Agnes Vianzon is lightning-quick to respond when asked about the state of the outdoor industry. “The narrative is changing. What would I change? There needs to be more representation. Period. Women, people of color, LGBTQ…all of the above.” At only 5 feet 3 inches tall, she is a force to be reckoned with, having worked high elevation trail crews in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks for nearly a decade before branching off to start her own non-profit, the Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps (ESCC).
“I’ve had conversations with the regional land managers for all the forests on this half of the country, and budgets have been cut something like more than 50%. Budgets are getting cut, and trails are suffering."
In our current political climate, it’s easy to see why Vianzon felt fired up to start the ESCC, a Mammoth-based conservation corps with a special focus on recruiting women of color to work on trail crews or embark on their first-ever backpacking trip through her aptly named Women in the Wilderness initiative. Agnes and her team are passionate about breaking down barriers to access so that women from urban spaces can embark on transformational backcountry experiences and become future stewards of the public lands that belong to all of us.
Wistful, Vianzon explained the kinds of surreal moments these trips often invoke. “The first Women in the Wilderness trip we went on, we actually went up Kearsage [Pass], and that was a super powerful experience, because I had spent time there actually rebuilding the trail on the other side 10 years prior. And then being able to take that first group of women, and that was their introduction to get to the top of that pass around 11,000 feet…the view you get. I don’t know if I could say that was my favorite, but it’s hard to pick favorites when you’ve been all over the Sierra.”
Though the ESCC is built to give new campers a taste of the alchemy that only the backcountry has to offer, convincing first-time explorers to venture out of their comfort zones isn’t always smooth sailing.
“My mom wants to talk to you about this thing,” Vianzon laughs as she recalls an anxious first-time hiker, “because it sounds crazy. We’re going to pick you up. You’re going to get in a van with strangers. We’re going to drop you off at a trailhead where you’re going to hike 40 miles, and then we’ll pick you up on the other side.”
Getting people with no wilderness experience to meet up with trail crews and have tough campfire discussions about "diversity, equity, and inclusion” are Vianzon’s specialty. Her Ancestral Youth partnership with the Sierra Native Alliance is another crucial program she manages through the ESCC to bring Native American kids and teens into the backcountry for the first time.
Though the focus of Ancestral Youth is centered around sharing culture and creating a dialogue about nature from an indigenous perspective, Vianzon is certainly on the front lines of teaching the new generation the importance of stewardship. “These are people who have been taking care of the land for thousands of years, and I’m teaching them leave no trace? It’s such a weird thing when you think about it.”
Since 2013, Vianzon has partnered with the California Conservation Corps (CCC) and works with Shingle Springs Rancheria and the Sierra Native alliance, taking kids aged 11 to 17 on two to three day backpacking trips created to form a dialogue about the Sierra Nevada from a more native perspective. Participants sing songs, thank the elements, and discuss medicinal uses of plants along ancient, ancestral pathways, with Vianzon’s careful guidance setting the tone. “It’s not just like, ‘Oh let’s go to this tribe and see if the kids wanna go backpacking.’ I want to be really intentional in trying to provide this.”
She’s humble with a flicker of quiet fierceness when asked about her bold plans for the future of ESCC. “I would love to run as many [trips] as we can in one summer; I would love to run them in different national parks as an introduction to not just trail work but also as an introduction to wildland firefighting or working with stock animals and packing or an arts program."
With people of color set to become the majority of the U.S. population by 2042, Vianzon knows first-hand how important it is to get more women and youth from urban communities into the outdoors, not only for the land, but for their sake too. “The immersive wilderness experience is where I learned more than in college or from my parents or anywhere else. Because it’s you…You’re the one that has to do it. You’ve gotta be motivated to get out of your tent every morning when it’s freezing and work hard. And being out in that space where it’s so raw, it can be life and death. But it’s also just so rewarding.”
You know that feeling you get when you don’t think you can't walk another step uphill with a 40-pound pack on, but then you do, and you finally make it to the summit, and you turn around, and it’s just achingly beautiful? That’s the lifeblood of what Vianzon is trying to distill for these young people. Work hard. Be kind. Protect the land that bore us.
“Elevating women elevates all of us,” Vianzon says with the sure-footed tenacity of an activist on a mission. She’s not afraid to fire back at the parks system for the poor planning she’s seen surrounding their diversity directives that exist in name but not in practice, and she favors a more hands-on approach to getting women of color outside. “I think it all comes back to access. What would I change? I think it would be anything that has to do with opening up the opportunities – truly opening up the opportunities for everyone. And I’m not saying that needs to be a 40-mile backpacking trip, but if you’re in the middle of LA – how do you get to a trailhead? How do you get to some open, public space where you can have a picnic or go for a hike?”
With federal budget cuts and deregulation swarming all over the news headlines, Vianzon is on the front lines of making the outdoors a more inclusive space so that our women, people of color, and youth feel engaged with and willing to fight for wild spaces. She isn’t simply pulling demographics out of a hat and throwing them into the woods to go backpacking. Agnes Vianzon has experienced the transformative power of the national parks and knows we have a long way to go if we want to ensure that our wild spaces stay sacred. "I’m a woman, a woman of color, and a member of the LGBTQ community from a family of immigrants. I hit all these points for better or worse."
“The stats are there. Women are the least represented group in visitation and employment of public lands. And then if you take that same stat and look at women of color, it’s tiny,” Vianzon says, impassioned. She’s right. There needs to be more diversity. The parks thrive when we see representations of ourselves in them. I just hope we can steer the ship quickly enough before it’s too late.
To learn more about Agnes Vianzon and the Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps, visit: http://www.easternsierracc.org/about/