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Melody Mobley, the First Black Female Forester, Gives Back to Science

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Melody Starya Mobley, the United States’ first black female forester and a volunteer with AAAS’ STEM Volunteer Program, had her first experience in nature growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. She said that her mother, Coarvaedda Sawyers Mobley, who loved spending time in the outdoors, would pile the family into their ‘63 Ford Falcon and venture to places outside of the city.

“We would go out in the country, look at a stream and play in it or catch crawfish…. We’d find pretty rocks,” Mobley said. “Mom was really into nature and always made sure that we had a great appreciation for it, so my earliest memories were...just playing in nature.”

Mobley eventually attended the University of Washington in the mid to late ‘70s to study at the university’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, but it wasn’t just her love for nature that led her to study in Seattle.        

“I chose the University of Washington because Bruce Lee had lived in Seattle and he was my hero, my idol back then,” she said. “I had such an infatuation with him.” In addition to beginning her studies at the university, she started studying Jeet Kune Do, a style of martial arts created by Lee.

But she gave up learning martial arts after one class because, she said, her instructor was a “buffoon.” Although she gave up on Jeet Kune Do, Mobley still had a difficult decision to make: study wildlife management or forest management. She had been hired by the United States Forest Service when she was 19 and desired the job security that came with that, but it changed what she would focus on in school.

“I loved wildlife and I wanted to get a PhD in zoology, so I was studying wildlife management,” she said. “But I had gotten a job with the Forest Service...and they insisted that I change my major from wildlife management to forest management and I did because I needed a permanent job.”

Her mother died of cancer while she was in high school and her grandmother got sick with cancer while she was in college, so she needed money to take care of bills from her mother’s death and to take care of her grandmother.

She graduated from the University of Washington in 1979 with a BS in forest management, the first black woman to graduate from that school in that field of study, and immediately went to work for the Forest Service. Mobley went on to work for the Forest Service all over the country for nearly three decades. As an environmentalist entering her field in the late ‘70s, she saw that the public and the government did not fully understand the danger the environment and wildlife faced because of deforestation, massive littering, and climate change. She said she knew then that the country had a long way to go to be more conscious stewards of the environment.

“It was challenging. I tried to be very attuned to these issues as an environmentalist,” she said, “The country wasn’t aware of, or speaking as much about global warming, the effects that we’re having on the land.”

She also said that her field had a long way to go back then in terms of diversity. She was the first and only black female forester for a long time, she said.

And she hasn’t seen much change on either issue, she said, over the years that she was in the field and since she retired in 2005. For example, she said that there are only six black female foresters in the field compared to none when she first pioneered into the field in the late ‘70s. That’s six over a 40-year period. “I’m not confident that things have changed much in the way that I would like to see it go,” she said. “To only have six now is appalling to me.”

Mobley mentioned two factors that she sees as contributing to this lack of representation in forestry and other natural resources fields. The first is the inability to retain members of underrepresented groups because “people who retain their cultural identity as people of color aren’t promoted to leadership positions,” she said. “People...are promoted to those leadership positions predominantly by modeling white male behaviors.”

The other factor is that there is a lack of diversity of representation in STEM education. She said that when she was starting her career in forestry, she had to seek out mentors that didn’t look like her because there were none that did. Now, she’s working to change that through her volunteer work with AAAS’ STEM Volunteer Program, which brings professional scientists and engineers into classrooms to assist with science instruction.

Mobley, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, reached out to the school system while looking for ways to serve her community and now assists science instructors and second and fifth graders at Carlin Springs Elementary School as an extra science instructor. She also serves on the school system’s Science Advisory Committee.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but science is my great love and my passion, so it’s the field that academically I’m strongest in,” she said. “So I’m able to show them my passion for science, that I love it, and that I can do it. And if I can do it, they can do it.”

But that’s not the only way that she gives back to her community. She also delivers Meals on Wheels every Thursday, does challenging brain teasers with senior citizens every Monday, and works with hospice patients. 

“It makes me feel good....I love helping people. I love to give and I always have,” Mobley said. “And I truly want to make a difference in the world. I know I can’t change the whole world by myself, but if everybody did one thing, it would make a difference.”

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Drew Costley