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The trailblazer

Filmmaker and podcast host Faith Briggs is finding her way, and leaving a new kind of path behind her


Photographed by Tyler Wilkinson-Ray for the Deseret News

Faith Briggs was lost. She’d come to Utah as part of her 2020 short documentary “This Land,” which follows an ultra-run through three national monuments that were under threat by the Trump administration — including Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante. 

Floods had canceled her plans to camp in the monument overnight, so she decided to do a 16-mile afternoon run instead. But the rains marred the path she had charted, and she ended up off course. After haphazardly running toward anything that might serve as a guide, she found her way to the Wahweap Hoodoos, where wind and water and time have left bulging orange chunks of clay balancing atop narrow white pillars of sedimentary rock. They stood like Martian-esque lighthouses, signaling to her that she wasn’t lost anymore. 

Of all her experiences in nature, this is the one she recalls first; the one that most reminds her of why she keeps coming back to wild places. “I love being in those spaces,” she says. Nevertheless, “it can be challenging.”

Briggs’ documentary work, as well as her newly released podcast “The Trail Ahead,” explore how outdoor spaces like parks and public lands can feel unwelcome to historically marginalized communities. 

She once viewed the word “conservation” as one belonging to the privileged, as something that could be pursued by those lucky enough to not have to worry about protecting people first and foremost. But while working an entry-level job at the Discovery Channel’s environmental films department in 2015, she noticed a pattern. 

Briggs’ work explores how outdoor spaces like parks and public lands can feel unwelcome to historically marginalized communities.

“There were so many films coming in from people of color who were on the front lines,” she says. “People in the Amazon trying to protect their homelands from oil drilling; Indigenous people in the United States fighting for clean water; Black communities in the South being poisoned by pollutants and ending up with cancer for generations. I was seeing these things. And I was shocked. I just didn’t realize that people of color are on the front lines of environmental disaster everywhere you look.” Witnessing those consequences over and over made her realize that conservation and environmental issues affect everyone, so everyone should have a voice in the matter.  

Briggs grew up in the Northeast, with her parents instilling the classic moral concept of, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Briggs had excelled academically and athletically, running track for Yale while majoring in African American studies and film studies before eventually earning a graduate degree in documentary journalism. Following her parents’ guidance and her instincts about what she had learned at Discovery, she decided to use the skills and knowledge she had to make positive change.

Specifically, her current work targets the American history of outdoor segregation. In one of the most memorable moments of “This Land,” she observes, “I think people think that because public lands are for the public, that all people feel welcome there. And that’s just not the case.” 

What isn’t present is just as important as what is. She points to examples of segregated areas within national and state parks, as well as other outdoor recreational spaces. Many of us probably didn’t learn about racially segregated parks, but a quick search on the internet will churn up thousands of returns, detailing public parks across the country that legally barred people of color from entering. 

“Our context, the way that our laws were created, our history, most of our systems of how this country is run,” she explains, “they were all founded in a time where racism was OK, legal and accepted.” And changing such a history doesn’t happen as soon as segregation signs are taken down. Their legacy, like the ominous blank space they leave behind, remains. For how long is what Briggs hopes to address. Her own family history offers a potential roadmap for how to do it.

“As a Black person, you learn your whole life that you have to be careful, because the impossible, the most inhumane, is possible”

The 33-year-old was born to a Black father and a white mother whose family shunned her for marrying a Black man. Briggs says her mother’s family’s rejection was “partially out of a place of fear and misunderstanding.” And this is why, Briggs says, it often isn’t helpful to call someone racist, even when their words and actions clearly meet the criteria. “There’s a difference between calling an individual racist or saying that an individual is capable of racist acts,” she explains. The latter invites conversation. And over time, those conversations can break down barriers and build connections.

In her family’s case, those connections were of love for grandchildren. “The ideology is what stops you, but then there are human feelings that are able to help people push through,” she says. “What I’ve learned from my family is that you can get to the other side, and I think that’s what makes me feel hopeful and optimistic. And that’s why I keep having these conversations — because I really think it’s possible to get through them.”

Such conversations, Briggs admits, are often uncomfortable. They need to be; the stakes are too high for anything less. Briggs notes that as a Black person who has studied Black history, what might seem impossible to a white American is possible indeed. “As a Black person, you learn your whole life that you have to be careful,” she says. “Because the impossible, the most inhumane, is possible.” That’s why she insists that white people not avoid or merely tolerate difficult conversations about race, but actively participate. “If white people leave the room during conversations about racism … you’re deciding that it doesn’t matter, and you’re going to duck out of it. And that doesn’t change anything.”

Some changes have already begun, led largely by people of color. Organizations such as Brown Folks Fishing and Brown People Camping are promoting community and visibility — showing marginalized communities that people like them belong in the outdoors. The movement has also accrued allies in high places, most notably Deb Haaland, the first Native American secretary of the interior. Data shows that while people of color make up 42% of the U.S. population, they account for only 23% of visitors to national parks. 

Briggs continues to leave the door open behind her, mostly through the stories she creates. Her documentary, “Camp Yoshi,” profiled a Black chef named Rashad Frazier. After falling in love with the Oregon wilderness, Frazier combined his lifelong passion for cooking with outdoor exploration and created an outfit that leads clients into historically segregated spaces in search of adventure and rejuvenation. 

“The Trail Ahead” podcast, co-hosted by Addie Thompson and sponsored by Merrell and Patagonia, also features interviews with people who work in or adjacent to the outdoors, but whose ideas and innovations haven’t always gotten much attention. In one episode with TV host and sports commentator Selema “Sal” Masekela, they discussed (among other things) racism in surfing. 

But keeping the metaphorical door open doesn’t come without challenges. Briggs admits that high-profile sponsorships, featuring some of the biggest brand names in the outdoors, can sometimes be difficult to manage. 

“I’ve definitely worked with brands that weren’t as open to what I wanted to say,” she concedes, “or really didn’t feel like they were ready to have the public conversations that I wanted to have.” But, overall, she’s been pleasantly surprised by how the corporate world has become more receptive to her niche of storytelling over the last three to five years. Businesses too, she believes, can contribute to change. “It’s really cool to see.”

When we spoke in March, Briggs had a busy schedule ahead: interviews to record, subjects to film. But she also planned to take a vacation, a surfing trip with a friend. She’s trying to prioritize personal time. Over the past two years of living in Portland, while most of her friends and family remain on the East Coast, she’s realized how important it is to preserve those ties. “Those relationships feed me so much,” she says. “And I have to be more intentional about seeing those people.” That can sometimes be difficult when her work feels like a calling; when she can make a difference by talking to more people and sharing more stories. But she’s learning that rest is just as important as work. The two in tandem are what allow for the greatest impact. 

That way, next time she finds herself losing the trail, she can get lost without having to worry about where she might end up.

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.