with it. I understood, but it taught me a valuable lesson I have never forgotten. My real friends stood with me, and they were predominantly White. One could say that they could afford to stand with me because they generally had higher grade levels within the Agency and more power and authority. They could withstand most retribution. But, they chose to support me and even helped protect me from some of the punishment that would come my way for speaking out against discrimination.
After filing my complaint, I was passed over for promotion opportunities, my daily work assignments were whittled down to nothing leaving me struggling to find ways to contribute to the mission, the Deputy Chief responsible for International programs and other Agency leaders publicly chastised me for filing a complaint and “wasting the Agency’s money,” I was physically assaulted by two colleagues on separate occasions while those employees were rewarded with promotions and commendations, and on and on and on. These were the things I endured from 1996, when I first filed a complaint, until I retired on disability in 2005. My doctors certified that 80 percent of my disability is directly attributable to the discrimination, reprisal and stress I was subjected to in my work environment.
I learned a painful lesson through this, too. The Associate Deputy Chief who supervised me during a complaint received a substantial cash award that included as a criteria his performance in “civil rights.” Although I was the one who filed the complaint about discrimination and reprisal I endured, this manager was rewarded by the Agency for his accomplishments in civil rights. As I said previously, choose your battles.
I love the Forest Service and many of the people who work there. The majority are good people. And, I am grateful for the life lessons my career afforded me.
My hope in telling my story is that my actions and words will set an example for people of color and other minorities to always work at being a well-prepared professional. And, choose your battles (which are inevitable) wisely.
I hope, too, that the Whites I worked with learned from me that their prejudices against Blacks and women were unfounded.
To those who are employers or managers, I hope my story reminds them that they should never tolerate retaliation and reprisal against employees who choose to speak out about discrimination. Those employees need your protection and support in making the hard decisions to file a complaint.
And I hope that you, reading this, understand a little better that the history of the US is changing bit by bit: a story woven together with stories like mine, if we’ll only listen to them.