For my Beyond the Classroom experience, I had the immense privilege of joining a women’s and nonbinary chainsaw crew through Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC). I wouldn’t hesitate to call my time on this crew the best of my life. The work was definitely hard, but that’s what made the experience so impactful. I lived, camped, and worked outside for the entire season for both the on and off hitches. I was able to be a successful full time student on top of the twelve hour work days. I packed my life down to the bare minimum (one has to do that when living out of a 2002 Toyota Corolla), learned how to wake up at five thirty every morning, learned how to become safe and competent with a Stihl 461 chainsaw, learned that Russian Olives are really thorny, learned that drinking seven Nalgenes a day was necessary, learned that disassembling and reassembling saws is a sort of art form, learned that living outside in November in Colorado is demanding but beautiful, and that I am so much stronger—both physically and mentally—than I ever thought I could be. But the physical demands of the job were only a part of the picture.
When living and working full time with a small crew of people, being able to work with others and accommodate all perspectives is key. Being on a conservation crew means that every person absolutely has to pull their weight, but there is also room to support one another when rest (either physical or emotional) is needed. In order to form a good group culture, our crew as a whole would pick one reading they found impactful each hitch and we would discuss it around the fire before bed. One of our members brought us a different group craft to do each hitch. On Halloween, we dressed up in our best backcountry costumes and went trick or treating to each person’s tent. Personally, I felt that there was a lot of space created for me to expand my leadership capabilities. Work ethic and motivation were key, but so was being able to show up to the group and facilitate a fun environment. During the final evaluation of the season, my crew leaders recommended that I myself try my hand at being a crew leader with my own crew in the future.
My GLI theme is inequality and human rights, and I found that this tied in well to my experience in many ways. For starters, the crew that I was on was something called an “affinity space.” This means that it was a space reserved specifically for women and queer folks, and was intentionally formed this way in order to create a safer space to live, work, and have fun. Our crew was its own sort of wonderful, intentional community built around queerness and a love of the earth. This made me realize that having affinity spaces at every level of work and society in the real world could be a way of cultivating social justice and support everywhere in the future. In addition, the work itself that we were doing was invasive species removal (Russian Olive and Tamarisk) and the subsequent conservation of riverbanks and riparian areas. Social justice is environmental justice, and vice versa. Humans and the natural world are deeply connected, and being able to preserve and protect the environment is vital if we hope to achieve many of the goals of social justice, specifically the ones oriented around having stable and safe and accepting places to live, work, and express oneself, as well as having clean water, air, and food to be able to do so.