‘A story worth telling’

Washougal author chronicles life of first Black woman to supervise a national forest

timestamp icon
category icon Latest News, Life, News

Donna Sinclair’s book, “Black Woman in Green: Gloria Brown and the Unmarked Trail to Forest Service Leadership,” was released in February 2020, but — thanks to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic — the Washougal resident and the book’s namesake and co-author, former United States Forest Service (USFS) Forest Supervisor Gloria Brown, were only able to participate in one in-person event after the book’s launch, which severely limited their promotional opportunities, Sinclair said.

The book generated positive reviews and sold well despite its ill-timed debut and the absence of Brown, who died of cancer in September 2021. Now, nearly three years after the book’s initial release, Sinclair has been pondering the possibilities of bringing the book — and Brown’s inspirational story — back into the limelight.

“I was just thinking about that not very long ago — we didn’t really do those kinds of promotional book tours in person,” said Sinclair, an adjunct professor at both Washington State University-Vancouver and Western Oregon University. “It was No. 9 on the Pacific Northwest bestseller list the first year that it came out, so we did pretty well that first year, but sales have definitely gone down, and it hasn’t really been promoted in the way that it certainly would have been if Gloria were around. I would love to promote it more. I’d like to see her story get out there, and I would like the word to get out in the professional forestry industry a little better.”

The book, published by Oregon State University (OSU) Press, details Brown’s journey from her hometown of Washington D.C., where she joined the USFS as a dictation transcriptionist, to Missoula, Montana, where she served as a public affairs officer for the USFS’ regional office, and finally to the Pacific Northwest, where she became the first Black woman to supervise a national forest.

“It’s a story that’s told through the lens of her rise in the Forest Service,” Sinclair said. “It’s a pretty gripping story. It’s a really sad story, but it’s also a story of determination. For Gloria, her goal was really to motivate other people, to let them know that they have the capacity to change their lives.”

Brown joined the USFS in 1974, and worked her way up in the agency, eventually serving as supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest in Western Oregon and Los Padres National Forest in California before retiring in 2007.

“The first time I listened to her story, I literally cried,” Sinclair said. “There was something that resonated for me. She was an African American woman living in Washington, D.C., her husband was killed in a drunk-driving accident, and she came out West with her children and ultimately ended up being the first African American woman in charge of a national forest, and it took until 1999 for that to happen. (I felt) that it was a story worth telling.”

Brown “strongly emphasize(d) relationships within and outside the agency as key to her success,” according to a 2021 article on the USFS website.

“Every position: not only was it a relationship, but it was a learning opportunity,” Brown said. “If you think you’re doing something by yourself, I’ll be the first one to tell you, ‘No, you didn’t. You didn’t get there by yourself.’”

Brown’s story “provides valuable insight into the roles that African Americans have carved out in the outdoors generally and in the field of environmental policy and public lands management specifically,” according to the OSU Press website.

“Drawing on her powerful communication and listening skills, her sense of humor, and her willingness to believe in the basic goodness of humanity, Brown conducted civil rights training and shattered glass ceilings, all while raising her children alone,” the website states. “The story of Brown’s career unfolds against the backdrop of a changing government agency and a changing society… as scholars awaken to the racist history of public land management and the ways that people of color have been excluded from contemporary notions of nature and wilderness.”

Sinclair first heard Brown’s story on an audio tape after one of her Portland State University students interviewed Brown in 2002. But she didn’t meet Brown until 2013, when a friend passed the former USFS supervisor’s contact information to Sinclair.

“This was pure serendipity, as I had been planning to find her for my dissertation work,” Sinclair wrote in an essay published on the OSU Press’ website shortly after Brown’s death. “I reached out and interviewed Gloria a couple of times, and soon told her I thought she should write a book, secretly hoping she would ask me to help. She seemed to know my thoughts and I hers — she asked and I agreed. We became partners.”

The two women began work on the book in 2016, and finished it in early 2020. During that time, Sinclair “got to know (Brown) very well” through many in-person and virtual conversations.

“She was charismatic,” Sinclair said. “She was very charming. She was beautiful. She was well-dressed. She was a fierce parent. And she was smart. But first of all, she was warm. I know as someone who supervised others that she not only cared about them and made sure that they tried to get their needs met within the bureaucratic structure, but she was also really smart at figuring out who on her team could get things done. She was persistent, determined and a very loving person.”

Sinclair said Brown was “really pleased to have had the opportunity to tell her story.”

“She had a lot of really positive feedback,” she said. “She was being asked to speak, and she did a number of Zoom presentations. She was really glad to have completed it. She was grateful to me for helping her do it. And she got to see her granddaughter, who had read the book, view her as a role model, someone to look up to, who had some success in her life and took on a challenge and knew she could do whatever she wanted to do with her life. I think that was really gratifying for her to see that.”