February 27, 2023 /
Christina Hester

Advice from Melody Mobley

For Black History Month this week we’re highlighting Melody “Starya” Mobley, the first Black woman to ever join the United States Forest Service. Melody’s middle name, Starya, is derived from her Cherokee heritage, meaning ‘Stay Strong.’ While her accomplishments have provided representation and opened doors for black women all across the country- her time as a forester was not met without adversity.

Originally from Louisville, Kentucky – Melody grew up with a love for nature and the outdoors. When she was a young girl, her mother would drive them out of the city for them to relax and play in the forest.

I felt at home in nature. During my childhood it was imprinted upon me as a refuge. It was a place where I could be me. When you are in the outdoors, where the natural world does not exert prejudice, you feel free.” (From Melody’s essay to Mountain Journal in 2018.)

These formative years instilled a deep love for nature in Melody, so much so that she decided to attend the University of Washington and study at the university’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. Though her major was initially wildlife management due to her love for animals, after being recruited at her university’s career day by the United States Forest Service and offered a job – they insisted she change her major to forest management, and she complied.

Mobley’s mother died of cancer while she was in high school and her grandmother got sick with cancer while she was in college, so she needed a permanent job to take care of bills from her mother’s death and to take care of her grandmother.

After graduating with a BS in forest management, the first black woman to graduate from that school in that field of study, Mobley immediately went to work for the Forest Service. From there, she started living in forests across the country, including in Washington, California, and Florida. While Melody was dedicating her life to the protection and conservation of our nation’s forests, she had to face the loneliness of being the only Black woman, various instances of racism, as well as physical and sexual assault within her own agency.

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.” (From The Smokey Wire guest post by Melody Mobley.)

Currently, Melody serves on the Forestry and Natural Resources Commission, the NAACP Environment and Climate Justice Committee, and is on the Board of Directors for EcoAction Arlington, a non-profit that helps restore and protect natural places.

Melody is also the chair of the Arlington Public School Science Advisory Committee. Her USDA Forest Service uniform and tools were accepted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African American History and Culture permanent collections and her name is on the Wall of Honor in the National Museum of the American Indian.

Recently, we reached out to Melody to ask her some questions about her time as a forester and to get some advice for those looking to join the field. Scroll down to read what she had to say and please take the time to read her entire essay to Mountain Journal here, or watch this short doc – it will move you!

Casey Trees (CT): What’s your favorite memory as a forester?

Melody Mobley (MM): Riding horses in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to access a remote project and riding in helicopters looking for drug sites.

(CT): Why do you think it’s important for people to get outside and connect with nature?

(MM): There are many physical and mental benefits: reduced symptoms of depression, improved sleep, better breathing, and reduced symptoms of breathing diseases like asthma, many opportunities and motivation to exercise, less occurrences of nearsightedness especially in children, benefits of spending time in God’s sacred spaces, increased mental energy and motivation, immune health by less exposure to airborne viruses, and great satisfaction from gathering products like mushrooms.

(CT): How do you think people can make outdoor spaces more inclusive/accessible to People of Color (POC)?

(MM): Make sure that POC are included in leadership positions in managing outdoors spaces so that diversity, equity, inclusion and justice are not afterthoughts. Ensure that photographs of people in the outdoors include POC. Make sure that outdoors spaces have accessibility for POC especially in urban centers. Contradict microaggressions that POC face. Make sure that POC are welcome. Include POC in marketing materials, signage, history told especially in parks.

Welcome groups like Outdoor Afro to bring more POC to outdoor places increasing the likelihood that POC will see other POC and feel more welcome. Support this group and many others that do a lot to increase the number of POC in outdoor spaces, these are just starting points for the many things we can do to make the outdoors more inclusive.

(CT): What advice would you give to women trying to break through or make a difference in male dominated fields?

(MM): First of all, develop a very thick skin. Women are routinely subject to micro- and macroaggressions. Make sure you are among the best in your field. Be highly skilled in your area of expertise. Anecdotally, women typically have to be three times as good as White males in order to succeed and thrive.

Find and use a good mentor. Develop a great support group. Network with other women to, among other things, find what works for them in challenging situations. Use exercise or other techniques to deal with stress and watch out for signs of depression. Don’t be ashamed and get professional help if depression develops. Look out for and protect yourself against opportunities for physical, especially sexual, and emotional assaults,

(CT): What’s your favorite tree?

(MM): Dogwood or cherry

Though we’re nearing the end of Black History Month, the work needed to end racial injustice is year-round. Keep educating yourself throughout the year, learning about the experiences of people different from you is crucial to understanding and being better allies to POC. Find more resources here.