I remember my first big hike like it was yesterday: 50 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Front Royal to Keyes Gap, Va., over a week in 2009 with friends. Let’s just say it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I wasn’t in any kind of shape for hiking, much less for the Roller Coaster, 13 miles of ups and downs with very few switchbacks. Did I mention it rained most of the trip or that I ran out of food two days before the hike’s end?
The experience might sound like it should have sent me running, but instead I fell in love with backpacking. A few words of encouragement made all the difference. “Once you reach your first overlook, your mindset will change completely,” a friend told me, motivating me to keep on trekking. Not only was he right, I can recall the exact spot where his words really started to sink in: a viewpoint called Raven Rock on the Virginia/West Virginia border. It was early spring, and with the trees completely bare, I had an unobstructed view of the surrounding mountains. I shrugged off my 30-pound pack, pulled out my camera, and started taking photos.
At that moment, I knew I wanted to step forward and lead, helping others get out of their comfort zones and experience this awe.
I may have been new to backpacking, but I’ve always loved the outdoors. As a kid, I spent endless hours at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Md., where I learned to discover and explore. I also learned how to respect my environment and that it’s OK to get your hands dirty.
As an adult, I impart this same mindset to my students at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center in Washington, D.C. Even in the midst of the city, I’m able to teach these 2- and 3-year-olds about the environment by working in our school garden.
It turns out that leading adults isn’t so very different from teaching kids. It’s all about the adventure. In 2014, I stumbled upon an article about Outdoor Afro, an organization that aims to reconnect the African-American community with nature and with each other. The group was seeking applicants for its 2015 leadership team, and I realized it was my chance to make an impact beyond the classroom. I became one of 30 new leaders around the country who are breaking the stereotype that black people don’t do nature.
It’s such an amazing feeling, leading hikes. My trips average at least 5 miles, with hikers from a variety of backgrounds, first-timers to seasoned vets. On every hike, we start off in a circle and introduce ourselves with an icebreaker. I give an overview of what to expect, from terrain to fauna to trivia about the area, before telling everyone the key thing to remember: We start as a group and we finish as group. It’s not a race to the top. We’re outside to enjoy nature and each other. If we don’t make it to the summit, that’s OK.
To me, that’s what leadership is all about—having fun together—and not about getting ahead of everyone else. The way I see it, I’m teaching both adults and children how to grow. With the kids, I show them how to plant a seed or how to zip up their coats so that the next time they can do it themselves. With adults, I’m teaching them how to have fun and embrace the journey, one overlook at a time.