January 18, 2020
From the pages of Issue 5: Black + White
Anges Vianzon is out to build a stronger and more inclusive community in the backcountry and beyond. We sat down with her to find out the vision behind the organization she founded, the Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps.
1) Why did you start the Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps?
I fell in love with the teaching and mentoring part of my work with young adults both with the National Park Service and with the California Conservation Corps Backcountry Trails Program. In that however was a desire to do things differently, mostly having to do with inclusivity.
A voice grew louder and louder as I spent months living and working within a national park. Honestly, I just wanted to give it a go. If I was able to get a handful of people in an immersive wilderness experience, it was worth it. I wanted to see things done differently. I wanted to give back and share with others the opportunities to live in a tent 25 miles away from a road where you have no cell service or hot water, where you have to work it out with the crewmate staring you down from across the fire. You learn lessons that can only be taught by carrying a heavy pack and moving heavy rocks all day long. And that the space would be more welcoming to you no matter who you are or where you came from. That people would see themselves represented by those guiding the way.
2) How is the ESCC different from other conservation corps?
Conservation corps are found all over California and across the nation. The very first one ever, the Civilian Conservation Corps, didn't even allow women to serve. Our motto at the ESCC is "Discover the range of your potential."
The intention behind ESCC lies in our 3 main objectives: access, engagement, and extension. We increase access to the outdoors by eliminating the financial and social barriers to this access while focusing our reach to priority populations. We engage with our participants on a deeper level by passing on the skills and knowledge in a way that they can also pass along that knowledge. And the extension piece means that the impact goes beyond our eight-day, 40-mile trips or eight week seasons. Members and participants are asked to continue helping us to achieve our mission. We hope to instill lifelong practices of leadership in stewards and protecting outdoor spaces.
3) What did it take to get your non-profit off the ground?
Not only are we off the ground, but we are also nearly doubling our programming each summer. I am privileged with a college degree, a winter bartending gig that allowed for me to purchase my first home, a supportive partner, and resources to take the time it needed to not work but to plan and prepare, to file the paperwork, and to meet with prospective agencies to partner with. I bought the how to start a nonprofit in CA book and read it cover to cover. We are off the ground but still going through some big growing pains.
4) What has surprised you the most with ESCC?
To date, we have helped to facilitate an experience for over 85 new outdoor leaders. And five of them worked for the National Park Service or US Forest Service this summer! In our short time, we are changing the narrative and changing the faces we see represented in employment and visitation of public lands.
5) What’s so difficult about this work and how do you push past it?
I haven't pushed past it. It is a constant struggle to keep a balance. It has affected my personal life. I am defined by ESCC and still the only full-time employee but without a guaranteed paycheck each week. I took the leap of faith into imaginative risk and have support and resources but we are still very delicate in our sustainability. But I do recognize where we are and where we want to go. It is about the little things I build in—a walk or hike or riding my snowboard every day that I can. I meditate and maybe it is only for three minutes. I work with my door open and the sun shining in. And there is whiskey and lots of it.
6) Tell us about Women in the Wilderness and why it’s so important to you.
As I was preparing for a panel a few years ago, I wrote out a list of every supervisor I had ever had. Fifteen were white-cis-hetero males; two were women. I could talk about stats and the number of women, or even lower, the number of Women of Color currently working on ancestral territories or "public lands."
Sisu and the Coalition Snow community know the power of an affinity space, the power in getting together a group of folks in a space that didn't have us in mind the way they currently are. What Women in the Wilderness does tangibly is teach hiking and backpacking skills along with some volunteer trail work. But to get folks to the table we provide transportation, gear, food, and all the training. Our trips begin with land acknowledgments plus history and support for Indigenous Peoples still doing the work. We make agreements and set boundaries. We all hike together as a group. We are there to learn from our participants as much as they are there to learn from us. During our stay in an ESCC trail crew camp, our campfire side discussions revolve around barriers to access and the lack of diversity and inclusion in these spaces or whatever spaces we experience. We put our hands on tools or rocks and work the land. We sing and dance and laugh so hard.
Some alumni have joined our corps or other corps. Some are creating sponsorship decks for ESCC. Many have donated back to us. We have an annual reunion for continued connection and networking. It is important because I want to give the opportunities that were shown to me. We all need to work harder to open up these spaces because they should be available to everyone and not just a select few.
7) How can the Sisu community support you?
Show some love! That can be a follow, a like, a comment, a share, or a conversation with a friend who might be able to donate. Spread the good word about our work and the ways that we are trying to make that impact in a more inclusive way with a true pathway to success in the outdoor world or otherwise.
Note from the editors: The best way to show some love is with your hard-earned dollars. If you believe in what Agnes is building through the Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps, donate today. It’s only with financial resources that this work will continue.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.