Now Is The Time
Madeline Friend ︎ Flagstaff, Arizona
Flagstaff has been hit by COVID-19 like the other tourist towns of the Four Corners region. Instead of wishing for a return to the way things were, however, one river guide issues a call to action to the guide industry, asking us to break the mold of inequality and worker oppression and to create a new, better way moving forward.
Flagstaff, Arizona is a hub of the Grand Canyon’s recreation industry. Born and raised here, it is the foundation of my career as a professional river guide. Like tens of millions of people in the United States, our livelihoods were rapidly stripped away because of repercussions of the novel coronavirus, repercussions that could have been mitigated, but were not.
COVID-19 is not a “great equalizer,” but a mirror to structural inequalities. The novel coronavirus illuminated what BIPOC activists and organizers have been speaking truth to power about for centuries: the isolationist and white supremecist policies that strategically guided a nation founded on stolen land.
Like most hospitality jobs, the recreation industry relies on wage theft, unpaid sick leave, and unreliable schedules. Though my experience has largely been on river trips, this echoes through the guiding industry from mountains to moraines. Inaction and complicity with the status quo perpetuate established injustices.
The guiding industry is set up for cishet, abled, white men with generational privilege operating on land violently pillaged from Indigenous peoples. White women have gained some traction by breaking our bodies and keeping our mouths largely shut, though the everyday horror of sexual harassment and assault in our workplaces persists. BIPOC face these same challenges, but are further tokenized and face racism, prejudices, and abuses that often force them out of the industry.
If you are able; if you have not been left in shambles, if you have something left, I ask you to step up. I ask you to use this unprecedented moment to make big, structural changes necessary for an equitable future. The guiding industry in this nation has been around for almost a century (if you like to round your numbers up in stories, as most guides do!). In this time of deconstruction, let us prepare for the century not with a posture of fear and scarcity, but with one of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
I can already hear refrains of “But not here; not at my company.” Yes, here. Yes, your company.
We have not yet interrogated our white privilege as a country or as an industry. Laying these inequities bare is not only necessary during a global catastrophe, but essential. If not now, when?
What does that mean for guides? Bringing to light the unacknowledged darkness of our craft and critically examining our work. The unspoken tradeoffs we accept for a structurally unjust system? Flexibility, sure. Coolness, sure. Cash tips? Yep. We ply our trades in cash, not as a necessary system as the more than 8 million unbanked families in the US do, but as a functionality of wage theft.
Instead of treating COVID-19 as just another blot on a failed track record, now is the time to create holistic, just systems: from healthcare and employment to a guiding industry focused on genuine care and equality. BIPOC are already leading the movement. We coalition build through sacrificing privilege and supporting existing groups to decolonize the outdoors. There is work to be done, work that needs to be done now. Guides know how to work hard: we just have to choose to join.