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Trailblazer

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Faith E. Briggs has a new running goal. She’s not going for a personal best, or an FKT. Briggs wants to have a conversation. It won’t be your typical chat over a cup of coffee. Briggs’ goal is to have a conversation over 240 trail miles, in six different national monuments across the country.

With her own two feet, a camera and a group of friends, Briggs intends to amplify voices that might otherwise not be heard and expand the discourse about public lands in the United States: what they are, why they’re important and who is welcome to them.

A documentary filmmaker with a focus on underrepresented communities, she plans to talk with runners and recreationalists of all backgrounds as well as folks who wouldn’t call themselves “outdoorsy,” to offer new perspectives on the unspoken ways people feel discouraged from entering wild spaces.

Briggs wants to talk about protecting the land while also welcoming everyone into it. To her, the two are inextricably linked.

“It’s becoming clear to me,” Briggs explains, “that we can’t actually responsibly protect public lands in this country if we’re not including all the voices in the conversation.”

Under Threat

Briggs, 30, originally from the Hudson River Valley in New York, is one of a few trail runners making this conversation a priority. Because of her films and her popularity on social media, she’s become a go-to source for diversity and the outdoors. She’s been interviewed by Men’s JournalMelanin Base Camp (an online publication highlighting diversity in outdoor-adventure sports) and news sources local to her current home in Portland, Oregon, like the Get After It PDX podcast.

In Men’s Journal, she said, “I think a lot about the context of being outside, the kind of language that is inviting, and the barriers to entry for different people … People are realizing that it will take all of our voices to protect these places and with that comes the question: Why haven’t certain voices been heard before? The answer is they’ve been here, but their stories haven’t been told.”

In December 2017, President Trump decreased the size of two national monuments in Utah: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Many felt that the voices of advocates, particularly native people who live on or near the land, had been ignored.

Trump’s actions came after a review by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke’s review went beyond Utah though. It covered 27 national monuments and recommended shrinking or reducing restrictions on land use in several of those, including Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, all of which Briggs plans to run.

Since then, Trump hasn’t made any moves to shrink these monuments—in fact, on March 12, 2019, he signed a bipartisan bill creating five new national monuments and expanding national parks.

But Zinke’s review remains in place, and it troubles advocates, environmentalists and House Democrats who claim that shrinking the monuments is illegal. The House Natural Resources Committee hosted a hearing on the review on March 13th, but as of publication it remains in place.

“We have no idea what Trump is going to do next and looking at the next Secretary of the Interior, it doesn’t seem like championing public lands will be his first move,” says Briggs. “I would love to be surprised, but we’re in no place to get comfortable about land protections.

Continuing to raise awareness and inviting more people to be advocates for land protections and to get involved locally and nationally remains a top priority.”

The Evolution of a Trail Advocate

Briggs is defined by a mix of compassion and drive. Her frequent laugh is both gravelly and light and her voice rises with excitement when she talks about running, poetry, family, social issues, tacos, the squad that hits the trails with her … the list goes on. She is the type of person who picks up a phone call from a stranger like she’s greeting an old friend.

Briggs is biracial (her dad is black and her mom is white) and she grew up having conversations about race and privilege from a young age.

“My mom was disowned by her family when she chose to marry my dad,” she says. “It’s all good now, but I grew up in a house that was extremely conscious about identity and race relations.”

Her parents strive to engage with people about race with patience and compassion, even people they disagree with. Briggs grew up watching them change people’s hearts and minds with compassion rather than force.

“I believe that people walk around carrying a lot that we don’t see,” she says, “so language is a really great way to bridge that and I grew up seeing my parents do that.”

Briggs has carried that forward, according to her father, Paul Briggs. “Being from a mixed-heritage family allows Faith to be able to move compassionately through the world.”

Her tenacity took her from her double major at Yale to the University of Southern California, then to New York University for a Masters in Documentary Journalism, then to work as a writer’s assistant to author James McBride (African-American author of The New York Times bestseller The Color of Water and 2013 National Book Award recipient).

During this time, Briggs was finally able to let her injuries heal, and, after a few years swimming and sporadically doing track workouts, she was ready to start running again.

She was going to grad school in Brooklyn when she started reading Born to Run and bought herself a pair of Vibram FiveFingers.

“I was so embarrassed about them—I would ride my bike or take the train to Prospect Park and then take them out and put them on and run … maybe a mile.” Slowly, she began to build up her base. Progress took time, but she was determined.