This shall go down in the history books as The Week We Discovered “big nature nerd/mountain man boss” John Griffith. Because we’re normal humans, we watched his viral video with a rapt expression of joy on our faces, teared up a little, forwarded it to everyone we know, and then watched it 15 more times, and then twice after dinner, and then 10 more times for good measure. It’s sweet, it’s charming, and it makes YouTube and Reddit commenters feel optimistic about the future of race relations in America.
Not only is Mr. Griffith our favorite viral video star of all time, he’s also the author of a YA book! He’s here to tell us about his work at the California Conservation Corps, his novel, and his sick dance moves.
When, where, and how did you first start dancing?
Even before the sixth grade, I could always depend on my big sister to tell on me anytime I did the slightest thing wrong—unless, of course, I danced with her. So I spent the seventies staying out of trouble by being Donny Osmond and John Travolta’s character from Grease, dancing around our living room in front of the mirrors. She even made me partner with her in disco dance competitions at other kids’ birthday parties. We almost always won. And, yes, I enjoyed it. By the time I reached sixth grade, breakdancing was the thing to do in California’s Bay Area. Since I was already naturally coordinated and had a sense of rhythm (from years of being Donny Osmond), it came to me fast. I fell in love with urban dance styles. Still am. So whenever a new member joins my California Conservation Corps crew, one of the first questions that I ask him/her is: “Can you dance?” If they nod, I say, “Show me.” If it’s a cool and unique style, I say, “Teach me.”
Do you remember the first time your colleagues taught you a move? How did it come about? (And what was the song and move?)
I think the first time I asked a corps member to teach me a dance move was eight or so years ago during a lunch break while building a trail near the Pygmy Forest in Northern California. My corps member dance instructor’s name was Yvonne. She taught me how to Clown. There was no music available at the time, so she hummed while I practiced.
What do your costars, Antwon and Leonard, say about the video’s huge success?
They love it! They especially loved that we were put on World Star Hip Hop. They would both make great professional dancers, and I hope they get more opportunities to show off their skills. But I am encouraging them to go to college after they get their high school diplomas at the California Conservation Corps’ John Muir Charter School.
You’re clearly a wonderful boss. What’s your secret?
Thank you. I work for a youth development program whose membership is made up of a lot of at-risk youth. So while my focus is teaching them sustainable employment skills, there are many more competencies required from me as a supervisor. Compassion for myself and others has been very useful and keeps our relationships real. I also encourage curiosity for the natural world. We bond when we can make nature discoveries together. Balancing professionalism and fun is also an art that I love to teach them, and it resonates well. I try to relate to my corps members to the point that we can communicate as clearly as possible. I put myself in their shoes. Then I look for connections to them. My favorite way to connect is through laughter. But dancing frequently works too.
Can you tell us a little bit about the California Conservation Corps?
The CCC is a state youth workforce development program. We employ youth to build trails in state and national parks, restore denuded habitats, and respond to our communities’ emergencies (like fires, floods, and agricultural emergencies). We also have a charter high school for those who do not have their diplomas. We have a college scholarships program. And we work to instill a sense of civic responsibility by providing opportunities to volunteer for local nonprofits almost every weekend. The CCC is a lot of hard work and fun. It will definitely transform your life.
Why is it important for young people to get outside and experience nature?
All of this century’s effective conservationists became passionate about nature because of defining childhood experiences in the outdoors. It motivated them to protect the wild and to educate others about its “magic” and our place in that “wild magic.” This generation has been plagued with the indoor childhood epidemic. Parents’ fear of perceived dangers, the distraction of electronic devices, and extreme preservationists’ warnings to “stay out of the creek, be quiet in the woods, and don’t touch that frog” has done much to block kids from connecting to the outdoors. Let’s fix that. Let’s raise kids to be good stewards of nature by encouraging them to play in it: to swim in the creek, laugh out loud in the woods, and watch that frog, touch it, name it, but leave it where it’s at.
For young adults who grew up indoors, I would give the same advice: go play outside. It’s not too late for them to connect to nature. But for them playing may not be enough. They should also work to restore nature and learn about how their choices affect the natural world. That’s why I love corps programs. We employ youth to heal nature. It reconnects them. Who better to restore the environment than those who will inherit it?
You’re the author of a YA novel, Totem Magic: Going MAD. What’s your novel about?
First I want to tell you that the wonderful cover art was painted by the amazing artist Linda Stratman, but I call her mom. Yes, she’s my mother! She has been my inspiration, supporter, and co-creator since she created me.
My novel is about Enrique Salazar and Connie Ejeekwa. They seem like normal sixth graders, but the two friends share a secret. They are members of Magic User families, which have been entrusted for generations to help the earth’s endangered species in secret.
When Connie’s father, a leader in the Magic User community, is kidnapped by an evil witchdoctor, the two protagonists set out to rescue him, and possibly the entire planet.
You’re donating all the profits from sales of your book to wildlife care centers and outdoor youth programs that promote ethnic and racial diversity. How did diversity become an issue close to your heart?
After growing up in California’s multicultural Bay Area, where a majority of my friends were people of color, I noticed that the conservation groups I participated in were almost completely populated with whites. A lot of white conservationists assumed that their groups were homogeneous because non-whites weren’t as interested in nature. I knew that wasn’t true. I believed it was because non-whites didn’t feel welcomed, didn’t have access, or had environmental and recreational interests that were not reflected in mainstream environmental groups’ agendas. I wanted to mitigate that.
If we are to save nature and leave our grandkids with all the natural resources required to be prosperous, ALL of us must be included in working toward solutions. And we must do it together. To be successful in engaging the next generation to live sustainable on this planet, rangers, biologists, trail workers, eco-heroes, and even fictional totem mages must look like ALL of us. I can’t think of anything more important than working cooperatively and compassionately to ensure that clean air, clean soil, clean water, and bio-diverse systems are available for our wild neighbors and our descendants. I am willing to invest my time, money, and voice to that effort. And I am certainly willing to dance for it.