"There's a quote I really love by Maya Angelou, 'If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude about it.' And I'm not ready to change my attitude."
-Judith Kasiama, Colour the Trails Founder, MEC Ambassador
The act of doing something in spite of it all.
It can be found when you're knee-deep in the backcountry preparing to go off-piste or wobbling at the top of Magic Chair, steadying yourself for your very first run. In the case of those forging the path to truly diversify the outdoors, perseverance is the backbone, the foundation, to which these pioneers fall back on.
But in an industry that is predominately white-centred, heterosexual and cis-gendered, who is driving diversity forward? And in what ways? There are 2.5-million skiers and snowboarders in Canada, according to the Canadian Ski Council with the average median household income at $100,000. The National Parks Service (NPS) reports that 78 per cent of those who visited U.S. parks were white (numbers were unavailable in Canada) and only seven-per-cent black.
In a time when Whistler Blackcomb experienced its lowest snowfall in over 30 years through Dec. 31, 2019 and had "very poor results through the early season and critical holiday period," according to CEO Rob Katz in a second-quarter earnings report, opening skiing initiatives across all sectors, ages, genders and ethnicities should be at the forefront for every resort operator and industry insider.
But it isn't.
Keeping the sport robust is a must. Reaching new skiers and snowboarders, lowering the barriers of entry and making it more accessible should be a driving force for inclusion. As is making it clear that there is room for everyone in the outdoors—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or body type. Historically, these conversations have been muted, meaning the path forward can be nuanced and the conversations uncomfortable.
The Adventure Gap: James Edward Mills
"As a person of colour, I spent the majority of my earliest days as a professional in the outdoor industry not noticing very many people who look like me," says James Edward Mills, a journalist who authored the book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, and who chronicled the first all-African-American attempt to ascent Denali. Mills says that as a child of the '60s, he believed that by the time the new millennium rolled around, conversations surrounding race and the outdoors wouldn't be necessary. "I assumed that the divides that prevent people of colour and other underrepresented segments of the population from engaging in outdoor activities, especially winter sports would change ... but that wasn't the case." In turn, he's dedicated himself to reframing those stale conversations about a lack of diversity into new narratives, propping up emerging role models within the industry and sharing success stories.
"Over the last six years since the expedition, we've actually seen quite a bit of positive change," reports Mills, who says that grassroots organizations are beginning to emerge such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors and Brothers of Climbing. "You know, we've seen an interest in Native American experiences in the outdoors, also the LGBTQ community has made a huge increase in their presence and awareness about outdoor recreation, so things have definitely changed. The question now is, how can we take the next step?"
Mills defines that as making the jump from not just creating recreation opportunities but career and public advocacy positions within the industry. "So that people of colour are working in the industry both as designer of product, as guides, as ski instructors, lift operators, in all forms of different types of employment that are part of the outdoor industry." Increasing higher levels of interest and enthusiasm is what he calls "broad-spectrum participation" and where the movement needs to go next.
Outdoor brands such as Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) are rolling out ad campaigns featuring people of colour enjoying the outside, spearheaded in part by Amil Reddy, a transgendered person of colour, who is driving conversation not only within the organization but at a leadership level. Smaller grassroots initiatives are beginning to emerge, such as the Vancouver-based Colour the Trails, founded by Democratic of Congo refugee and avid athlete, Judith Kasiama who just started skiing last year at the age of 29 but brought out 20 or so participants to a Never Ever Day at Whistler this year.
Even Vail Resorts is pledging to expand its services to underserved youth in urban areas for the upcoming 2020-21 season, announcing an overall US$10-million contribution from CEO Katz and his wife Elena Amsterdam to be matched to Vail Resort's annual $5.6-million contribution—though it pales in comparison to the tens of millions planned for overall park improvements at its resorts. Marjory Elwell, corporate communications manager at Vail Resorts. says the programs currently reach 4,500 kids annually but hopes to boost that number up to 10,000. These kids receive free lift tickets, ski and ride lessons, equipment rentals and lunch at no charge. The cash injection, spread out over 19 resorts, would further support Sea to Sky non-profits such as Zero Ceiling, Kids on the Move, and the First Nations Snowboard Team.
Soaring High: First Nations Snowboarding Team
The First Nations Snowboard Team (FNST) is not only marking 16 years in existence but thriving with growing numbers, mentorship programs and new initiatives, spearheaded by Court "Blackbird" Larabee, FNST's executive director and also the Indigenous Relations Specialist for Whistler Blackcomb.
"We've grown immensely," says Larabee of the team, which rattles off an impressive list of Indigenous youth members stretching from resorts from Whistler to Cypress, Grouse, Sasquatch Mountain Resort, Kamloops, and all the way over to Mount Washington. When speaking about diversity and the First Nations, particularly regarding the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations, Larabee is passionate.
"You know, it's not as bad as cross-country skiing," he laughs, "But alpine skiing and alpine boarding has always been a very non-diverse sport so it's great to see these groups, really the new generations of people, all on the mountain."
The organization aims to reduce socio-economic barriers by providing a season pass, at least 10 days of coaching, youth mentorship and leadership opportunities so that the younger generations can be role models for other First Nations athletes.
"This is their own traditional territory so it's beneficial to them and it's huge to celebrate their culture themselves," Larabee adds. "The leaders are really happy that the kids are back on their own mountain plane and it's good to see healthy young leaders and success stories, because there's too many negative tales and it's time to change stigmas."
Colour the Trail's Judith Kasiama and MEC's Amil Reddy
Changing stigmas is exactly up Judith Kasiama's alley. In 2018, she posted a photo of herself in the outdoors and called out MEC for failing to diversify their advertising, perpetuating the myth that only white people frequent the outdoors. The retailer responded with CEO David Labistour acknowledging the issue and pledging to diversify their marketing.
"When you look at skiing, you don't really see a lot of black people in advertising whatsoever," says Kasiama, who notes too that "when you buy gear, you rarely see a person of colour. So we're not being represented visually."
Asked if she's seen an increase in diversity within advertising, even after the callout, Kasiama remarks, "Not really. There's still a lot of work to be done," but adds that she's not counting on brands to represent her community. "At the end of the day, brands just want to showcase diversity to sell a product." Instead her focus is on grassroots initiatives such as her own Colour the Trails, where she organizes group outdoor outings and film screenings. She's also focused on changing the narrative by sharing her and other Black, Indigenous and People of Colour's (BIPOC) stories.
"I know for myself, seeing the feed of me going skiing has inspired a lot of people both black and white and of various ages to try skiing on their own because I started out really late and I've come to love it," she says. By doing this, Kasiama is hoping to fight the underlying stigma that as she puts it, "black folks don't do this kind of sport," adding that the stigma itself can paralyze newcomers to trying out a new outdoor activity because, "in some ways, people may not be doing it because they're being told that they don't do it."
Amil Reddy, the Organizational Development Manager at MEC, knows these challenges well and has done their part in advocating for diversity within MEC's marketing materials.
"As a trans person of colour, I know the importance of welcoming spaces. The retail sector is binary and MEC operates within those constraints," says Reddy, who notes that apart from diversifying their ad campaigns, supporting pride events, displaying rainbow flags at their retail stores and having universal washrooms, MEC has been steadily highlighting universal and unisex products. Reddy even wrote a "gifts for them" guide during the holidays.
Reddy can be seen as a force within the outdoor community in that they have the unique ability to drive change from within. Managing the Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee and promoting a culture of inclusion, Reddy says they have four main focus areas: "POC Representation, LGBTQ2S+ Inclusion, Indigenous Allyship, and ALL abilities, ages, sizes, and genders." This extends out to hiring: both staff, executive and board members and includes "creating training to address unconscious bias, and leading initiatives to foster a culture of inclusion in the organization."
Part of bridging the gap is to ensure there is diversity within executive and leadership roles at organizations such as MEC and other outdoor brands. When asked what could be done to further propel organizations to diversify from within, particularly at the executive level, Reddy recalls that at a MEC event celebrating International Women's Day, CEO Phil Arrata said that the expectation of any hiring committee should be to ensure they meet with a diverse pool of candidates, then hire the best person for the job. Reddy agrees with Arrata, stating, "This first step—of ensuring that the pool of candidates is diverse—is a game-changer. We need to get that right, no matter if it feels like it will take a bit more time or be a bit more difficult; those are excuses. We know that diversity of thought and experience create better teams, more innovative companies, and drive growth." How to get candidates into that pool, however, is a path not yet clearly formed, but growing mentorship and activity within the community certainly will help.
"Outside is for everyone and it's my goal that we see our stories and experiences reflected and valued at MEC," Reddy says.
National Brotherhood of Skiers Soldiers On
It turns out, however, there's been steadfast momentum. Firstly within groups such as the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), founded in 1973. Its members recently celebrated their 46th summit just this past month. Founders Art Clay and Ben Finley are being inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame on March 28, the first African-Americans to be welcomed into the esteemed establishment.
"Well, 40-plus years ago there weren't many folks like me on the slopes," says Finley, who started NBS just after the Black Power movement had taken off and used it as a way to build community as well as ensuring group safety for members on an otherwise whitewashed mountain. "There was a need for us to move in groups." The duo decided to bring together the handful of African-American ski groups at the time and, as he puts it, "invade Aspen, Colorado."
The town, in part, took it as an invasion, and the National Guard was deployed on standby for the first ever summit held in 1973. That event had 350 skiers, and in its heyday in the 1990s, the summits would draw between 5,000 and 10,000 attendees, according to Clay. The summit, a vibrant multi-day skiing and party extravaganza full of old friends reuniting and at times, dancing in the streets, is most importantly a fundraiser to support young NBS skiers, offering free tickets, coaching and support as they move through their skiing journey.
And though annual attendance to the summits is down, at just 600 this year in Sun Valley, the NBS says they bolster a "high retention rate," once they have members committed. For them, the challenge will be enrolling millennial skiers, and figuring out a revamped marketing strategy that speaks to them.
The Near Impossible Barrier: Cost
One can't speak about the lack of diversity in winter sports, particularly in skiing, without acknowledging a pretty big barrier of entry: cost. With Whistler Blackcomb's day-of pass soaring to a high of $161 at the ticket window this year, it's enough to curb the appetite of any enthusiastic newcomer. "Pricing is a huge issue," says Kasiama.
"It kind of bothers me that a lot of these resorts or people want to talk about diversity, but we're not talking about, you know, what's stopping people from entering those spaces? I think [when] you say diversity and inclusion, you actually have to work in a way that invites everybody to the table and supports local groups who are making the effort."
Kasiama acknowledges her own financial burden in creating the Colour the Trails group, often ferrying people around and paying for gas or spending her own money for out-of-pocket costs. She says it's tough to continuously try to find organizations to help fund her initiatives, but she herself is trying to be creative in getting people outside, at a lower cost.
Her motive to keep going? "Seeing community members join us for the first time, and then a year later seeing their confidence ... and then seeing them willingly try different things and then seeing them excel," she says. "It's great to see that transformation and then the ability to just say 'yes' to a lot of the crazy adventures that I pose. People are like, 'yeah!' They take that risk because they trust me and we developed that kind of trust.'"
If At First You Don't Succeed...
When Larabee from the First Nations Snowboard Team is asked what he owes his success to, his answer is simple.
"I think that I see a little bit of myself in a lot of these youth. I grew up in care myself and I saw these different challenges that are so evident in the community around us." He notes not having role models that could speak to or understand his situation as a big barrier to his eventual internal growth. "So that's why I positioned myself to be someone that I never had growing up and that's what keeps you going. It's definitely not the paycheque, but it's most certainly the smiles and just knowing that you're doing good," he notes.
Nominated for the Rising Star Award by the Whistler Chamber for the third time, Larabee has also fostered changes at Whistler Blackcomb, a place that he says hasn't felt like home for many Indigenous youth. "They didn't feel comfortable at Whistler, they didn't feel like it was a home, so that was a problem for me." Larabee says that along with using Indigenous imagery and language throughout the resort and a custom bereavement policy when Nation members pass away, they have created opportunities to educate the public of the territory's rich cultural history by, for example, renaming and recreating Squamish and Lil'wat pictographs on the old staff buildings and hosting an elder day full of storytelling. This year, both Nations were scheduled to come back next month for a mix of elder storytelling and tubing to be offered to the kids in care of the Lil'wat communities.
But back to persistence. It's the critical component here that nearly every leader mentioned when speaking of their work in trying to make the outdoors truly inclusive. Because through that perseverance, they're safeguarding the fact that the outdoors are truly for everyone. And it's a long road ahead.
Above all, ensuring that everyone can enjoy that freedom, the genuine tranquility and peace of mind that being in nature can bring is what diversity brings to the table. "Just kind of being that example is important," says Kasiama, "And hopefully, as we move forward as a society it no longer becomes something to be amazed at since it becomes normalized. Everybody has accessibility."
And for those wanting to get outside but are unsure of where to start, Reddy notes, "the first thing I would say is just get outside and move. That doesn't necessarily mean a hike up a mountain and tons of gear. It can be a walk with a friend in a park with nothing more than good walking shoes and comfortable clothes. Or a bike ride. Find out what you enjoy doing and when you are ready, explore ways you can challenge yourself."