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Jason Swann’s life turned upside down. Now, he’s saving wild places

When Jason Swann goes hiking, he always takes pictures. It’s important to him to show other Black and brown people that they belong in the wilderness too. Jason talks with host Yesh Pavlik Slenk about how an encounter with the police, a divorce, and job loss led him to a new life as an advocate for racial equity in the outdoors and to a dramatic career change from finance to sustainability.

Jason Swann’s childhood in the rural south included living in “a small shanty in the middle of a cow pasture.” Sure, he played outdoors—but he wasn’t exactly hiking in wild places. 

He grew up to become a financial analyst, but that career ended after an encounter with the police ruined his reputation. His life upended, he moved from Nebraska to Colorado. There, he tells host Yesh Pavlik Slenk, “I found respite in the melodic powers of the outdoors.”

Inspired by his new connection with nature, Jason reinvented himself. He did what some career sustainability pros mistakenly think is impossible: He became a land policy analyst without first getting an advanced degree in environmental science or sustainability. Now, as an analyst with Western Resource Advocates and co-founder of Rising Routes, an environmental, social, and mental wellness advocacy business, he helps underserved communities gain access to the outdoors. He helped pass Colorado’s Create Outdoor Equity Grant Program, ground-breaking legislation that allocates millions of dollars for outdoor activities and education to those in need. 

The Create Outdoor Equity Grant Program and similar national initiatives seek to address the historical exclusion of BIPOC communities from enjoying outdoor recreation in the U.S.

Jason has little patience for sustainability career seekers who allow themselves to be stymied by a lack of an advanced degree. “For those who think you need to have a PhD or an environmental science degree or any of that, I say the hell with it…. Half of this job, if not 90% of it, is about relationships,” he tells Yesh. “You can learn technical things,” he says. “What you can’t learn and you can’t hide is your passion and love and appreciation for what you’re doing.”

Be bold, he urges. Speak your truth. “If you are being quiet, you don’t have the power to shape the future of this work.”

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Be sure to explore the back catalog of Degrees. If you liked this episode, you’ll love the conversation with environmental justice and green jobs advocate, Michelle Romero. If you’re seeking a job tackling climate change, and I hope that you are, check out our “Land a Green Job 101 Bootcamp.

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