Pathways Project © Miles Rashad
Treadright Foundation and the Pathways Project
“Listening leads to progress, and that’s true of everybody,” says Leon Burnette, lifelong Tour Director, civil rights activist, and impassioned mentor, when discussing the critical need for authentic storytelling in travel. In the age of misinformation and disinformation, giving a platform to the custodians of a community and its culture, whose ancestors have lived and breathed its history, is more important than ever.
Travel is widely recognized as one of the most impactful educational privileges available to us, but who tells the stories of a destination matters immensely. “The best way to teach history is through a tour—but it must be an authentic tour where people can truthfully walk in the footsteps of heroes, victims, and villains,” says Burnette. This simple yet powerful idea is the foundation of Burnette’s brainchild, the Pathways Project.
In the United States, less than eight percent of Tour Guides are Black, and less than two percent are Indigenous (Zippia). To tackle this problem at the root, Tourism Cares, in partnership with the TreadRight Foundation, The Travel Corporation, TRIP School, and the Media Arts Institute of Alabama, have launched the Pathways Project, which aims to increase the representation of Black, Indigenous, and historically underrepresented individuals in the Group Tourism industry. This subsidized training and recruitment program aims to place individuals from diverse backgrounds in positions as cultural heritage Tour Guides, Tour Directors, interpreters, and storytellers.
The idea of the project was born from a discussion between Leon Burnette and Richard Launder, Director of The Travel Corporation USA, and The Travel Corporation’s (TTC) global brands, including Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, and Contiki. Through cultural heritage itineraries such as Trafalgar’s “Journey along the Civil Rights Trail” in the American South, and through MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences featuring Indigenous experience providers in Canada and the U.S., for example, TTC brands are harnessing the power of travel to reduce inequalities, while providing guests with transformative and conscious travel experiences. However, Launder recognizes that the need for greater representation among Tour Guides is undeniable.
Tour Guides and Travel Directors are the essential interfaces between the tour operator and the guest. They are providers of real-time lessons in history and empathy, and are critical to ensuring representation is part of a destination’s story. Burnette believes these interactions are transformative. “These stories can address biases and tackle systemic injustices. We can share prejudices, tolerance, empathy, and determination,” Burnette says.
Increasing representation in the guided tour space begins by eliminating the barriers to entry and reducing hiring inequalities. The Pathways Project will actively recruit communities underrepresented by the industry and provide selected applicants with online learning, active mentorship, and an in-person training boot camp. Upon graduation from the program, each participant will be poised for success and assisted with employment opportunities. The program is anticipated to go a long way towards greater representation in travel and tourism.
With the program well underway, its early impacts are clear. Najah Roberts, a recent participant in the program, has since been inspired to begin her own tour company titled “The Feel Trips,” which aims to teach economically challenged students financial literacy using the city of Los Angeles as its classroom. “The Feel Trips” also lead empathy and tolerance tours, plus Civil Rights Pilgrimages from the West Coast to the South to help participants understand and reconcile with American history.
The Pathways Project is the beginning of what Burnette hopes will be systemic change. “As our industry changes and those Tour Directors rise through the ranks and start to work higher and higher within travel organizations, it starts leveling out. Equity and inclusion are my hopes for the future,” he concludes.