By ambassador Mike Neiduski
I have often joked that I live my life in two different worlds.
I try to spend as much time as I possibly can around hunting dogs. Training, testing, judging, hunting, you name it. I grew up a deer hunter, but bird dogs set my path. I travel regularly, sometimes 20-30hr road trips to hunt, fly all over the country to judge dogs. I can’t get enough of it. I meet people from all over, at different points in their life, in their hunting career, with different dog breeds, you name it. The majority of my time outside of work is spent either in these pursuits or supporting organizations that seek to move the ball of conservation, hunting, and fishing forward. I picked up a bird dog that lit a fire in me for these things that I don’t see fizzling out anytime soon, hopefully not in my lifetime.
On the paycheck front, I work for a university in gender-equity. I oversee institutional responses to sexual assaults and relationship violence. I try to support victims and survivors as they seek to become whole again. I do not know what it’s like to experience sexual violence, and only have minimal personal experience with verbal abuse in a relationship. I can never know how that experience manifests for the women and men who sit across from me. In these conversations I have to suspend judgment, I must be in the moment attentive to their needs. Support. Connect.
To do this well I regularly attend training and conferences and maintain conversations with colleagues around bias, diversity, equity, and inclusion (D, E, & I). I’ve participated in long-running conversations in my head as I strove to interrogate how I think and how I look at the world and those I interact with. Some of those interrogations weren’t pretty. It’s uncomfortable work, both the job and the self-reflection. It’s constant. Things are always coming up that push me and make me think.
I largely kept my hunting, fishing, and outdoor self from my work environment and vice-versa. With so much of the population not being hunters and anglers, I regularly avoid bringing my hobbies up in conversation. Discussing either in the opposite world creates a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. It’s uncomfortable. Selfishly, it’s easier to keep them separate.
The more I became involved in conservation movements and advancing hunting and fishing, the more I leaned into participating in D, E, & I conversations at work on a parallel train. But I quickly found myself cross-walking my work to the spaces of my passions. Never publicly, but those long internal conversations raged. I found myself stuck at the confluence of my work and hobby worlds with no idea how to navigate the river of their combination. And here we are, many in our community are now doing some of their own work, examining our institutions, our leadership, and ruminating on how to do better, how to be better in this arena. These things can no longer be kept separate.
George Floyd’s murder and the aftermath shook me. It shook, and is still shaking, many things, including those in the hunting and angling space. Organizations stepped up and spoke out. Comment sections raged with accusations of grandstanding, virtue signaling, and cries of “I don’t come here for this.” Discomfort raged, as did my own.
As hunters and anglers, we know opportunity lies in getting uncomfortable. The long hikes into the backcountry, the early morning wake-ups, the sits in the cold and the wet. We push forward through it all in active pursuit of what we’re after. Now is the time to get uncomfortable in a different way, to lean into listening and learning, to lean into growth.
That discomfort, for me, manifests when I think about my bird hunting trips to faraway places. The cross country jaunts where I sleep in the truck with tinted windows and a sometimes grumbly wirehair and guns. How would that go if I were a person of color sleeping on the side of the highway mid-journey?
I remember the time I got pulled over for speeding in the middle-of-nowhere panhandle Texas on my way to Oklahoma. My wirehair was passed out in the front seat after 3 days of ducks and quail on a buddy’s lease, 2 more days of chasing birds lie ahead. All was good until the lights came on behind me. The only thing I could think about when the SUV pulled in behind me was, “I hope he comes to the driver side window.” I didn’t want him to wake my sleeping dog who would surely come out snarling. The Texas State Patrol officer confirmed my fears, choosing the safer route for him, the passenger side away from traffic. In a panic, I put the back window down and stopped his approach, “Sir, my dog is asleep in the front seat.” At my words, she awoke, but it was my words not an unfamiliar knock at the window, all was OK. A few pleasantries, the typical, “do you know why I stopped you?” “I was speeding” ...I drove off with a warning.
Who knows why I got a warning, or why he was friendly despite the direct control I took of the encounter. But there’s that discomfort again, what if I wasn’t a straight white dude with a bird dog in the front seat?
The reality is, many aren’t so lucky.
In a time where all we hear about in the hunting community is R3! R3! R3!, we need to realize the barriers to entry are more than just the money and the time and the access.
The pursuit is the same but the path to it is unfathomably different for many women, those in the LGBT+ community, and folks of color - often in a negative way for a myriad of reasons. How are folks with these identities treated on the way to and from pursuing the same activities I hold dear, let alone while actually engaging in them? Do they have role models that look like them in these pursuits? What about in leadership positions within our organizations? So many questions to ask.
One more set of questions. Questions I am asking myself and ones I hope we all ask ourselves as we view the current state of affairs in our country, in our conservation groups, with our peers - What am I doing to make this space, these pursuits, and these places, OUR places, welcome for everyone? How and where can I learn from others whose experience differs from my own to increase understanding? Who is leading the charge in our communities in this respect and how can I create space for their message? How can I support them to amplify their efforts?
I’m sure there are many more, but I have to start somewhere. For over a decade I worked on these questions, worked on myself. Leaned in to learn, to understand. Focused on another realm than hunting and fishing, sure, but the premises are the same. No different than a new hunter coming into the fold, there exists a seemingly infinite list of concepts to grasp. The one concrete thing I learned? I have a long way to go, more discomfort to sit in, and much more to understand.
In an effort to promote learning and understanding around these topics here are some resources to consider as you seek to grow around the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is important to note, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but merely an opportunity to start.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Hunting For Sustainability Panel Discussion (password: PiTO#2020)
Why You Need to Stop Saying “All Lives Matter” by Rachel Cargle
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, PhD
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Thoughts on the Killing of George Floyd by Chad Brown
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