by Patheresa Wells
Annette Diggs moved to the Pacific Northwest after growing up in a redlined community in Memphis, Tennessee. As she began to explore the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, a journey of self-discovery started that led to the creation of EDGE Outdoors, a nonprofit whose mission is to “address the invisibility of Black, Indigenous, Women of Color in snow sports.”
Diggs remembers that in childhood other kids would spend summers exploring places that were not accessible to her. She said, “It was just safer to be at home or just safer to be at Grandma’s house during the summer, playing [in] her backyard.” But as she started taking skiing lessons for the first time in her 30s, she began to see that the lack of visibility was directly related to the discriminatory practices meant to exclude BIPOC from mountain spaces. She noticed the inequality from that very first lesson, as she could not see herself reflected anywhere around the resort. Diggs says this made her want “to change … and dismantle the narrative of who belongs on skis or who belongs on a snowboard, and normalizing that” in order to change the face — the landscape — of who is thought to belong in these spaces.
According to data provided by the U.S. Forest Service’s National Visitor Use Monitoring, the lack of visibility Diggs saw at her ski lesson is a disparity that is mirrored all across the United States. The data shows that “Blacks or African Americans, who make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for about 1 percent of national forest visits in 2010. Hispanics or Latinos, who make up about 17 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for less than 7 percent.”
There are a lot of reasons barriers exist when it comes to outdoor spaces, such as economic inequality, race discrimation, and safety concerns in places that are overwhelmingly white. But Diggs believes that gaining access to these spaces can give marginalized communities a sense of freedom, healing, growth, and the ability to reconnect to places they have been excluded from. Not only that; changing the face of snow sports also fosters a change in the narratives around how these activities are viewed within our communities. Diggs says that when we refer to certain recreations as “for white folks,” it’s important to look at why. Diggs calls these generational lies.
“It’s not that Black people don’t do it,” Diggs said. “We need to dig deeper into why it became the way it was, because we weren’t wanted in those spaces. Black and Brown people were not wanted in those spaces. And these were generational lies to provide comfort.”
These lies — things like “Black people don’t do that, they don’t like the cold,” or telling our kids “that’s white folks’ stuff” — are narratives meant to protect us, Diggs says, not because we don’t do these things, but because we were excluded systematically from having access.
In fact, many of the founders of the outdoor and wilderness movements in this country held racist or exclusionary views. In a 2020 article, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune addressed the fact that so many of the pivotal figures, even heroes, of the club’s past held white supremacist or racist views — specifically John Muir, who is thought of as the father of national parks. Brune states in the article that “the whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea — one that’s still circulating today. It’s the idea that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs. Such willful ignorance is what allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands in the decades or centuries before they became national parks. Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color continue to endure the traumatic burden of fighting for their right to a healthy environment while simultaneously fighting for freedom from discrimination and police violence.”
Yet even this acknowledgment from Brune sparked a range of reactions — including disapproval — amongst club members. It is often hard for those in power to acknowledge the ways their privilege hinders and shuts out those who do not benefit from it, but it’s important that change is made.
EDGE Outdoors is committed to making that change through a sustainable approach “that attracts and retains Black, Indigenous, Women of Color” on the slopes. EDGE’s multifaceted program starts with a scholarship for ski and snowboarding lessons led by a BIPOC instructor at a Seattle-area resort, then continues to help them progress by giving them access to the mountain the next year in order to develop their skills. But changing the face of who belongs in snow sports means not just changing who is seen recreating on the mountains but who is seen teaching, instructing, and working there as well — which is why EDGE’s program employs the skills of Olympian Deb Armstrong to facilitate the EDGE Advanced Instructor Training Program.
Diggs says that with the path from ski lessons to ski instructor, one she followed in her own journey, there are benefits that become available to help make continued access more sustainable. She says the goal is that by “that third year of being in the EDGE initiative, we’re hoping that they will take a position on the mountain.” These positions can come with access and benefits, like an employee bus that takes you to and from the mountain, a season pass, a dependent pass, and free lessons. And because those working on the mountain are more likely to spend their recreational time there as well, this path has a direct correlation to who we see as skiers and snowboarders.
But organizations like EDGE cannot do it alone, and often those who create avenues to address the harm done to BIPOC come from within those communities. Diggs says one of the easiest ways people can help in the mission to change the face of snow sports is to make the issue known: to share information on social media; to find ways to give from amongst their skill set; to provide operational support taking on volunteer tasks, like grant writing, legal counsel, or tech support. There is a learning curve for small nonprofits that are trying to make the necessary changes to, as Diggs says, heal “a legacy of traumatic experiences” in how these spaces have been managed and who has been pushed out of them.
And to the Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color, including trans Women of Color and the genderqueer community, who are underrepresented in snow sports and might be interested in venturing into these spaces but do not see themselves as skiers or snowboarders, Diggs wants to encourage them to go for it.
“Everybody, given enough coaching and experience, can become a skier or snowboarder,” Diggs said. “Do not let your fears and apprehensions stop you.” Diggs says she didn’t find her way into the sport until her 30s, but it’s never too late, because on the slopes she sees people enjoying snow sports well into their 90s. And she wants everyone to experience the freedom, healing, and empowerment that comes from trying, learning, and loving this journey.
For EDGE Outdoors and Diggs, it’s all about changing the landscape — a beautiful, awe-inspiring landscape that many have been denied access to.
“When we close our eyes and we imagine a ski instructor, often people will imagine a white male or white female,” Diggs said. “Well, when they close their eyes 10 years from now, I want them to imagine a Black or Brown person in that role.”
So close your eyes, see the change that is coming, and join EDGE in opening them to a new reality.
Patheresa Wells is a poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.
? Featured image by Parker Tikson, courtesy of EDGE Outdoors.
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