Finding Peace and Strength in the Northwoods

James Edward Mills of The Joy Trip Project worked with the National Forest Foundation to create The Black Men Northwoods Retreat. Below are stories from four of the men that were part of the trip to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Photos takes by James Edward Mills

Black Men Northwoods Retreat

I’m the world’s first African American diabetic to complete the Ironman Triathlon and crossing the finish line empowered my vision to establish the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association (RLWA) focused on improving the health and well-being of Black men and boys.

As a former police officer, I’ve always had this concept that if I arrest someone, I am literally taking away their freedom. If I take away their freedom, I want to be a part of helping them get their freedom back. In doing this work, I realized that the men that I was coming in contact with, appeared to have sleep deprivation and living with multiple chronic health conditions. I thought if we can improve their health, can we improve their outlook on life? Can we get them to a point where they want to work hard and find a job? Working as a Police Officer and having contact with men of color from all socio-economic backgrounds, I learned specifically that when Black men are healthy, the community is healthier.

I collaborated with Madison Dane County Public Health Department to commission a report called the “Social and Health Conditions of Black Men.” Reading that report I realized the challenges that Black men face. In Dane County, there are 16,500 Black men. We account for six percent of the male population, but we are often at the bottom of most health disparities lists. Improving the health of Black men and boys fueled my desire to open the doors to the nation’s first Men’s Health and Wellness Center, located inside of JP Hair Design, the largest Black-owned barbershop in Madison.  The Black barbershop was the ideal location, because it’s where Black men go, and it’s a sacred place they trust and respect. Since opening the doors four years ago we have provided free preventative health screenings five days each week and we recently surpassed serving 5,100 Black males.   

The biggest challenge currently impacting the health of Black men is the fact that we’re dealing with three epidemics. You got Covid-19, you have the health disparities, and then you have racial tension. As a health advocate, I try to always be a part of the solution and I’m constantly looking at how we can be creative. How can we get our men to participate in things that are really out-of-the-box thinking? Covid-19 has shown us that If we do not move past doing the same thing, we’re going to get the same outcomes. 

I recently saw one of my friends on FB promoting outdoorsy stuff and I started thinking that the Black men in my community can enjoy and benefit from outdoorsy stuff too.  We can tap into something like hiking and explore something outside of our comfort zones, something that we’re not familiar with that’s not going to hurt us. That is what started The Black Men Northwoods Retreat. I have prepared for triathlons in Devil’s Lake State Park before, and I remember thinking this is really a cool place. Just the thought of nature, having the freedom of putting yourself in the middle of a field, lying down, and just letting your senses take over is calming. Could Black men benefit from doing outdoor activities more often if we make time to do this, especially now that we are living through a Pandemic. It is more important than ever to get outside and social distance, but also take advantage of that fresh air. 

From all the photos of outdoor activities, I knew this was something I wanted to explore with the Black fathers and their sons. I started encouraging them to take a risk and trust that participating in activities outside of their comfort zone and to go outside the city limits would be safe. Whether we are going to go out to a park, or we’re going to go to a conservancy, or going to hike, I said to the guys, “Please remember, this is our community and this is our country too, and everything under the sun we are entitled to as well.” And that’s how I started getting the guys to buy into this. I can’t even begin to put in words how anxious they were when I tried to encourage them to come the first time. By previously participating in our Black Men Run and our Black Men Cycle Madison group, we had established a social cohesion and learned to trust in one another. Participating in the unknown, men were not afraid to go outside the city limits, because now they were doing it as a group, and they were exploring this together.

As we were driving up north, I wondered how is this going to be? I was uncomfortable. How are we going to be received? And then you start realizing all of these misconceptions that you have built up in your head. And as we’re getting here to the north woods, I realized this is nothing like I thought it would be. It’s fun. People are welcoming. It was just that we had built up this expectation of what might happen. I think that for those that do not have an opportunity to experience that, they were always going to be having that misconception of what it’s like until they actually get out there and do it. I tell you one thing: It was absolutely one of the best things that I’ve done in a long time. And I’m so glad that we could make this experience available to these three fathers and their sons.

The pandemic has really put the kibosh on so much for me. I don't know if it's because there are more working hours or what. But prior to the pandemic, I was in the gym two or three days a week.

 I went on runs two or three days a week during the summer and biked to work pretty much every day—a thirty to forty minute ride one way. But now I’m running once a week, and that’s about three miles. I think I’m walking about two and a half miles, maybe twice a week. And I think I biked twice since the pandemic began.

I’m at home. I should be able to flex my schedule to make time for exercise. But I don’t. I feel like all of my worlds are home with me, so it’s more difficult for me to compartmentalize. Church is happening at home. Work is happening at home, but with the kids. Even though I’m working, I’m still parenting while they’re here. My marriage is right here. This situation is definitely having an effect, having an impact. So I started going back to the gym, but then I saw an article that said the gym is the second-worst place that you can possibly be. I went a few times, and I stopped going. The gym was where I got into exercise the most, and I think it helped to springboard me on to other things. Because when I’m physically stronger, I can perform better as a runner, as a biker, you name it. 

It wasn’t until I was 38 or 39 years old that I re-focused on exercise. Before then, I didn’t care. My wife and my oldest daughter, they’d be going off to the Y, and they’d ask me if I wanted to come. But I’d be here sitting on the couch with a bag of potato chips and say, “no, I’m good.” But when I got to be forty, I said, “Do I have to be overweight all my life?” I’m a Black man. The data that’s out there says that my life span is probably one of the shortest. I want to be here for myself. I want to be here for my wife and my kids. I want to enjoy life. I don’t want to be disabled. I want to really be able to enjoy life to the fullest. I know some of the challenges, the health history challenges in my family. I don’t want to exacerbate that if I have some genetic predisposition. I want to try to get ahead of that as much as possible. I had heard about all of these things to do to get exercise, so I started to do them. I started to feel better, and I started to perform better. But when Covid hit, it got a lot harder.

I am the Civil Rights Director for the city of Madison. Essentially, we try to do three things: We educate folks on their rights and help them to ensure that they protect their rights. We educate employers, housing providers and businesses in the community about how to protect the rights of their patrons, their tenants, and their employees so that they don’t discriminate. So I am spending a lot of time in meetings on Zoom right now. I’m a physical person. I like to be outside. I don’t like sitting. Being on Zoom however many hours a day is horrible for me. I just don’t like it. I’d rather be out doing something physical. 

I have a lot of respect for Aaron Perry and the work that he does with the Rebalance Life Wellness Association. Any time he’s doing a Black Men Run event, whether it’s a Saturday run, or especially an event like the Shamrock Shuffle or the Berby Derby, I love to support the things that he’s trying to do. I like to be a part of the change he is trying to make. He is trying to get the message out to Black men about being our own advocates for our health. That is why I wanted to bring my son, Malachi, to the Black Men Northwoods Retreat. At first, I was a little concerned about this happening during the pandemic. But I saw the commitment and that this was a closed group. Even though I had not considered myself to be a camper, it was something that I wanted to do. And my son was interested in going. I’m always up for an adventure. 

For Malachi, it was great. This was a new experience for him, and I enjoyed watching him figure out what to do, how things work in this environment. Out on the trail he just really loved exploring. Even though it was rainy out there, he had a really good time. It was just nice to be there with him and with the other dads and their sons.


Become part of the Love Wisconsin

I’m an I.T. Guy. Anything that has to do with I.T. I love it. I just like to play with technology.  I teach at Madison College. Right now, I'm teaching Photoshop, but I also teach a wide range of classes in most of the Microsoft products. I even teach a class called Selling on eBay. It's kind of fun! All my career I've been in Information Technology, I do I.T. consulting on my own, too.

The pandemic hasn’t really added that much stress to my life. I’m one of those people who’s been out all the time. I do I.T. consulting, and haven’t really been quarantined because of the jobs that I’ve been doing. I guess they are calling me an essential worker, because I was also working part time in a grocery store, which is a place that never closes. I’ve been really busy most of the time, but of course I practice social distancing, and I wear my mask. I even teach in person. I have a very small class, but the room is big enough so the students are kind of spread apart a bit. And so even though I still walk around because I need to look at the screens, it’s pretty safe.

I was forty-five years old when I found out I had diabetes. They say exercise and diet work together. The best way to combat it is to eat right and work out regularly. I used to focus on exercise, because that’s so much of it. Then I started to focus on diet and less on exercise. I really need to find a healthy balance between the two, because they both matter. So, one of the things that I do is walk a lot when I get an opportunity. I take the stairs instead of the elevator most of the time. I make little adjustments to help. And I park far away from the building where I work. Not that it makes that much of a difference, but it helps a little bit. Every step counts. 

One of the reasons I came on the Black Men’s Northwoods Retreat is that I’ve always wanted to go hiking. What really did it was the first group trip to Indian Lake where we talked about hiking the Ice Age Trail. I mean, that just sounded exciting, going up north to tour a national forest. And the exercise while hiking just sounded like a good idea. The first time I did it, it took me a minute to catch my breath. But once I caught my breath, it just felt great. And at the end, I was looking for more. I was excited.  

The most challenging part for me was actually getting there. Because originally, I wasn’t going to go because I had to work. But I started thinking, you know, I’m always working, I’m never doing anything for myself. So I decided I’m just going to take the time to go. And I am so happy that I did that, because it’s one of the best things I’ve done.

I think what I enjoyed most about this retreat was just hanging out with the guys. I especially liked having my son, Selwyn, along. It was great just to hang out with him, with no constraints or time pressure. We haven’t done that in a long time. We were hanging out, walking around, and talking. There were no worries, no concerns, no hostility. Just hanging out, walking through the woods and just being in nature. And even though it was raining, because we were in the woods, you didn’t notice it. We didn’t really get that wet. Falling down in the mud a few times was kind of fun. I reached a point where I just kept on walking. At first, I was walking on the edge trying to avoid stepping in the mud. After I fell in so many times, I said ‘forget it,’ and just walked through it. It didn’t matter anymore. That was part of the fun. 

My biggest takeaway, I would say, is I never realized before that I could probably just do this my own. I want to take my kids to go places to do things like this as family. It’s something I never even thought about, but I’ve always wanted to go camping. People think ‘What’s fun about sleeping in the woods?’ There are bugs, and rain, and it’s dirty. People think of all of the negative things, but they don’t realize how much fun it actually is. Going through that experience as a group made me realize that there are opportunities. I could find another group, and I could bring my other sons and their kids. I want to help them understand and realize how much fun it is.

I am the Community Engagement Director for the City of Milwaukee My job is to promote racial equity, as well as develop an environment for African American males to thrive in Milwaukee.

We’re deeply invested in the power of using communities as a focus point to organize ways to address structural inequity and racism. We have the vision of reducing violence and having more African American males, young and old, successfully enter the workplace. We put a large focus on boys and men of color and their success in our public school system, and we have a genuine connection with our job services and many employment programs. 

Ultimately, we want to promote the positive images of boys and men of color, as well as make sure they have access to coordinated resources. That is why I was interested in joining the Black Men Northwoods Retreat in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. I want to bring what I learn back to my community. 

I’m very committed to walking at least thirty minutes a day. I have my watch right here that counts my steps and also tracks my heart rate and everything else. One of the reasons that I’m committed to doing this is because I am on the health promotion team, and I want to be a role model. I say to people, “If you can, park your car further away from the entrance when you go to the store. If you can, take the stairs instead of the elevator.” It’s important to me, because I know how my body feels when I don’t exercise. I feel the difference in my breathing, and the difference in my weight. I can tell when the way I am sitting is not comfortable, and how the rest of my body feels in that chair. I’m a former athlete from my high school and middle school days, and I was in intramural sports in college. But I haven’t had that many opportunities to exercise like that for a long time. I think the best period of my life was when I made a conscious effort to not drive everywhere. If it was within a mile, I would start walking. Honestly, I started just to save gas, but I felt better because of it.

On a sunny day, I can’t think of anything better than walking, because I see parts of the neighborhood and meet people I haven’t seen before. I feel mentally more alert. And I believe that it strengthens my connections with people. Once I began walking, I got into conversations around neighborhood safety and other things that were happening in the community. Sometimes we’re just joking around. Other times you’re looking for someone’s lost pet. So it was a way for me to make social connections just by walking and waving and saying hello. 

The Black Men’s Northwoods Retreat for me was really a no-brainer. I liked the name, and I really appreciated its focus. I didn’t know groups of Black men that got together like this. My son is a Scout, so I knew this was an opportunity for him to get his merit badge. When I asked him if he wanted to join the trip, he was extremely excited. In the real world, before Covid, we normally didn’t see each other that much, because he was at school and I was at work. And if he’s not eating, he’s doing homework, so we wouldn’t have as much downtime to talk about a lot of things on a personal level. But the retreat was an excellent avenue for us to just be father and son.

Being part of the retreat was a fantastic experience. I appreciated the fact that there was a lot of knowledge that went into explaining where we were. So many people will travel to a location and they won’t really understand the significance of, let’s say, an Indian mound and why that’s sacred land and how you’re supposed to approach it. That was something that I greatly appreciated. And we talked about just about everything under the sun. I mean, we talked about things that we knew. We talked about things we had no clue about, but we just talked about it anyway and had a great time doing it. 

I did not see other African American men in the Northwoods. So that was very meaningful, because we were in a space where we were almost functioning like ambassadors, for people to have conversations with us. That’s a really important role, and part of my work is to promote positive images of boys and men of color. There is a level of responsibility that I carry with me. I want to be reassuring to people that are not comfortable walking in a wooded area. You can walk in a large field or an open grass area. If you only want to walk the length of a football field, you will get no judgement from me. Start with whatever makes you most comfortable. And then after that, if it worked out well for you, try it again. Just do something a little bit different this time. When I talk about this trip to the Northwoods, I want people to be open to asking questions, and I certainly want to lead them in a direction where they’ll be offered an opportunity to do the same thing that we experienced. If I thought it was great, maybe they’ll think it’s great too, and we’ll get more people out there. 

 This story was produced and photographed by James Edward Mills. You can learn more about his work at the Joy Trip Project.

Learn more about the retreat: “In the spring of 2020, I received an invitation from the National Forest Foundation to create a series of photographs and interviews about the Black community and its relationship with the natural world. 

The rise of the Coronavirus put into sharp relief many of the institutional disparities that place the Black community in jeopardy. High rates of unemployment, limited access to affordable healthcare and the prospects of being subjected to racially motivated violence already make this population more susceptible to chronic illness, injury or even death. Black men and women are more likely as well to suffer from ailments such as obesity, high blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, conditions that can be reversed or remedied with physical exercise and better access to more nutritious foods. At a time when all the people of the world are being asked to stay indoors and prohibit their contact with others outside of their immediate families, the Pandemic has taken an even higher toll on those most vulnerable to infection. Ironically, however, the best place for this community to find healing and solace from the trauma of this crisis is in the outdoors.

In order to create a worthwhile and socially significant project, I partnered with Aaron Perry, the founder of the Rebalanced Life Wellness Association. The Black Men Northwoods Retreat provided three fathers and their sons the opportunity to escape the ravages of the Covid-19 Pandemic and enjoy the healing benefits of the natural world through the forests of Wisconsin.” James Edward Mills

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