work journal

Fuel, Oxygen and Heat

February 14, 2021

This was the story that changed it all for me.

Through it, I learned a basic premise that I operate under now: By focusing on inclusion, you broaden the diversity of perspectives and knowledge among teams and leaders, which is key to our future on this planet.

The story focused on one government agency's efforts to address the gender discrimination, harassment and assault that have been endemic to America's male-dominated firefighting culture for over a century.

I can only imagine the leaps of faith the female firefighters took who shared their experiences with me. Many wouldn't go on the record, for fear of retaliation or losing their jobs. As one woman told me, "I couldn’t speak up. I have to work with these people.”

With support from a Solutions Journalism Network grant, I traveled to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, where I learned more about what it takes to respond to this kind of challenge as a leader in a bureaucratic environment.

“I’ve always learned that if you have the same kind of people with the same backgrounds, experiences and education, when faced with challenges, they’re most likely going to come up with some of the same solutions,” said Howard Hedrick, second in command of the BLM fire program. “If you have a more diverse group, I think you’ll come up with much better solutions.”

While the conversation right now is focused on women, in the long run, Hedrick said, it will also be about hiring a workforce with ethnic, racial and educational backgrounds representative of the communities they serve—and treating them well enough that they stay.

Diversity won't change the basics of fire—fuel, oxygen and heat, at its most basic—but it can change how we interact with fire, something that's becoming increasingly important in a warming climate.

Looking back at this story now as a facilitator, coach and strategist, I see so many other things the BLM task force was doing that pique my interest:

  • Identifying core challenges.
  • Listening! When the women highlighted in the story switched tacks in their interviews with male firefighters, asking them instead about their own challenges, it's a powerful example of the kind of caring listening that crumbles barriers.
  • Getting "buy in from leaders at all levels" sounds like I could have written it last week
  • Reframing!

This was my first solutions story, and learning this new framework shifted the way I tell stories and see the world. These stories report on how people are responding to social problems, what's working and what's not. Data shows that not only are readers more likely to share these stories, they're more likely to get engaged. This one was reprinted in Wildfire Magazine, and won a first place award for Diversity in Digital Journalism from the Society of Features Journalism.

Goodness gracious, do I owe a debt of gratitude to both Leah Todd, who was then SJN's Mountain West manager, and my incredibly patient editor and friend Tyler Allen, a champion for truth and clarity, and someone whose mind I admire deeply.

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