Jami Bayles grew up in San Juan County, Utah, and she loves her community. When she heard that a federal action could change the way she and her neighbors live their daily lives, she decided to act. Together with many remarkable people, she formed the Stewards of San Juan, an organization dedicated to preserving the culture and lifestyle of their native home. In the following interview, Jami describes how she got involved in community action and offers advice for others who want to make a difference wherever they live.
Q: You have been instrumental in organizing the Stewards of San Juan. Why did you first think of organizing?
“When I first heard that Bears Ears was possibly going to be a national monument, I thought it was a joke. I thought, ‘There is no way San Juan County will let that happen.’ It wasn’t until months later that I realized just how serious the situation was and how much it was being pushed by outside organizations, as well as by people who were not even from this area. It was obvious from the hearing that Senator Mike Lee held in Blanding that the majority of the community was opposed to the monument, so how the whole thing happened was very unexpected and seemed really unfair – like it was basically done to us, rather than with us. We felt like our voices were not being heard, and that the other side was going out of their way to silence our community. In talking with others that attended the hearing, I found that a lot of other people thought the same way I did. So that’s when we decided to band together and see what we could do about it.”
Q: What challenges have you faced in getting organized?
“One of the hardest things was that we were starting from scratch. I’ve worked with other nonprofit organizations, but getting together to fight against a national monument? That was new to everyone. We didn’t know where to even start or who we could reach out to. Eventually, we set up a Facebook page where we could disseminate information and pick each other’s brains. That page eventually grew into the thousands, with members from all over the country, but most lived in or grew up in San Juan County. We quickly learned that in order to really fight this, we needed to be organized, and that’s when we laid out the structure to the organization. We invited everyone in the group to participate, we solicited nominations to specific positions, and then the group voted and formed a five-member board. But after that, we still didn’t know what our next step was. That was a hard thing for us.
“The other difficult thing was money. Unlike the other side, we are not backed by large corporations and celebrities. We don’t have Leonardo DiCaprio giving us millions of dollars, or other NGOs paying our way to lobby in D.C. We rely 100 percent on donations, and we don’t make any profit from our efforts. Any money we get goes directly toward our cause. Whether it’s a $500 check from a local rancher, or a $5 bill from your neighbor, every single penny has been used to fight this monument.”
Q: How important is civility when your organization engages with others?
“It’s extremely important! That’s actually something we really pride ourselves on, is being civil in our discussions and our own behavior. We have peacefully protested at a few of the ‘monument celebration’ events, and as a matter of fact, we are so respectful that often the media doesn’t even realize we are there until after the fact. But I admit, it is really difficult to bite your tongue, especially on social media. A lot of the time you want to scream and yell – I don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to throw my phone out the window – but no matter how upset you are, you have to compose yourself. I’ve seen some appalling behavior from the other side, so I’m really quite proud of how civil and respectful our community continues to be.”
Q: What does the idea of a community-driven solution mean to you?
“Change happens from the people who know the community. When it comes to San Juan County, we know the area better than anyone else. The other side might have more organization and money, but they don’t know anything about this specific area, and certainly don’t know how to take care of this land like we do. It really bothers me when I hear someone back East telling me how to manage my back yard. And I hear the argument ‘the land doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to everyone’ all the time. But while that may be true, has ‘everyone’ been taking care of it? No. We have, the residents of San Juan County, and we will continue to take care of it. This is my home, and I think that it deserves to be looked after and managed by people who know it best, and who are already taking care of it. At the very least, we deserve a seat at the table when those management discussions take place.”
Q: What advice would you give to others who want to solve a problem in their community?
“Get involved! I look back now and think to myself, ‘Why didn’t I do something earlier?’ I realize now that these land issues were being discussed in city council and other community meetings, but that was something that was never really on my radar, so I never attended or even bothered to ask what was going on. I really regret that. So if you want to make a difference in your community, you have to just start by getting involved, attending meetings, and asking lots of questions. Also, don’t ever give up, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, and remember that you can’t do it all by yourself. Stewards of San Juan relies on everyone to make things happen. There’s no way that I could do it alone.”