Alease “Aloe” Lee, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s statewide partnership coordinator, stood near the back of a ballroom last week where the agency hosted an awards banquet for its annual Partners in the Outdoors conference in Vail.
Lee had organized the event, which aims to bring together people with a range of different interests in the outdoors to work on recreation and conservation issues. Lee said she and about 600 attendees looked on as director Dan Prenzlow made his way to the stage. To bring attention to Lee and thank her for her work, Prenzlow looked around the room for a moment before saying:
“There she is! In the back of the bus, Aloe!”
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources confirmed Prenzlow’s comment.
Lee, who is Black, said she couldn’t believe her ears at first. When the room of attendees turned to look at her, many of them in shock, Lee said the comment started to sink in. She said it evoked a time of Jim Crow-era laws that forced Black people to sit at the back of public buses and reserved front seats for white commuters.
Lee said she snuck out of the room as Prenzlow continued speaking. In the hall, she ran into Ashley Smith, co-founder of the Minority Outdoor Alliance and another Black woman. Lee said Smith “immediately felt my pain” and helped her find a quiet room where she could cry.
“What else do you do in that moment, when your stomach sinks and you realize that you’re surrounded by people that want [you] to not feel safe in this space?” Lee said in an interview with CPR News.
Lee said she’s the first Black woman in her position at the state agency. She said the banquet comment came on top of other uncomfortable interactions at the conference. Lee said her attempts to greet attendees were often met with silence and cold stares. She felt it was “obvious” that many guests were upset that she was running the event.
“I made sure that I was always walking with someone because I just didn't want to face those stares alone,” Lee said. She said there were many allies and supporters at the conference as well, but generally, she felt “uncomfortable with being the Black woman in the room.”
Lee said Prenzlow apologized to her after the speech and again the next day, and said he didn’t realize at the time of his comment that it would be hurtful to some communities. He also sent an email to attendees apologizing for his remarks the night of the speech.
“I appreciate those who pointed out my statement and how my comment evokes painful realities that many have and continue to face,” Prenzlow wrote in the email, which was forwarded to CPR News. “When we talk about intent versus impact, I learned how quickly a statement can have a harmful and hurtful impact. I am sincerely sorry.”
Prenzlow did not respond to a request for comment. On Tuesday, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources placed Prenzlow on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. Lee said it’s a start, but she wants Prenzlow to be fired.
“You run a state agency that has Black employees and works with Black and brown communities, you should be aware of historical significance in your words,” Lee said.
Lee said she worked hard to make the Partners in the Outdoors conference the most diverse one yet and is proud of what she accomplished. Lee said she’s heartbroken.
“I try so hard to be that person that opens the door to this very whitewashed industry. But I don’t want to open the doors if it’s just leading more people into unsafe spaces,” she said.
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