A few months ago, we reconnected with Melody S. Mobley, who graduated from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) in 1979. Mobley was the first black American woman to earn a bachelor’s in forest management from the University of Washington, and though the landscape has improved markedly since she graduated, the importance of diversity in natural resource fields has never been greater.
Fifty-two percent of students at SEFS are now women, and almost 30 percent represent minority populations, including Asian and Native, among others. Yet there are still many underrepresented groups, and Mobley believes the stakes are too high to leave anybody out of the decision-making process.
For her, the value of diversity isn’t about checking boxes or political correctness. Diversity is about being inclusive of different ethnicities, ages, regions, cultures, beliefs and ideas, and bringing all those variables into the discussion. It’s about mining every mind for potential solutions to achieve a sustainable balance with a changing climate and world. “It’s so important everybody contributes their voice, their brains, their perspective to formulating alternatives to managing the natural resources on our planet,” she says. “They have to. That’s the only way we’ll formulate the best plan.”
There’s also tremendous career opportunity in these fields. Starting as an undergrad in Seattle, Mobley worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 28 years. Her assignments took her from Skykomish, Wash., to California, Florida, Nevada and Washington, D.C., Intergovernmental Personnel Act assignments in Africa and South America, the Smithsonian National Zoo and the World Wildlife Fund, and exposed her to countless experiences and a life of constant learning. “There’s really something for everyone in natural resource management,” she says. “Attorneys, teachers, accountants, foresters, range managers, fire managers, hydrologists, soil scientists. You can find your niche.”
So while Mobley retired in 2005 and now lives in Arlington, Va., she has no desire to disengage. In fact, she’ll be giving the keynote address for the SEFS commencement ceremony on Friday, June 12. With incredible positivity and sense of purpose, she wants to share her story to help others achieve what she was able to achieve, and more. She wants to remove some of the barriers that made her own education and career more challenging, and to grow the diversity of people and ideas in the environmental community. “I wanted to just be myself and still be accepted and allowed to succeed,” she says. “I know we are strongest and bring the most to the table when we can be ourselves.”
“My mother wanted to make sure we had the strongest educational foundation possible, and that we weren’t bored,” says Mobley, who grew up Louisville, Ky., in the 1960s and ‘70s. Her mom enrolled her in a predominantly white middle and high school, and Mobley—who is also part Cherokee Indian—excelled in her studies at an early age. She progressed so quickly that her mom pushed her to skip a couple grades, and she still ended up graduating third in her class of more than 500 students.
Before she finished high school, though, she had learned her mother was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. “I was crazy with grief and needed a diversion,” she says.
While she had initially planned to attend the University of Louisville, Mobley channeled her sadness into a more ambitious and far-flung dream. She had fallen in love with the films and martial arts of Bruce Lee, who had passed away before Mobley saw his first movie. Yet she located a martial arts instructor who had supposedly studied with Lee. With the hope of training under this instructor, she made the bold move to head west and enroll at the University of Washington.
Her quest to learn from a Bruce Lee disciple didn’t last long. “He was such a pompous buffoon and a braggart,” says Mobley, “and I knew more about Bruce Lee than he did just from my reading.”
She gave up on him after one class, but there she was, alone, across the country from her family. And since she had jumped ahead in high school, Mobley felt much younger than her fellow students, and generally out of place. “I was 16, just turned 17 when I graduated from high school,” she says, “and I felt too young, too black, too Southern, too everything.”
As she tried to find her footing, Mobley ended up gravitating toward a long-time love of animals and the outdoors. “My mom got me interested in nature,” she says. “She would always take us out for rides in the country instead of being in the city so much.”
Mobley wasn’t sure how to direct that interest until she discovered the College of Forest Resources. She’d been waffling between majors from zoology to wildlife biology, but financial concerns from home—where her mother and grandmother were struggling with cancer—convinced her to be as practical as possible. A degree in forest management, she decided, would keep her active and connected to the outdoors, and also give her a strong opportunity to find permanent employment.
Even with her studies decided, Mobley still felt stranded and lonely as an undergrad. “I’m 57 years old and have never gotten married,” she says. “When you’re 17, 18, 19 years old, you would like to have a date every once in a while, but no one wanted to date me, and that was hard.”
She survived through invaluable friendships with several faculty members. One of the first to help her settle into the city was Professor Stewart Pickford, who had earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from SEFS—the latter in 1972—before joining the faculty. She found a friend and mentor in Professor Emerita Linda Brubaker, and Mobley especially enjoyed working with Professor Kristiina Vogt, with whom she remains good friends. “My family when I was up there was Kristiina,” she says. “I worked in her lab for a few years, and she was with me on my 21st birthday. I even got flowers from her on my last birthday. I love her with all my heart.”
Mobley credits those three professors with guiding and motivating her through school. “I would never have succeeded, or been able to graduate, without Stewart and Kristiina and Linda,” she says. “They were instrumental to my success. I’m so grateful to them.”
In addition to helping Mobley feel more at home at college, Professor Pickford introduced her to his friends Diane and Al Becker, who immediately took an interest in helping her career. One night they took her to a Society of American Foresters meeting, where she made a connection with Lyle Laverty, who was a district ranger in Skykomish at the time. That night, Laverty decided he was going to recruit her into the Forest Service, he later told Mobley.
“Until I moved to Seattle, I had not even heard of the Forest Service,” says Mobley, “and I had never intended to be a forester.” Yet soon she had a job offer to join the agency in 1977, and she would end up working there for nearly three decades.
She spent her first five years in Skykomish, including the first two while still finishing up school. Those were tough years, she says, juggling her work and studies, bouncing between the extremes of a big city and a tiny community—all with no car or easy way to get around on her own. After Skykomish, though, Mobley began exploring the country through a variety of posts, from a public affairs position in San Diego with the Cleveland National Forest; to a temporary assignment as an assistant district ranger with the Klamath National Forest in northern California; to a stop with Florida’s Ocala National Forest; and then to the national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Along the way, she spent time as a trainer, doing public speaking, working on program and performance reviews, and representing the Forest Service at a number of events. She was promoted multiple times, and during one stint in Nevada’s Toiyabe National Forest she even had the memorable opportunity to participate in helicopter marijuana raids. (Mobley was part of a team assigned to find remote, hidden sites where people were illegally growing pot on national forest lands. “Oh, they were fun,” she says, “and I got to carry a semiautomatic rifle—I couldn’t believe it.”)
Race and Role Models
Throughout her education and career, and nearly everywhere she moved or traveled, Mobley felt the weight of her identity, and how often she stuck out from her peers and surroundings. She remembers when she arrived in Skykomish for that first job with the Forest Service, and being told she was probably the only black person within 70 miles. Or several years later, when she attended a reforestation workshop in Darrington, Wash., and was informed she was probably the first black person ever to spend the night there.
Those memories are hard to shake, she says. They make you acutely aware of your skin color, and what it feels like to be singled out and in the overwhelming minority. As a result, she felt a constant pressure to push herself to succeed, and to give no one an excuse to doubt or deter her. “I moved nine times in 11 years, because I wanted to learn a lot,” says Mobley. “I didn’t want anybody to honestly be able to say I got promoted because I was a black female. I got promoted because I knew my science.”
Now, she wants to encourage and inspire more women and diverse students to pursue careers like hers. One of the biggest hurdles to expanding diversity, after all, is drawing students into a field where they might not have recognizable role models. Mobley wants to make it easier for them, to give them confidence and let them know there’s a place in natural resource fields for everyone—and for everyone to make a real impact. “I didn’t have a lot of black people or people of color who helped me, because there weren’t many black people or people of color in a position to help me,” she says. “My goal is to make a difference so there are 1,000 Melodys.”
Photos © Melody Mobley.