Work hard at something then sit on it for some time. Get some rest and come back with fresh eyes. Let others take a view and listen to their reactions. It’s always helpful to look at things in different ways.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Smith.
Brandon is the Executive Director of The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), a nonprofit organization helping those in California’s Fire Camps obtain gainful employment once released.
After being incarcerated in California’s Fire Camps and responding to all hazardous risks, Brandon found a way to transition into a professional wildland firefighter career post release. Since then he has been an advocate for criminal justice and environmental reform. Brandon worked six years (both in and out of fire camp) as a wildland firefighter and forestry technician. He attended the University of California- Berkeley and the Victor Valley Colleges Wildland Academy. He has been advocating for and supporting the fire camp population since 2014.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2012 I was incarcerated in Delano State Prison. At the time, I was lost and had no idea what my future had in store for me. While incarcerated, a counselor came to my cell door and asked if I would like to go to fire camp to help the state of California battle the growing wildfires across the state. I declined at first. I still remember as a kid having a fear of fires. Despite my initial reluctance, I couldn’t deny the allure of a higher paying job while imprisoned, not to mention the opportunity to be closer to home with my family (Los Angeles, CA). Little did I know that decision would change my life forever and for the better.
While at fire camp I grew to love the fighting fires so much that I decided to pursue my dream once home. I received a string of denials and rejections until almost 2 years after my release, when I finally got a shot to work professionally. While on my first professional fire assignment, I ran into other fire camp members who were eager to learn more about how I and my co-founder, Royal Ramey, were able to find success after returning home from incarceration. It was then and there that I realized that I needed to be a resource for those like me: those who have the skills to do the work but continually face barriers. That’s where FFRP was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
For the first few years, FFRP was entirely self funded, using funds Royal and I earned as professional firefighters. As our financial and programmatic demands grew, we were confronted with a decision to either continue our careers as professional firefighters or commit ourselves fully to the development of a social service organization geared towards supporting individuals exiting the fire camp system. Ultimately, we decided to take what we learned while navigating the field of professional firefighting and impart that knowledge on the next generation of former fire campers turned professional wildland firefighters. And it’s been a blessing ever since.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the fall of 2012, during my first firefighter training, which took place at Jamestown Prison, I experienced a deeply embarrassing moment in front of my colleagues and trainers. I was doing the in-field portion of the fire training and hiking up the mountain where the session was happening. All of sudden, I lost my legs from underneath me, causing a scene in front of all the other trainees. In that moment, I knew that if I failed I would not be certified as a firefighter. I thought about my family and others that motivated me, and I knew that they would want to see me succeed. So I stood back up, shrugged it off, and kept working at it. It’s important when you fall down (literally or figuratively) to get back up and keep at it. This experience solidified my ability to never doubt myself and always see a “comeback” through to the end.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The FFRP works at the unique intersection of criminal justice and environmental justice reform. We believe that individuals who have been or are currently incarcerated in state correctional Conservation Camps, or fire camps, should have access to the opportunities and support needed to attain employment in the field of professional fire fighting once home.
Our work begins on the front lines, visiting fire camps across the State of California to recruit and prepare currently incarcerated firefighters. FFRP directly combats the increasing threat of wildfires by supporting individuals’ transition into professional fire and fuels reduction work. Through our work with partners like the State of California, FFRP provides opportunities for our participant firefighters to continue training and developing their skills while providing highly needed services for wildfire prone communities.
Since 2015, FFRP has helped over 100 people obtain long-term careers as professional fire fighters and grown to operate four trained crews across Southern California. We received a 500K dollars grant from Google.org in 2019 to scale up these efforts, which provided wildfire prevention services to +400 homes.
As we wrap up the deadliest wildfire season in California’s history, it is clear that the state needs all the new firefighters it can get. We’re proud to do our part of expanding the local resource pool to help communities in need.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of our very first participants, Otila Rogers, now serves as a full-time firefighter with the Northern California Fire Cache. Otila is the very definition of resilience. Despite the numerous challenges she faced as a woman with a past conviction, she was able to succeed and thrive in her journey to become a professional firefighter following her incarceration. Today, in addition to being deployed to the fireline, Otila helps run logistics and field operations, including large-scale equipment coordination, for the relief team in northern California. Her story is one of perseverance and we are proud of the model she is setting for others.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Recognition of the human condition and a deeper focus on empathy and understanding
- Proactive response to environmental and criminal justice Issues
- Community building and development through greater investment in workforce development and training
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is about motivating and inspiring others to buy into the common mission of building community and people-driven power. Leadership is about being able to recognize human potential and the skills that everyone possesses. Oftentimes it’s about working with others to realize those skills within themselves and supporting them to become fully responsible and accountable for each other.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- It is okay to be yourself and to tell your story honestly. Live and speak in your truth, because it will inspire others who can relate
- Work with purpose and move with efficiency. Strive to work harder and smarter
- Power is not about coercing others to listen to you. Power is about building them up so that they want to listen to you
- Work hard at something then sit on it for some time. Get some rest and come back with fresh eyes. Let others take a view and listen to their reactions. It’s always helpful to look at things in different ways.
- You are already worthy and powerful
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
- Workforce development through trade careers
- Re-imagining reentry and the use of imprisoned laborers
- Addressing the wildfire crisis through preventative action, planning and defensible space projects
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Make a difference about something other than yourselves.” — Toni Morrison
If it weren’t for the mentality to strive, not just for oneself but for others, FFRP would not be around today. This quote demonstrates the guiding principle of FFRP’s mission of building up the next generation of formerly incarcerated fire fighters.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
- President Elect Joe Biden to discuss environmental and criminal justice reform
- Barack Obama — he is just a person I really admire
- Diddy / Jay Z / Killer Mike / Master P — These are all individuals who, despite facing adversity, achieved success in their respective fields. They have also committed themselves to giving back and building up communities.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Check us out on Twitter! @ForestryFire and @BrandonNSmith2
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for the opportunity!