At Risk

THE TORRENTIAL RAIN in the first week of September pummels the youth crew’s tents at night, depositing mud and sediment in the creek where they pump water for drinking. For seventeen days, the teenagers I recruited to build trails for the North Cascades National Park are camping during one of the heaviest storms in a hundred years. The river coughs thick, brown mudslides onto State Route 20, blocking road access from the west. Instead of a three-and-a-half-hour drive to pick them up, I begin a seven-hour journey eastward from Seattle through rock formations that dart out like deer from the light-green sagebrush.

Arriving in the dark, I find the Pearrygin Lake campground outside of the Old West town of Winthrop barely occupied. The warm air is without insects, so I tuck myself in on the grass behind the white twelve-passenger van I have rented to pick up the crew. Lying out under the stars without the nylon canopy of my tent, I nestle into the reflection of the half-moon and backlit mountains in the lake.

Despite my comfort, I am acutely aware that I am at-risk: Black. Woman. Alone. Camping. Even in the disguising cloak of moonlight shadows, I need protection. I sleep with the van keys in my pocket and practice grabbing them to push the panic button in case of danger.

The spring chinook populations in the watersheds around Route 20 are labeled “at-risk populations” when the Forest Service discusses road analysis in the Methow River subbasin and its watersheds. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Protecting an endangered species means changing the practices in an entire ecosystem to safeguard their survival. It means managing the loss of their habitat, the turbidity of their waters, the surface water runoff from the streets that threatens them, and the effluents from the wastewater that disrupt their endocrine systems and, if unchecked, will cause their extinction.

Every year salmon return to the rivers where they were born. And every year, I return to the birthplace of the wilderness program I developed to nurture the next generation of outdoor leaders in the cathedral peaks and azure lakes of the North Cascades. This year, the wettest August followed by the heavy rains of September threatened both my crew of nascent campers and the eggs of the spawning salmon.

My youth crews are Black. Latino. Urban. This is what the woman at a party hears when I describe them. “Oh, you work with at-risk youth,” she says. She doesn’t hear Volunteer. College Student. Intern. Outdoor Leader. The “at-risk” label is different for youth than it is for salmon. “At-risk” isn’t a protection but a limitation, a judgment, an assumption. Even when the threats to their survival are the same as to an endangered species — an unstable habitat, lack of nutrition, and a damaged social and natural ecosystem — the label leaves them at a deficit, offers no promise for protection.

In the case of the salmon, being protected as an endangered species alerts us to the fullness of their connection to a magnificent web. Their relationship to threatened indigenous cultures and to other endangered species like the majestic orca whales is valued. Their label protects them.

I tell the woman at the party, “All youth are at-risk—the risks are just different.” And some are endangered.

Jourdan Imani Keith is a playwright, naturalist, educator, and storyteller whose work blends the textures of political, personal and natural landscapes to offer voices from the margins of American lives. Keith has performed nationally and internationally, giving over 250 performances from Zimbabwe to Philadelphia, from Yellowstone and North Cascades National Park to Seattle.  Jourdan Keith has received awards from 4 Culture, Artist Trust, and Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs for Coyote Autumn and 2004 for the play and solo performance of The Uterine Files: Episode I, Voices Spitting Out Rainbows. She has received fellowships from Hedgebrook, Voices of Our Nations (VONA), and Jack Straw Writer’s program. Her poems, essays and articles have appeared in magazines, newspapers, radio, television and video, including The Seattle Times, Labyrinth, PUSH, Floating Bridge Press, Colors NW, Seattle Woman, and the anthology, Ma-Ka, Diasporic Juks, writings by Queers of African Descent. Jourdan Keith is Founder and Director of Urban Wilderness Project.


  1. So so wonderful to have a black woman’s perspective voiced on this venue. A breath of fresh air.

  2. All youth are at risk… beautifully said.

    It is so easy to get caught up in our categories and forget the real power of the story. In your program, people are working together, connecting with each other, connecting with the world, and learning a variety of values that transfer into any ecosystem.

  3. Thank you for this piece. I’ve sent this story to all of my coworkers at the non profit I work with. We work with a range of youth in the East Bay of Northern California can always use a reminder of the many voices, lives, cultures and circumstances of the diverse we work with.

  4. This is a beautifully written piece that provides another perspective to a label that is used without truly considering its implications. This article helps us all see ourselves and young people in a different light.

  5. Great insights and article. I look forward to reading more of your perspectives. As a supervisor in a youth program (California Conservation Corps), I was moved by how you expressed our reality with such brevity while honoring the spirit of our work with youth and the environment. Bravo!

  6. I so agree! I have been saying this for decades with the advent of natural spaces disappearing, ALL youth are at risk, of healthy clean air, spaces, natural environments that allow for healing, spiritual enlightenment and many other things. Thank you so much for highlighting this…Americans really need to shift our perspective and start to address the real issues/challenges facing the world not just our country. Labels like ‘At-Risk’ are apart of the same old cloth of separate and define…it’s time for a new vantage point

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