This year’s edition of The North Face’s Global Climbing Day took place on Saturday, August 22. Due to the challenges of this period, The North Face hosted a digital version of the annual celebration. For the main event, The North Face brought together leaders from around the industry for a series of conversations on inclusion, equity and access that were live streamed on YouTube, and The North Face committed to donating over $80,000 to the participating groups.
The video―moderated by The North Face athlete Sam Elias―began with a discussion on climbing and community impact with Jon Hawk and Malik Martin of Memphis Rox and Tyler Algeo and Ed Nhlane of Climb Malawi. Later, Summer Winston of The Brown Ascenders and Erynne Gilpin of Indigenous Womxn Climb dived into a conversation related to community organizing. The video concluded with thoughts on making gyms more accessible and inclusive from Maureen Beck of Paradox Sports and Abby Dione of Coral Cliffs. In between these conversations, spotlight videos highlighted the impact of Memphis Rox on its community, the work of Paraclimbing London and the new experimental program ALL RISE.
Below, we highlight 6 topics from these conversations that stood out to us here at Climbing Business Journal. The full video can be watched on YouTube here.
1.Keeping it Real, Keeping it Local
Jon Hawk pointed out in the first conversation the impact of establishing this mission early on in the life of a climbing gym project―even before a gym is built. As this article on summer youth programs points out, transportation can be a barrier to access when someone can’t afford a car or public transportation is scarce. Instead, Memphis Rox situated its pay-as-you-can gym in the heart of its Soulsville community.
“A lot of the underserved communities don’t have the resources to even have a car, so how are they going to make it to the other side of the town?” said Jon Hawk, Director of Operations at Memphis Rox. “We were very intentional on building it in their neighborhood so they can walk here, they can get here, they can eat here, they can do everything that they want right here, and not have to have any other barriers or stress.”
That local focus and desire to be a neighborhood resource permeates multiple levels of operations at Memphis Rox, which has distributed supplies during COVID-19. Malik Martin, born and raised in South Memphis and working at the gym since 2018, emphasized the impact of conducting interpersonal outreach and recruiting and hiring local staff from within its community.
“If you walk into Memphis Rox, the vast majority of our staff comes from South Memphis and walks to work. That means we literally, intentionally set out to hire from the community,” said Martin. “A lot of times, doors are closed when you’re from my neighborhood. You don’t have a lot of opportunity…I started at the front desk at Memphis Rox and worked my way up [sic] and now I’m Director of Social Media. And none of that would have happened if it wasn’t for people like Jon who gave me a chance to even work there.”
2.Remembering We’re Better Together
Climb Malawi, a climbing facility in Lilongwe, Malawi―which like Memphis Rox aims to not turn anyone away based on ability to pay―takes a similar approach to expanding its reach. The organization arranges carpooling and minibus reimbursement through its Kuyenda Volunteer Program, and with the donation of The North Face plans to operate a shuttle bus to further reduce the barrier of transportation.
Tyler Algeo, a Canadian climber who founded Climb Malawi and lives in Malawi, mentioned other intentional ways the organization seeks to expand its reach: handing out flyers in the local community; bringing a portable wall to festivals; sharing climbing shoes with local youth when at the crags; and building a strong cohort of ambassadors from the local community to bridge other gaps like language.
Ed Nhlane, a Program Director at Climb Malawai, is one of those ambassadors that joined the live stream with pre-recorded video. Nhlane described some of the ways those intentional, interpersonal efforts have impacted the surrounding community, both people local to Malawi as well as foreigners.
“These interactions have transformed our community by breaking barriers and shaping our ideals: more learning and understanding for the local climber who is less traveled; more exposure and recreation for our host communities; and more culture and indigenous knowledge for the expert who is working in Malawi or is just visiting,” said Nhlane.
“It’s when you mix all these different people together that these ideas for new businesses, for new ways of viewing life and new ways of approaching challenges can really transform communities,” added Algeo.
3.Seeking Long-Term Solutions for Long-Term Struggles
Earlier this year, a wave of gyms, brands and athletes in the climbing industry took to social media to speak out against systemic racism and started tough conversations. In parallel, many businesses began or amplified efforts within their spheres of influence and reached out to organizations doing related work in the industry for help.
Summer Winston, co-founder of The Brown Ascenders―which works to “increase access, inclusion, and equity within the outdoor industry for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities,” according to its Instagram bio―described in the video how this response has been a double-edged sword.
“On some level it’s like, great, finally you’re saying something and bringing your voice to this conversation within your own communities. But on the other levels it’s incredibly frustrating…I get so angry because there’s been so much that has happened, just horrible things that have happened just in our generation of being alive and it’s been silence, silence, silence,” said Winston.
Erynne Gilpin, founder of Indigenous Womxn Climb―the Instagram bio of which reads, “To inspire. To Transform. To decolonize.”―also pointed out that these efforts can often wax and wane with the times.
“I see corporate, institutional social media responses as being quite sporadic. It kind of goes along with the trends,” said Gilpin. “I definitely had an increase of emails in my inbox throughout these past few months, and I kind of just sat back and watched them correlate with the hashtags.”
Instead, Gilpin emphasized a long-term approach to solving long-term struggles which span generations.
“We’ve experienced structural and systemic violence and oppression in ways that other communities have not had to hurdle over, again and again, intergenerationally,” said Gilpin. “It’s going to be about doing that real work to unpack what this means in terms of our institutions’ long-term commitment to unpacking our own internalized racism. And then we can allow that work to expand beyond, in a more meaningful, slower and intentional, and I think long-term (hopefully) and regenerative way.”
“By understanding the historical context as far back as you can, you almost gain a perspective and a vision into the future for how long it’s going to take to potentially heal that. That this isn’t just a moment in time or a single lifetime of work in any direction,” summarized Sam Elias, the moderator.
4.Restoring Relationships and Systems
In addition, according to Winston some asks from businesses do not always have the best intentions behind them. Winston gave the example of requests which tokenize for the sake of showing diversity.
“We have no interest in being a brand token…We don’t just want to be one profiled story and some photos on their social media page,” said Winston. “We want to work with companies and brands, create relationships with the different entities that are willing to do the work in a real, sustainable way.”
That motif of relationship building was a common thread throughout the conversation. Whether at the crags or at the gyms, Winston and Gilpin identified a need for restoring relationships and systems.
“Without real relationship building, this work can’t really happen. And I think that’s why this work is so community-driven and community-based,” said Gilpin. “Because I would say diversity to what, and inclusion to where? I’m more interested in thinking about supporting spaces that are made by us and for us and that reflect and have our knowledge systems built into it and our value systems built into it.”
During the conversation, both Gilpin and Winston highlighted some of the benefits of this long-term work in the climbing industry.
“I think for a lot of people out there, they’re like, “Oh, it’s just climbing…” But that’s not how I see it, and it’s not how a lot of our community members see it. Climbing isn’t just climbing, said Winston. “It’s making an inlet for our community to have access to this sport that’s physically beneficial, mentally beneficial, emotionally beneficial. And then it also gives us a way to get back in touch with the land.”
5.Taking a Human Approach
In the final conversation on making gyms more accessible and inclusive, Paradox Sports Ambassador Maureen Beck discussed the need for welcoming gym environments in addition to physical accessibility. This is one of the things that Paradox Sports instructors work on with gyms.
“You can take a walk around your gym and know you could use a ramp there, or that it’s hard to fit a wheelchair through that space, or maybe somebody who’s blind would have a hard time navigating the bathroom on their own. It’s the welcoming part that really takes more intent and kind of more dedication and purpose. You can’t just check a box on a checklist and have a welcoming facility.”
However, there’s a balance to keep in mind when creating a welcoming space. Early in the conversation, Beck described how being over-the-top welcoming could have an opposite effect.
“I think what people don’t realize is that when they’re over-the-top welcoming, it’s almost pointing out the fact that you don’t belong there,” said Beck. “I always try to coach people, when working with people with disabilities, that if you’re cheering them on, make sure you’re not doing it in a way that’s any different than you would cheer on your buddy…We’re kind of trying to normalize the abnormal.”
When trying to strike the right balance, Beck showed how coming back to relationships and taking a human approach first can help.
“It wasn’t until I started hanging out with Paradox who’s irreverent, they make stump jokes, they laugh at each other when they fall off their wheelchairs, and they drink a lot of beer at the end of the day when it’s all done…It’s like we’re all humans first, and whatever other stuff we bring with us is there, that doesn’t just disappear, but taking that human approach first.”
6.Accepting the Process
Abby Dione, owner of Coral Cliffs in Florida, echoed many of these thoughts in the conversation with Beck and Elias, and attributed putting people first to literally enabling the gym to survive through this period. A recent Go Fund Me campaign raised $120,000 for the gym, with an average donation of $20.
“I think like with all things it’s in the doing, and it’s by leading by example…There are conversations that are had. However, modeling the behavior I would like my staff to engage in when someone walks through the door I have found to be the most effective,” said Dione. “Putting people first is the way to go. It might be the slow way, it might not have immediate returns, but that’s the way to go.”
Dione pointed out as well how diversifying the sport is not only needed in terms of numbers of climbers but at all levels of the industry―reiterating the need for long-term solutions and a human approach.
“I think that one of the ways that I see success taking shape is that I’m not the only black, queer woman in the United States to own a climbing gym. I would love to see more of me everywhere and at a variety of levels…There needs to be a certain level of consistency and humanity in this process. Numbers are important, they serve a purpose. But without the injection of that humanity, it doesn’t work long-term.
Finally, Dione noted how these principles can be applied to ourselves when undertaking this work.
“Do your best to try to do better, essentially. And in that process, my hope is that you learn. And when you will fall, because you will…that you get up and try again. Because that to me is what being a human is. And so if you are in a position of power in an organization, my hope is that you commit to that kind of process. I think it will be transformative for the climbing community on multiple levels.”
And no one is alone in this work. Despite the distancing and masks of this period, climbing gyms, brands, climbers and insiders from all over the world participated in Global Climbing Day again this year.
“Even though we weren’t able to connect physically, the goal still remains the same. Which is to celebrate the community we love, and the ways in which climbing can be a tool to create a more inclusive and equitable world,” concluded Elias.
Joe Robinson has been working in the climbing industry for over a decade and currently manages CBJ editorial. He traveled the world as the IFSC’s community manager during Olympic inclusion and across the U.S. while writing for Alpinist, Climberism, DPM and CBJ. He also worked in local climbing gyms of the Pacific Northwest and West Michigan while advancing economic empowerment, educational equity, youth development and diversity programs of national nonprofit organizations.