Christa Fells Leads with INTENTION
“What does Black History Month mean to you?”
It’s a pretty generic question in my interview with Christa Fells, but the expression on her face lets me know her answer is far from generic. As a Black woman, she has a lot to say on this topic. Christa is currently an engineer for the Clark County Fire Department…one of several fire departments that make up the entire Las Vegas valley.
Valley-wide, she is one of 5…yes, 5…Black women firefighters. We’ll dive into this issue a little later, but going back to my initial generic question…
“I’m not even sure I should start this answer because I don’t want people to think I’m speaking for every Black person. I am not. I can only speak for myself,” explains Christa. You can see her mind making a strong choice to speak up.
“Listen, I think it is great that we take time to remember and honor the contributions of the African American community. My question is, why do we only do it one month of the year?!
Why are we so overlooked as a culture that we have to have a month?
It minimizes other cultures. It’s a reminder of how engrained this whole thing is…that we have to set aside a month to just think about us?
Why do we have to segment the history and accomplishments, and beauty of Black culture to one month? It marginalizes and minimizes. Black History is everyone’s history. It is what happened, and you can’t separate it. I want it to be recognized as part of OUR CULTURE every day!”
She takes a deep breath in and out.
However, Christa isn’t all talk. She walks the walk. She is the visionary and director of the Fire Prep Leadership Academy (FPLA), but she wants to be clear, she did not do this alone. The team behind FPLA is made up of people who encountered similar struggles in the fire service and had the same passion and desire to make a positive change in their community. The goal of FPLA, which started in 2015 and became a non-profit in 2020, is to prepare younger people for a future in public service, specifically with the fire department.
They reach out to all areas of the community, especially the west side of Las Vegas, which has a rich history in Las Vegas African American culture. She and her team have created partners with churches, barbershops, markets, pastors…anything to get the word out that the non-profit is there to help. It’s a group effort. The volunteers that have made FPLA successful are made up of commissioned and retired service personnel.
“We develop people from the inside. You must be selfless…a service leader.
The FPLA is an all-encompassing trimester course that walks hopeful firefighters through every aspect of becoming a firefighter…from learning the operation standards, physical agility and even preparing for the oral board interview.
“Imagine you are a person of color who doesn’t have the resources of other applicants? Maybe English is your second language. Whatever the case may be, the perception of who you are as a minority is there already.
My goal is to help you be prepared as much as possible so they can see your strengths, so they can’t ignore you just because of the color of your skin or your gender. We cannot deny that those kinds of perceptions still exist. They do. If everything were fine and wonderful, why are women, especially women of color, still having problems? Why is the disparity so large? In a fire department, relationships are important and if you have an individual who looks at you and makes an unfair judgment, then they can’t establish a relationship with you. You are overlooked on the spot.”
While the non-profit is geared towards people of color, she makes it clear that it is open to all.
One of her biggest goals is to attract more women, especially minority women, to a career in fire service.
“Little girls don’t see themselves as being a firefighter. If you don’t see it, you don’t know it.
You internalize what you see, and it becomes your reality. These girls need to see me, so they know. It’s overwhelming for 5 women firefighters in Las Vegas to carry Everyone has to understand the struggle. If it’s a struggle for me, it’s a struggle for you.
You just don’t know it yet. You must stand up. You have to do the right thing.
I started out as a teacher, and it wasn’t until my early 30s that I decided to try to join the fire department. Never in my life had I seen a Black female firefighter…never,” she remembers.
“I knew making it in this career was going to take more preparation for me. I knew my challenges were going to be bigger, not from a physical standpoint, but because their perception of what a female firefighter already existed in their heads. That’s what I was up against…the false perception. Throw in me being Black and Latina, and it’s even harder.”
Christa’s goal with the non-profit goes even deeper. She wants to teach people to understand who they truly are as a person… their heart, their goals. Her program includes mentorship, support and requires a lot of hours volunteering.
“You have to have a confidence in who you are and how you operate to withstand the obstacles coming your way. You can’t grow if you are in defense mode all of the time.”
So where did this passion of Christa’s ignite? Let’s just say she’s paying it forward, like a member of the Las Vegas community once did for her.
Her mentor was a man named Sam Smith. He owned Native Son Bookstore, a staple in Las Vegas’s Westside. Christa calls it a cultural hub to learn about African American history, to learn about themselves, and learn how to be successful in testing processes for careers. Sam Smith helped people in the community study to become lawyers, firefighters…the list goes on and on. He was a Fire Marshall himself and according to Christa was overlooked at first.
“Sam would always ask where you were from? He would tell you about your history. He poured into you. He ignited the flame in your spirit, “she said through tears. “I wouldn’t have become a firefighter. I wouldn’t have made it if it hadn’t been for him. He took the time to help so many of us. He was a brilliant genius with a beautiful heart. Sam had a way of making you feel seen and rooted, even if you didn’t know yourself. He made you feel like you had purpose. He was intentional about meeting the needs of everyone, including people who were overlooked which is most often people of color,” Christa recalls.
When Sam Smith passed, Christa says she immediately felt God tug at her heart and she wanted to be that light for others in the community. Christa had to figure out a way to give back, so she took Sam’s lead and created a program that is now helping firefighter applicants pursue their dreams.
“We all have the power to help each other. I couldn’t do this alone. I have strong men and women with the same passion behind me, helping me every day. In this world, we have to get rid of the distractions and really learn who we are and love who we are and then turn around and do the same for others…no matter the race. Connection is how you open doors. We need to meet people where they are and engage them in meaningful way. That’s how true change is made. We must be INTENTIONAL.”
Thank you, Christa Fells, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit down and talk to us. If you are interested in the services FPLA provides, please check out their website, and don’t forget to follow them on Instagram.
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Photos Courtesy of Christa Fells
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