It’s January 2020 and mere weeks before American cities would go quiet as a raging epidemic spread throughout the world. Allison T. Williams, an information specialist, steps out on a sunny South Carolina day, standing before some 35 people looking to her to tell them what they will see along the I’on Swamp Interpretative Trail on the Francis Marion National Forest.
“I see myself as a guide. I don’t see myself as someone who knows everything,” she said. “I’m just someone with lived experience. I guide people to different locations and different beautiful spaces. I get people to places they’ve never been. I talk about what I know and the information of that area.”
That seemingly simple explanation of Williams’ job with the Forest Service belies the real work she does. Her connection to people, support of diversity and access to public lands, and love of the outdoors on and off work earned her accolades from the National Parks and Conservation Association as one of 10 young leaders under the age of 40 who are making a difference in natural resource conservation and education.
An avid outdoors enthusiast, cultivated by chance, Williams uses her position to introduce people to the natural beauty and the deep history of the Francis Marion. During the hike in the I’on Swamp, Williams’ followers were treated to a well-rounded interpretation of the area.
“It’s a swamp. ‘So what?’ they may ask. I like to tell people this is Lowcountry beauty. There is so much here to see,” she said. “But also, what you don’t see. It’s not just a swamp. It’s where plantations used to stand. Charleston and the surrounding area have a lot of history, but people don’t see the history. So, I talk about it.
“About 40% of all enslaved Africans came through Charleston. When I take people on hikes, I let them know where they are standing and what used to happen here. I want them to see the rice cultivation. Where there were barges floating down the man-made dike. . . Even in my small part of talking about where we are and where we’ve been, I’m connecting back to the land.”
Williams grew up in Wichita, Kansas, with parents who supported her natural curiosity and passion for travel in the states and abroad, signing on with a student program that helped her overseas travel. After graduation from Southern University – a Historically Black College and University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – Williams traveled, worked as a lifeguard, worked for Girl Scouts and served as a Girl Scout troop leader, and helped a friend work on her dissertation about public lands. She began her own exploration of public lands alone, with friends, and with groups promoting outdoor recreation among Blacks.
Her experiences led her to multiple internships with the Student Conservation Association AmeriCorps on the Osceola National Forest in Florida, MobilizeGreen working with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, all partners with the Forest Service. Williams then landed her first permanent position with the federal government at the Hoover Dam in Nevada as a reclamation guide. Those experiences led her in 2018 to a career with the Forest Service.
Williams’ hunger for learning spread to an unsurpassed passion as a public lands tour guide that combines information about natural resources with the history of South Carolina. But her goals are to continue encouraging more people of color to visit and learn about their public lands.
Prior to her work in AmeriCorps, Williams connected with groups like Outdoor Afro that encourage Blacks to connect with the outdoors through hiking and other recreation activities. But her guided hikes on the Frances Marion rarely include Blacks.
“It’s so hard to get the local people to come and do things in the local area. There is a disconnect. Representation does matter,” she said. “Francis Marion used to be three or four plantations. Those generational feelings travel through families. My age group is having to break those norms and curses. Just because you don’t see yourself doesn’t mean you’re not represented.”
Williams said that while they do enjoy the outdoors, more people of color are needed on public lands as employees and visitors. In fact, she describes herself as an anomaly in her unit, where she is now one of only three Black employees out of about 40 employees on the district.
Her matter-of-fact attitude is making a difference, attesting to her inclusion in the 10 under 40 award. Sometimes, even the most hesitant to venture outdoors are changing their minds because of Williams. Including her mother, who “doesn’t do the outdoors.” This summer, her parents are planning an RV vacation to public lands, including to the Francis-Marion.
“I do what I love. I love recreation. I love public lands,” Williams said.