Operation Roam: Love is King Founder Chad Brown Finds Healing in the Alaskan Wilderness

By Richard Osborn

You can’t miss the gnarled oak that reaches high into the sky above the sprawling South Texas ranch where Chad Brown spent his childhood. It’s perhaps rivaled only by the town’s water tower, beaconing CUERO, a farming community of 8,200 a few hours’ drive southeast of San Antonio.

Brown, 48, spent some of his happiest days in the blanketing shade of that old tree. He warmly recalls carefree hours on the rope swing his father rigged from one of its limbs. This is where his extended family would gather on blissful Sunday afternoons for potluck outings.

“We would sit in our lawn chairs around that tree,” remembers Brown. “There would be everything from storytelling to eating to music to joking to the wisdom of the elders. It was always a gathering place. It was a tree that connected us all. It was a community of love, of family support. It was a place where I felt safe. It was my own little world.”

Like that oak, Brown’s roots run deep in the Texas soil. His grandfather was one of the last Black cowboys, once a sizable group of working cattlemen, many of them former slaves. His snapshot memories include his father wrestling bulls in the fields; wild turkey hunts; his mother introducing him to archery; the orphaned fawn he raised as a household pet.

“I’d go to the grocery store with my deer on a dog leash. People would look at me like I was crazy,” laughs Brown. “But I’m blessed, as an African American man, to have the type of family I came from. It’s pretty rare. I didn’t come from an urban world. I was born and raised a country boy.”

Despite his strong family foundation, Brown would spend years living on the very fringes of society, alienated from the world he knew as a child — a direct result of the PTSD he began suffering from after serving in Kuwait and Somalia with the U.S. Navy in the 1990s. He repeatedly landed in a VA hospital. Brown says it wasn’t until he rediscovered the beauty of the outdoors that he began to see a way out.

“I didn’t know what it felt like to even smile anymore,” he confides. “It was the little things. I felt the wind brush up against my cheek. I was able to see the greenery, the leaves. It was like my soul was waking up. My doctors literally wrote me a prescription to get outside more.”

Brown’s reconnection to nature not only brought him a whole new sense of community, it gave him a new purpose in life. In 2021, he founded Love is King, a non-profit whose mission is to create a reimagined outdoor environment for BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) and LGBTQIA+ participation, representation and inspiration.

Teaming with the Alaska Wilderness League, Love is King has been leading groups into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska, at over 19 million acres the country’s largest wildlife refuge, but also a delicate, at-risk ecosystem now under threat by both climate change and fossil fuel development.

When I last spoke to Brown, he had just returned from the Atigun Gorge, a seemingly horizonless valley that cuts a swath through the Brooks Range. He’s traveled there so many times, he says he’s stopped counting.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is really a place of healing,” says Brown. “But what also draws me up there is the advocacy, taking a stand on public lands.”

Calling his latest initiative Operation Roam, Brown had just led a diverse group from as far and wide as Portland, Duluth and Philadelphia up into the oil fields near the Arctic Sea. They took the Dalton Highway, which follows the twisting Sag River up to Prudhoe Bay. The region — designated as Area 1002 on maps — is a calving ground for the Porcupine caribou. It has also long been home to the Gwich’in, native Alaskans who are all but synonymous with the caribou, upon which they rely for sustenance and clothing. The caribou herds are under threat along the coastal plains due to oil and gas drilling.

“This is why I lead these BIPOC communities into these spaces, to bring their voices, and experience the land and the Gwich’in culture,” says Brown. “They use their leadership, their skill sets, to help advocate for protection of this refuge.”

“We are all affected by what’s happening at the top of the world. It’s a domino effect,” he adds. “But the ones who are really at ground zero are the Gwich’in people. They need that caribou to feed their families. When you start to drill for oil, it changes everything.”

As Brown’s roamers discovered, the route is a challenging one, especially when you’re toting a 50-pound backpack. Walking along the that tundra is like walking on a waterbed. In recent years, what used to be frozen ground has become more of a waterway. Sometimes it’s all you can do just to stay upright.

But the trek proved transformative, even cathartic. Here was a gathering of unheard voices, people who are so often marginalized, connecting with the Gwich’in, a group that fundamentally faces the same predicament. This went far beyond backcountry recreation; this was about diving deeper into a culture, deeper into the land and learning how to develop their voices as leaders, then bringing those experiences back to their own communities and raising awareness.

“They still haven’t found closure, but what they’ve found is fight,” Brown explains of the Gwich’in. “They’ve found resilience. They’ve found a way to move forward, even though the odds are against them. Compare that to BIPOC folks of marginalized communities. Things have been taken away from them. There’s definitely a strong relationship when they come together.”

For Brown, being able to facilitate these connections has been fulfilling on many levels. It’s been healing, too. On his most recent outing, Brown found himself seated around a campfire with his fellow travelers underneath the vast Alaskan sky. He might as well have been seated around that old oak tree back in Cuero, Texas; in his element, the outdoors, connected to those around him. The stories went around, as they do around campfires, but the conversations carried a little more weight than usual. They centered on environmental and social justice. Before he knew it, there were tears streaming down their faces. Here in the Arctic Circle, Brown had created a safe space of expression. It was magic.

“That magic is understanding how powerful your voice is,” he says. “It’s waking up that soul and saying, ‘Your voice matters.’ Historically, our voices were never brought to the table. There were decisions made for us, not by us. We can all come together as one, like Martin Luther King said, and take a stand. But before we can have that, we need to create a safe space for BIPOCs to step in and find their voice. They can be as strong an advocate as anyone else out there.”