Outdoor Project Interview: Women in the Wild
OP: Give us the skinny on who Faith E. Briggs is.
Faith E. Briggs: I’m a documentary filmmaker with a background in representation. I love stories and really do believe they have the power to change the world. Stories are how we learn about ourselves and each other. Meeting other people and learning about how they move through the world, their perspectives, background and upbringing can help us all see each other more clearly, and that’s what motivates me.
OP: When did you first know that you were going to spend your life in the outdoors?
Faith E. Briggs: Honestly, the way we talk about “the outdoors” in this industry is something I'm still struggling with. I can’t figure out if it’s different for me just because I’m an East Coast kid who didn’t grow up near mountains that I knew the name of or was inspired to climb. While most recently I was living in Brooklyn for six years and I grew up in and around New York, I also ran around barefoot outside on South Carolina red dirt roads, splashed in puddles in Pennsylvania, and, yes, hiked and swam at summer camp with inner city kids, but it was all called playing outside. It wasn’t until moving to Portland and working with Columbia Sportswear that the big idea of “the outdoors” came into the conversation for me. While I love the outdoors and am pretty much always seeking more ways to adventure outside, I don’t think I’ve ever said the word more than I have in the last year and a half. "When did you realize you were outdoorsy?" and "Have you always loved the outdoors?" are questions that I’m constantly asked. I don’t know how to answer them because the language is just so culturally different than how I grew up, I think there’s a lot attached to the word "outdoors" that I still don’t identify with.
OP: What does it mean to you to be a woman in the outdoor industry?
Faith E. Briggs: As a woman of color, the question for me is never just "What does it mean to be a woman in this industry." It’s always more like "What does it mean to be a woman of color." That’s simply because when I walk into a room, the surprise people feel or the thought they have to themselves isn’t primarily: "Oh, its a woman." It’s more often: "Oh, its a black woman, with dreads, and tattoos….who is this?" I love it, honestly, I love being a woman of color in this community because I find it’s a community that loves to learn, that wants to have tough conversations well, that is growing and maturing. Haha, but I just used the word community rather than industry. I have been lucky to navigate and create in spaces where people are interested in what I’m interested in: doing the hard things, seeking out joy, having messy conversations, and truly diversifying the outdoors, not just in images but in actual experiences.
Not everywhere in the industry feels like a community. I run into a lot in the industry that makes me cringe, much of which is related to the erasure and lack of acknowledgement of native folks, from the constant use of the word tribe in these superficial ways to the way “native” inspired prints are printed all over everything. There was more than one teepee as part of a display at Outdoor Retailer in the winter. I can’t believe people are still doing that! I’m really excited to be doing things as groups of women and as groups of people of color; I’m excited to be part of a movement that I think is pretty much saying, “Get on board or get left behind.” I’m excited to be part of an industry moving in that direction, and I’m a hopeful person, so I tend to focus on the good, the momentum, and the excitement rather than the folks who are afraid of change, confused about what it is they think they are protecting, misinformed about access, or blind to others experiences.
OP: What has the outdoors done for you, and how do you pay it back?
Faith E. Briggs: My confidence comes from a few different things. Being an athlete has always been a huge part of my identity. I started swimming and running as a little kid, and as soon as my family was able to support me in doing those things competitively, I did them on a team. It’s funny that, for me, sport happened within a confined space, on a pool or on a track. My first forays into the outdoors were as an athlete. Now, my adventures in the outdoors happen outside the lines, and I’m so appreciative of that. I think it’s more of a reflection of who I am as a person, I’m undefined, I don’t fit in. I’ve been told that in multiple job interviews, “We don’t know where you fit.” I think that’s the beautiful thing about me and my strange collection of skills and passions. Maybe I don’t fit into the neat boxes, but I always fit in outside. Outside I don’t have to cram into a hole, there’s all this space without a specific shape that I have to take. The more I spend time outside running on trails, climbing on rocks and trying new things, the more I stick out, the more I feel confident in myself, my abilities, the more I learn to just breathe deeply, look at a horizon line and smile to myself, regardless of the literal or figurative storm happening around me in my life. I’m so appreciative of those lessons. Outdoor activities offer ways to work with landscapes. I’m learning that through things like ultrarunning, kayaking and mountaineering. If you’re out to conquer, good luck, those mountains have been there much longer than us. But if you’re there to work with it, there’s a lot of lesson in that. My giving back is now taking the form of becoming an advocate for conservation and for access to green space for the people who need it most. This is very often people of color and urban communities, but not always. I want to share the healing that I’ve been able to have. Some really unexpected breakthroughs in my grieving process after the loss of one of my dearest friends have come in moments when I’ve been absolutely alone outside. I’m working with a nonprofit called Soul River, Inc. that brings veterans and inner city youth into the outdoors to learn about environmental threats, conservation education, and fly fishing. It’s one way I can play a peripheral role in supporting other people’s experiences in the outdoors. I want to keep finding ways to offer introductions into the outdoors. I can do that by working with others doing this work and also on a one on one basis in my personal life.
OP: Conservation and protection of our public lands are central themes in today’s outdoor recreation narrative. As someone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors and on public lands, what role do you think storytellers and outdoor media should play in this evolving conversation and landscape?
Faith E. Briggs: If we care about these places, we have to speak up for them. I’m Christian, and it’s a big part of my background growing up. While I don’t subscribe to a particular denomination and my practice is very much my own, the stories and perspective I learned growing up matters. There’s this song we used to sing in my grandfather’s church, “Never will a rock cry out in my place!” And while they were talking about praising God, I definitely take it to heart as an activist. We need to speak for people and places that can’t speak for themselves, especially if they are places we love. We have these voices for a reason. I had the awesome opportunity of experiencing a sweat ceremony in Navajo Nation country recently with a group from Soul River and representatives from the Olijato Veterans organization. You have to heat up the rocks in order to prepare for the sweat, and they provide the heat for the lodge. At one point a Navajo elder reminded us to remember that moment, and in the future when we have the need for that peace, that calm, that feeling again, she told us to just find a rock and sit with it. To find a blade of grass and meditate on how it blows in the wind. I’m learning that conservation is for me. That has been quite a learning. I used to think that conservation was for privileged people, mainly made up of rich white people, who have no real problems and who just want to be passionate about something. That’s honestly what I thought when I was younger. I thought I didn’t have time to worry about plants and trees because I had to worry about people. Now I understand how much we need each other, how much we can protect each other. Clean air, clean water, clean places to play and walk and think, these are vital for happy families and healthy individuals. I think as storytellers and people with access, whether it be geographic, financial, social or cultural, we have to speak up and speak out for our public lands before they are gone or poisoned. It sounds dramatic, but it is not at all unprecedented; there are countless stories and countless documentaries that dig deep and show the ways in which negligence has impacted communities: Mann v. Ford (2010), Gasland (2010), The Island and The Whales (2016), Chasing Ice (2012), The Island President (2011)... I can go on. They are proof of our mismanagement of the environment, and if we don’t speak out, then people that don’t care about people will continue to take these unnecessary risks for personal gain and endanger land and water that supplies our most basic needs.
OP: Who has inspired you along the way?
Faith E. Briggs: Carolyn Finney’s work stands out to me. Her book, "Black Faces, White Spaces," was eye-opening, and it showed me that my background in African American Studies, my focus on representation, my specific interest in “Third World Cinema” -as it was called in college- mattered. It showed me that I had the language to help others understand a context that truly affects our present times. Without her work on conservation, I would likely have returned to traditional documentary instead of deciding to stay in the outdoor space. I think this specific work is too important, and I want to be a part of it.
In addition, I’m inspired daily by my peers, and I’m so thankful for that. I’m part of a community of activists who are standing up and being seen and speaking out, and it’s not easy work. People might think that we are getting special privileges based on being brown folks in the outdoors, which is a kind of preposterous and hilarious turn of events, and one so ludicrous that I don’t have the energy to spend there, but honestly, it’s hard. It’s hard to be told you care too much, you’re too sensitive, you make everything about race or you make everything about gender. The outspokenness of my peers makes me know I can’t be quiet, I have to be a part of this conversation, in my own specific way. That’s folks like Melise Edwards, Karen Ramos, Paulina Dao, Georgie Abel, Dustin Martin, Jolie Varela, José González, Molly Sugar, Brittany Leavitt, Danielle Williams and folks who have been doing this for awhile, like Chad Brown, Rue Mapp and James Edward Mills. They all motivate and inspire me.
OP: What does adventure mean to you?
Faith E. Briggs: To me adventure means trying something new, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and doing it anyway. I don’t want to hold anyone to anyone else’s standard of adventure. We each need to chose our own, haha, wow...pun not intended, but there it is. Sometimes an adventure is going somewhere you’ve never heard of. It’s not always up a mountain; it might be taking a few buses out to a green spot on a map you know nothing about and have never been before. I’m really blessed by my ability to travel, and visiting a new place and sleeping under the stars is one of my favorite kinds of adventure. Especially when I get to go with someone who loves that place and wants to share why, that makes it extra special to me.
OP: What does the term "badass" mean to you?
Faith E. Briggs: I used to really grate at the term badass. I didn’t get it, and I was trying to understand if it was coded language. I used to get that when I was working full time 9-to-6 in an office everyday. I never really understood why people were using it. What was badass about printing decks for a meeting on time? I guess, to me, badass is just a “get shit done” attitude. I definitely see ladies crushing crazy mountains and sending absurd routes outside, and I’m just like, "Whoa, that’s bad ass." What really makes it badass to me, though, is when they are doing that and balancing a hectic day job or motherhood or activism in addition to all that. That requires so much psychic energy. All of us can choose to care and choose to hope and choose to speak out. So when people don’t, and their focus is just on themselves, for whatever reasons, because I know sometimes that is a protective measure too, I just find that choice to be rooted in ego. It’s a lot harder to care, to strive, to align with a cause, to put energy toward that. I love productivity, while it should always be partnered with self care, so productivity in multiple arenas, that’s badass to me, that’s inspiring.
OP: We are seeing a shift in what the term woman or female might bring to mind (sexuality, gender identification, etc.), both in the outdoor community and throughout the world. What does being a woman mean to you? Femininity?
Faith E. Briggs: While I’m a cisgender hetero woman, I’ve always loved the spectrum of identity that exists in queer culture. Coming out is not at all an easy process for most people, and the subsequent days, years, steps, family politics, lifestyle navigation, and everyday identity politics don’t just get easier overnight. Sometimes they never do. Acknowledging that, importantly, I think straight folks can learn a lot from the language of identity that we find in the LGBTQ community. Whether it’s femme or butch or boi, I think the fact that you get to say who you are and what you want to be called is really incredible and a great model.
What does being a woman mean to me? I grew up completely identified with being a tomboy, and I honestly think it was a choice then out of protection because I didn’t find myself traditionally beautiful and wanted to pretend I didn’t care about that. Years later, it was a choice to do things that were more traditionally associated as feminine like paint my nails and wear jewelry and eyeliner. In college I started learning about personal aesthetics and signaling and self identity and reading a lot of black female authors talking about womanhood and womanist theory, and that was so powerful to me. I think language really helped me embrace femininity, helped me realize it wasn’t shallow to want to participate in a way of adornment, that in fact it had some cultural roots that I could participate in. Looking at my own answer, I guess for me femininity tends to live in the world of aesthetics. The only thing I really otherwise ever think about in terms of femininity is the concept of softness. I think there’s this way in which softness gets a bad rap because it’s seen as the opposite of strong, and I think softness is a personality trait and a value that is traditionally associated with femininity. It seems strange, but I love that word and that idea of softness. I think it’s important to stay soft. Some mornings I just want to lay my head on something soft for a few moments and breathe before I start the day, and when people are cruel and mean, I just remind myself to stay soft, to have grace for people as much as we can because we never know what they are carrying around. If that’s feminine, then yes, I hope that’s a way in which I express my femininity, by staying soft.
OP: What mantra or set of words do you live by?
Faith E. Briggs: Haha, I have so many mantras! I’m a word person...as you are probably realizing through my freaking tome of an interview here. I love language so very much. I printed out quotes on bright colored paper and had them covering the walls in my dorm room when I was 16. Words have helped me get through so many moments. I know you did not ask me for a poem, but I’m giving you one anyway. It's by Safia Elhillo, and it's called “the last word.” She is brilliant, and it has been something I’ve gone back to month after month year after year. It’s break-up poetry, but it’s also helped me in so many areas of my life. The bold emphasis is mine:
the last word.
hey- you are not to be filled with the ghosts he left you are not a tomb
- a monument - the dandelion still standing after a hurricane - too heirloom to give away
to the first gap-toothed smile spilled onto your
swallow yourself back in.
scrape the last shards of resentment
from underneath your fingernails-
bitterness is a woman’s greatest downfall (you’ve done a lifetime’s worth of falling)
concern yourself now with only matters of the sky
1. ascension 2. upsweep 3. rising
don’t hate him, rise. reclaim the spot that
the sun held for you for all the months you spent pretending
that the light in you had flickered;
unfurl yourself across the heavens.
take inventory make lists of all your parts;
make peace with the fact
that you truly thought he loved you.
and when you no longer love him,
do not tell him. do not gloat. do not reopen your wounds
to show that their hurt no longer hurts you.
reopen your chest let his vacant room air out in the sun
lock the door.
you are not a tenant of your own flesh,
you are landlady you are land you have landed
OP: In a perfect world, what does the outdoors (the people, the places, the community as a whole, etc.) look like to you? And what can outdoor brands and media companies, such as Outdoor Project, do better to help get us there?
Faith E. Briggs: I have the coolest friend group. We are economically, racially, religiously diverse. We’re bi-racial, interracial, dancers, baristas, lawyers, surgeons, runners. We are married, divorced, co-parenting, fostering, life partnering. We are gay and straight and bi and trans and poly and monogamous. We work for nonprofits, are saddled with student loans, struggle to make ends meet, we do not glorify being a starving artist (there is nothing romantic about starving), we come from rich families, we work in private equity, we are engineers and architects. We hike and bike and run and kayak and walk and camp and glamp and swim and jump off things and climb up things and backflip and are afraid of heights. That’s what it actually looks like outside, and that’s what it can look like outside. In my opinion, brands need to create opportunities, invite in people that are new, take a chance on smaller influencers, put marketing dollars toward creating experiences. I think small steps involve not making giveaways random. Don’t just ask people to tag a friend so that folks can get more followers, ask them to answer questions. Reward passion and drive and the true embodiment of your brands. I also think people need more language consultants; this stuff is hard, but so often the words chosen are so whitewashed and exclusive. I have friends tell me the language used in campaigns is intimidating. I think brands need to accept that they might need help with language if they are going to reach a new audience and put time and energy into that. Words matter, and what you say about yourself matters, and if everyone in the room making those decisions looks the same and comes from similar shared experiences, then there’s a chance you’re going to accidentally exclude the people who aren’t represented in that decision making process.
OP: What is one thing that you never leave home without?
Faith E. Briggs: My fanny pack! I just got one, and I honestly love it. I’m not great with keys and cards and things, and I hate having to carry a bag, though I do also love totes, but I love being able to just grab the fanny pack and head off to wherever I’m going next.
OP: Let’s talk gear - what are your thoughts on women-specific gear? Love it, hate it? Are there any companies out there doing it right? And how so? When does it matter to you most to have gear specific to women versus unisex products?
Faith E. Briggs: I’m pretty new to the idea of being a gearhead, so I don't think about this conversation as much as others. Running doesn't struggle quite so much with the pink and shrink problem. My main thing is that I want pockets that fit things. It's like people think women don’t have things to carry. We have things to carry, too! I’m just getting into gear-heavy activities, so while I've heard it's an issue, I just haven't experienced it myself as much. What I think a lot about are needing women on design teams so that there is someone there who understands things like the importance of leggings staying up and drawstrings actually working.
OP: What is the greatest piece of advice or direction that you’ve ever received, and what’s the story behind it?
Faith E. Briggs: Oh wow, that’s a huge question. I always say that the best thing I have to give to others is the people in my life. I have incredible friends and family who are smart and talented and who have helped me so much, so I have countless answers to this question. But if I have to pick one…
I left my first grad school program after a year, and I was so unsure of the decision. I moved back to New York, and I was broke and sleeping on a couch. I started working as a barista, and I had a tough year with family, jobs, personal relationships. I was talking to my dad one time, and I was really having trouble and experiencing regret about leaving the path I’d set out on. My dad said to me, “You took the leap, you just haven’t landed yet.” It felt like a revelation. I was flying through life, flailing and floundering. I felt stupid and naive, but then I had this very clear image of myself hurtling through the air after having leaped but maybe not yet landed, and it seemed so obvious that we are going to have some moments like that along the way. That image has helped me a few times, because I tend to follow my intuition and step out on faith and just hope, and I find that life works out. You put your head up and you work hard and you seek to serve others and keep building yourself as a person, and it works out. But yeah, that really helps me calm down and keep pushing when I’m having those rough self-talk moments and I need to save myself from myself.
OP: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you were just starting out as an outdoor storyteller, what would it be?
Faith E. Briggs: I’m still just starting out as an outdoor storyteller! I’m looking to get advice from all the other women you are interviewing! Haha. What would I tell myself...I tell myself everyday: You can do it, own it. When it comes to representation in media, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started studying this in 2007, and yet I still question myself constantly. I’ve consulted with brands on exactly this, and yet I still question myself. I still have to be my own cheerleader, so I would tell myself: you got this. And ASK FOR HELP!
OP: In a world seemingly run by online personas, how do you approach social media, and how does it play into your lifestyle - both work and play?
Faith E. Briggs: Social Media is the best thing and the worst thing. It’s the best thing because I find it so inspiring and such a great tool for building community. I’ve met so many awesome people via social media, and there have honestly been days were morning scrolls have been the push I needed to get out on a run. I really miss my training partners back in NYC, and I’m really glad I still get to be connected with them via social media. That said, it’s also the worst. I think it creates ego-driven people and rewards us for being glued to our phone. It gives us weird skewed ways of self-assessment, and it encourages us to not live in the moment, not really connect and be present. I try to just be real. My rules are that I won’t do anything in order to take a picture of it, and honestly that’s harder than I thought, especially since I’ve worked in social media running other accounts at different times, and so creating content has been my job. I try to keep the job a job but not let that carry over into my personal life. I definitely don’t have the balance nailed, but if I happen to be living my life and taking cool pictures along the way, that’s perfect and that works. I have a lot of super creative people in my life, and we make art together, so that works for me. But if I want to take pictures and therefore I go somewhere, that’s just not how I want to live my life. I’ve started to take breaks from it, post less, make sure I’m not doing it because of some kind of commitment to "engagement." I’m a storyteller, and it’s a medium and a communication tool, but I don’t want some kind of commitment to social media to get in the way of the energy I need to put toward the other work that I’m doing.
OP: The world of storytelling within the outdoor space is rapidly progressing. How are you stepping things up to stand out from the crowd?
Faith E. Briggs: I honestly don’t worry about what other people are doing. I think each person has a story to tell. Learning yourself and what you’re passionate about and learning the words to say it (if words are your medium), that’s how you’ll find success, regardless of what the numbers say. I just go back to doing things that matter and making sure you know that what you do and say and how you represent yourself. That’s what you’re putting out into the world. So I make sure I’m proud of who I am and what and who I’m standing beside.
OP: What’s next for you in the coming months and years?
Faith E. Briggs: I’m training and prepping for a running and advocacy project in collaboration with Addie Thompson and Whit Hassett. We are STOKED and working hard on it in order to tell you more. Key words: women, running, national monuments. More info to come!
OP: The title of your autobiography would be...
Faith E. Briggs: Rice Sauce Ratio
OP: In your next life, you will come back as...
Faith E. Briggs: Wind, knowledgeable helpful whispering wind.
OP: Tell us one thing about yourself that no one knows.
Faith E. Briggs: I’m an open book, but maybe only a few people know that my "use of mustard is inspired," as my old roommate said. I freaking love mustard.
OP: If our readers were to take one thing from this interview, what would you like it to be?
Faith E. Briggs: I hope it’s just that it’s nice to be nice and it’s important to care and that we need to try to really see each other clearly. You’re not going to hear people say you were too kind. I just think it’s easier to make someone’s day, and it’s more important to be a force of good in the world, whatever your arena, than it is to do the opposite. If that sounds a little hippie, then so be it, I can own that. I hope we’ll try to understand each other. We are living in a climate of misunderstanding, and we’re really suffering because of that. I think we all need more kindness and compassion in our lives. And more good kind hearted, joy filled laughter.
Learn more about Faith by checking out her website or following along on her adventures on Instagram via @faithevebee