One way to mark National Rivers Month is to hear from Chad Brown, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in Desert Storm/Desert Shield and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. He is the founder of two Oregon-based nonprofit organizations: Soul River, which connects inner-city youth and veteran mentors to nature, with a focus on rivers and fly-fishing, and Love is King, which has as its mission ensuring an enriching and nurturing outdoor experience for people in marginalized communities. His goals? Get more kids involved in the outdoors, help grow their interest in public lands and rivers, and build their skills as conservation advocates. Each summer, Soul River takes veterans and young people on expeditions, which Brown calls “deployments,” to rivers and into wildlife refuges and parks. Brown hopes these deployments will help develop a new generation of leaders.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q. Tell us about some of your first experiences on rivers—and why they were so important to you.
A: They were moments of wonder that made my soul hungry and my mind curious to explore the unknown. The river was a space where I forgot about myself, who I was, my life situation, and the demons I was fighting. Later, my experiences on rivers became very therapeutic and played an essential role in my healing. On the river, I learned more about who I was and what I was capable of accomplishing than from any school I had ever been in, or any book I had ever read. The river prepared me to be resilient.
Q. Soul River’s work focuses on connecting urban young people and vets with wild and remote rivers. How do you use these expeditions to convince them they can make a difference?
A: Convincing is not what I do. It’s teaching through action. I deliver full representation in the outdoors as a veteran, an African American, a survivor, and a warrior. What helps is being in the company of fellow warriors and showing how life challenged each of us. Every one of the veterans shows the youth that we genuinely care about them—that “we have their six."
Q: You “have their six”?
A: That’s military slang for “having their backs.”
Q: OK. So what happens when they understand that you have their backs?
A: The youth become family, and we veterans show and practice what we preach; we give respect and attention to each soul. Some of the young people participate for three or four years, and their growth is phenomenal. They step up and take charge; they carry responsibility. Some speak to lawmakers; others break bread with chiefs in Indigenous communities. They become more aware and want to take a stand and become a voice in their own communities. This is shared learning from both sides, and through this process we learn together and build together.
Q. During the pandemic, people have flocked to the outdoors to hike, camp, fish, and for their mental well-being. Has the pandemic affected the way you and the people you work with think about our rivers?
A: We’ve been flocking to the river as if the pandemic never happened! Rivers are just as important to us as they were before the pandemic. I personally kept my travel to local rivers right here in Oregon, mostly to the Deschutes and Clackamas rivers—but I did journey way off the grid to fish the Donner und Blitzen River in eastern Oregon.
Q. Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley (both D) have introduced the River Democracy Act, which would protect nearly 4,700 miles of rivers throughout the state as wild and scenic. And you were part of the nomination process.
A: Yes, I was, and one young person and some of our veterans also participated. I nominated the Rogue River, where I learned to fly-fish when I returned home from military service as a disabled veteran. I developed relationships there with seasoned anglers during what was a difficult time in my life. It’s truly a “blue ribbon” river.
Q. One of your concerns is ensuring that people of color have a positive experience in the outdoors, with equitable access to wilderness and on our country’s rivers. What are you doing to help make that happen?
A: My mission recently has been ensuring safety in the outdoors and fighting for opportunity within the conservation space. Access is putting the cart before the horse; safety has to be put in place first for Black, Indigenous, and people of color to feel comfortable exploring the outdoors and our precious rivers. Without safety, access does nothing but allow Black, Indigenous, and people of color to step in the outdoors with fear. You can't have access and not have safety. So we work to reassure parents of the young people that their children will feel safe, and the diversity of our vets is part of that.
Youth of color bring their experiences with discrimination and racism to the outdoors, and they can be hesitant. We do due diligence in researching the areas where we deploy—the lay of the land, diversity of nearby towns, location of the closest medical centers—so we’re prepared. After establishing the fundamentals of safety measures, Black, Indigenous, and people of color will then be able to have healthy and positive experiences in the outdoors. That’s a result of addressing the fears that people of color face in nature: generational fear and present-day fear caused by hate, bigotry, ignorance, and racism. When these fears are addressed and dismantled, establishing access becomes a sustainable success.