digital illustration of a compass
By Julie Judkins
Heading Toward True North
We learn, unlearn, and learn again
Many of us head to the Appalachian Trail after experiencing life changing events or when seeking a new direction in life. The Trail has served me best as a mirror for self-reflection. The A.T. allows us the introspection to see wounds we might not see in our busy lives and find a path toward healing. The lands and people the Trail encompasses have deep wounds themselves, and acknowledging the trauma of the past, like the first steps along an approach trail, is just the beginning of a long journey.

When I joined the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) staff in 2004, I did not foresee the changes that would occur in the organization’s structure and vision. Yet a plan was already in place that would orient us toward transformational change, even going so far as to change our organization’s very name from the Appalachian Trail Conference to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. A change in name marked a change in identity, with the ATC looking “beyond the footpath” to land conservation, stewardship, and education. As the organization evolved, so did my role within it. I went from supporting education planning and volunteer workshops to leading national partnerships and building networks of educators, communities, and young people. Now, I am part of a larger team tasked with creating a culture oriented toward justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). This work requires me to learn from my mistakes but also engage in an ongoing process focused on growth. In taking steps forward, I need to slow down, take a new bearing, and readjust frequently.

Having engaged in a few years of intentional JEDI work, the ATC has taken important strides while realizing that much more is still needed. Individually and organizationally, we are each looking inward and taking a bearing toward “true north,” the internal compass and direction that guides us to our greatest potential. We might not have the power to change our complex past, nor the acts of colonization and injustices embedded in our history. We can, however, acknowledge our past and vow to address harmful systems and practices to build a better future.

Reciprocity, building relationships, and changing systems takes time; as motivational author and speaker Stephen Covey put it: “Change moves at the speed of trust.” In the ATC’s case, the journey toward true north is itself the work. Every individual is starting at a different place on this learning spectrum and has a different itinerary. The ATC’s compass in this journey has the bearings of foundational, internal, and external learning and change, which can help point us ultimately toward justice.

ATC’s Journey Toward Justice
Starting with the core of who we are and what we do, the ATC has adjusted our mission and vision statements, created new value and identity statements, and launched a new strategic plan. We have taken time to discuss, vet and internalize why this work is important to us individually, organizationally, and as a broader Trail community. We do this work because we recognize that the Trail’s benefits — lowering stress, improving health, and building stronger communities, among many others — are vital tools for our collective wellbeing. Access to the Trail and its benefits should be recognized and respected as a basic human right.

We have recognized breakdowns in communication. Now we strive to start all meetings and events with collective agreements on how we communicate and ensure our work is reciprocal and not transactional. We recognize the importance of building community first before bringing our own agenda to the table.

The ATC hired new staff to work on advancing JEDI within the organization. We have added to staff benefits, improved flexibility, and audited hiring practices, job descriptions, and classifications. We developed teams to focus on keeping the ATC on track with its JEDI learning and practices. We provided training on best practices for inclusion, such as understanding implicit bias. And our Next Generation Advisory Council continues to provide advice and support for programs, practices, and communications.

We have learned, at the ATC, that inclusion is about behavior. Listening, empathy, and curiosity are important practices to remember. We are an action-oriented organization, so we must remind ourselves that jumping in to “solve the problem” isn’t always the best approach. At times, we must listen, pull back and remember that discomfort is part of the process. The desire to see accomplishment or progress should not come second to listening to someone from the perspective of their lived experience.

The ATC cannot reach its true north alone. Bringing the people and organizations from the broader Trail community will help us learn with and from each other. The list below highlights the ways we are leading, sharing, and connecting to maximize our potential. We work with partners through a framework for equity that strives to eliminate barriers to participation by groups traditionally underrepresented, cultivating a diverse, dynamic new generation of Trail enthusiasts and conservation leaders.

Black Square
We do this work because we recognize that the Trail’s benefits — lowering stress, improving health, and building stronger communities, among many others — are vital tools for our collective wellbeing. Access to the Trail and its benefits should be recognized and respected as a basic human right.
Black Square
The Ed-Venture Series provides an interactive virtual presentation led by local experts covering Trail-related topics like wildlife, botany, history, and folklore for learners of all ages.

Youth Summits have built on several years of educational summits for young people; and last year 19 NextGen Forest Ambassadors completed a series of virtual group sessions. Two alumni and seven mentors supported the group and sessions covered a variety of topics, from the Cherokee language and stories to birding and tree identification.

Wild East Women and Latinx Partnership is a group of inspiring woman who engage with public lands and trails as adventurers, stewards, and leaders, and have supported multiple virtual events. Partnering with She-Explores and Ravel Media, the ATC developed the podcast series “Where We Walk.” Launched in September 2020, it has been downloaded more than 60,000 times so far and examines topics like the next generation of Trail caretakers and how the history of the A.T. has included and excluded women. The ATC’s Latinx partnership coordinator, similarly, amplified Latinx individuals and groups all over the country to explore and give-back to trail organizations through virtual campfire talks and events.

The ATC’s Community Impact Fund supported $150,000 worth of projects promoting social, economic, and land justice in southeastern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. Seven community organizations, schools, and municipal/county agencies will activate a variety of projects and people. Examples include creating Indigenous gardens at schools and community libraries, and developing a curriculum to better incorporate science, Indigenous knowledge, social studies, storytelling, and language arts.

The Volunteer Leadership Academy has provided dialogue and conversation on engaging new people and new partners. JEDI sessions have provided resources on accountability, language, models for working with affinity groups and young people, and much more.

Learn, unlearn, and learn again. Intentions, while coming from a place of kindness, can still unknowingly cause harm or replicate patterns of oppression. The existence of inequities, or differences in resource allocation, is something that might not be visible upon first look for those coming from a place of privilege. By acknowledging privilege, we can harness hope and action for allyship toward justice.

This is a long journey. But together, with true north as our guide, and by honoring the people and communities that have come before us, we continue to reflect, readjust, and ask questions. We hope this compass helps you feel empowered to take this journey with us. We will work individually and collectively to orient ourselves toward justice, do the hard work, and ensure that the Appalachian Trail is a place of healing and inspiration for all.

Julie Judkins is the ATC’s Director of Education and Outreach
For more learning:
The Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World by the Center of Global Inclusion, is a resource that has helped the ATC build a framework for growth, providing strategies, best practices, and progress toward our goals through their systems for accountability. Broken up into the key areas, they provide dozens of modalities and guidance.