[ By Laura Yale ]
This week Laura looks at ways people are reckoning with racial injustice in the valley and taking action in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Gunnison Valley Against Racism, a Facebook group with a following of almost 800 members, has furthered conversations by posting various resources and opportunities for direct action. For one example, the group helped gain support for a petition that called for the firing of a Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office corporal after he made comments on Facebook that threatened violence toward Black Lives Matter protesters. An official investigation resulted, but the corporal resigned before it was completed.
In more symbolic gestures, many organizations in the valley have offered statements of support. When Crested Butte Mountain Resort posted that they “stand in solidarity [with the Black community], I about fell over,” local BLM leader Chloe Bowman laughed. “I never thought I would see that here, ever.”
Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail Resorts, wrote a letter acknowledging that the ski industry has largely excused itself from discussions of racial inequities, but that it’s now time for the ski community to recognize that Black people continue “to struggle with the very real impacts of racism in their daily lives.” He acknowledged that people of color do not have the same opportunity to experience an activity that many people here orient their lives around, and said, “In some ways, these issues might feel removed from the ski industry—to some, it might not feel like our problem. But that is the problem.”
He went on to say that lack of diversity is “not only a moral and societal issue, but a business issue,” recognizing that the industry needs to broaden its base to more skiers of color if it wants to survive.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects that more than half of the country will be non-white by 2044, and according to a report by the National Ski Areas Association, visits by people of color have remained fairly stagnant in the past decade and are not tracking with the growth of minority populations in the U.S.
Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers, wants to move beyond symbolic gestures. After in-depth research, she wrote a comprehensive anti-racism plan for the Gunnison Valley. She found that here, like other ski towns, expensive housing and seasonal work disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) because of biases and lack of access to loans and other economic safety nets.
Hoskin believes that every organization and institution in the valley has the opportunity to create more pathways toward inclusion. She identifies approaches like housing support programs, more intentional hiring practices, targeted messaging to communities of color and start-up funds for BIPOC-owned businesses.
While town councils in the valley are working to develop and implement more inclusive policies, Crested Butte made Juneteenth an official holiday, unanimously voted to paint “Black Lives Matter” on Elk Avenue, made an official proclamation condemning racism and offered diversity, equity and inclusion training to all town staff, including the Marshal’s office.
The Crested Butte Town Council acknowledged that the painting of “Black Lives Matter” in September was a starting point and statement of the town’s commitment to anti-racism work. However, much more was revealed in how badly some wanted to avoid the topic. Social media exploded, and while there was a lot of applause from locals and visitors, there were also comments like, “I can’t believe you destroyed this beautiful town,” and “I’m never spending money here again.”
In spite of the blowback, Bowman along with a committee of community leaders including representatives from Vail Resorts, local government, businesses and non-profits are working toward various efforts to make the valley more accessible to Black, Indigenous and People of Color. A few of the many efforts will include more intentional hiring practices, collaboration with BIPOC-led outdoor groups, diversifying youth education and inclusive community messaging.
As a community that markets its access to the outdoors and perhaps best understands the benefits of getting outside, Bowman and Elizabeth Cobbins, who organized the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Gunnison, agree that a direct way to combat racism is to share this privilege and the peace that comes with it. Like skiing, the mountain biking, climbing, hunting and angling industries have also remained mostly white while the face of America becomes increasingly diverse.
“Opportunity outweighs everything,” Bowman said. “As a Mecca of mountain sports, we could seek out people the way Adaptive [Sports Center] seeks out people,” she explained. She said the valley could become a leader in diversifying the outdoors, not by focusing on bringing more people here, but by bringing different types of people here.
A labyrinth of obstacles makes it difficult for communities of color to enjoy these activities, including high barriers of cost, proximity, and exclusive cultures that can carry deep, implicit bias. People of color bring to light many ways in which they are made to feel they do not belong in the outdoors, on platforms such as Melanin Basecamp and Diversify Outdoors. Some examples include micro-aggressions on trails, social acceptance of racist language and lack of mentorship.
Jalen Bazile, an outdoor educator and avid mountain biker based in Denver, visited this summer and said he loves visiting, yet is critical of Crested Butte. “I felt like a guest trying not to overstay my welcome,” he posted on Instagram of his visit. While he said he loves the landscape and trails, he asks who this “last great mountain town” is for. Bazile said he felt like he was constantly being watched and judged as if he “was on the other side of the glass at the zoo.”
Bazile says people of color bear the brunt of the awkwardness that white people have when they don’t interact with non-white people often, and when this happens repeatedly, the feeling of not belonging can become overwhelming. He is a member of the Black Foxes, who describe themselves as “an international collective of unapologetically Black cyclists and outdoors-people that are reclaiming our narratives and roles in the outdoors.”
Bowman worked with the Black Foxes and organized an unofficial gathering in September that brought 20 Black, Indigenous and bikers of color to the valley. After their visit, the attendees expressed tangible feelings of empowerment that come from gathering with other people of color in the outdoors.
Bowman has since started The Melanin Mountain project, a non-profit with the mission to “implement grassroots structure and action within the Gunnison Valley of inclusion and equity through existing systems, community traditions, entertainment and outdoor spaces for people of color.” She looks forward to working with organizations in and out of the valley, and asks, “What better than to be one of the only ski towns that fights for Black people?”
Laura Yale is a documentary film producer and writer based in Crested Butte. She echoes stories of community and landscape and the inevitable intersection of the two.