What will it take to diversify the ski industry?
Aspen’s slopes are overwhelmingly white. It’s not just the snow that makes them that way.
The photo on the back of Aspen Skiing Co.’s 2021 sustainability report highlights a diverse cohort decked out in company uniforms: Half of the 10 people in the photo are women; about a third are people of color; one of the subjects is in a sit ski.
It isn’t actually on par with Skico’s staff as a whole. Not yet, anyway, according to the caption printed underneath it: “This picture doesn’t represent the actual diversity of ASC’s employee base, but it’s the direction we’re headed.”
So in an industry driven by a sport that has historically been dominated by well-off white people — a sport that still has that well-earned reputation — how do you get more people of color into the business and out on the slopes?
It’s complicated and it’s hard, because it isn’t just about being proactive about equitable recruiting or inclusive advertising or accessible programming, according to Hannah Berman, the sustainability and philanthropy manager for Skico. (The sustainability department at Skico works on racial justice initiatives and community giving as well as climate action.)
“Skiing is very expensive, and race and class are correlated, so we see less skiers of color in that sense on our slopes,” Berman said in a joint interview with Auden Schendler, the company’s senior vice president of sustainability. “But if you look at skiing rates by socioeconomic (group) and by race, upper middle class white people ski at a much higher rate than any other (group). So that points to, you know, this cultural piece that’s a little harder to tackle.”
The perception of skiing’s exclusive culture and lack of diversity doesn’t come out of nowhere, and it is hardly isolated to the industry, according to Wayne Hare, a former Buttermilk and Snowmass patroller who now runs a nonprofit, The Civil Conversations Project, and has been partnering with Skico to organize talks in Aspen about race and life in America.
“The problem is just racism at large, and this (lack of diversity) is just a symptom of it,” Hare said.
Hare also suggested the “where we’re headed” caption on the back of the sustainability report but wants to make it clear that his work with Skico “has nothing to do with creating more diversity at Aspen,” though seeing more people of color on the slopes “might be a byproduct of it.”
“If I were in Aspen, and somebody said, ‘Well, what do you mean? Just look around you: We don’t have a problem with racism,’ I would say, ‘No, no, you look around: look at those slopes. … The slopes are that white because of racism,’” Hare said. “No, not that you’re indicating you don’t want Black people here, but it’s just decades or centuries of racism that got us where we are today.”
It plays out in both the history of exclusion and the present experience for Black skiers and snowboarders on the mountain, according to Quincy “Q” Shannon, the founder of the Black ski club Ski Noir 5280; Shannon also participated in an Aspen U speaker series on racial justice and is involved in what he describes as a “growing and equitable partnership” with Skico to bolster diversity on the mountain.
You can see that reality in the history of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, Shannon suggested. The cohort of dozens of Black ski clubs has convened almost every year since a 1973 summit in Aspen. Aside from boosting visibility and gathering community, the summit serves as a fundraiser to support young snowsports athletes of color and increase participation in winter sports.
The organization has come to Snowmass a handful of times over the years and will return in February 2022. But round one, held at Aspen Mountain 48 years ago, wasn’t exactly met with a warm embrace.
“The National Guard was called, and individuals were put on standby, and they were feared and worried about: What does this group of African Americans coming to this location mean to our town?” Shannon said. “And as dramatic as that was in the ‘70s, there are very much so times in the mountains where that same fear is what we’re greeted with when we come places.”
Shannon still senses that apprehension today and said he is often concerned about his safety. When he’s out on the mountain, he isn’t just thinking about the skier uphill from him or the terrain on the next run; Shannon feels he also must be vigilant about how he greets people, where he sits to eat, whether his back might be turned to the door or to other people.
“I don’t have the luxury of being angry or upset during the day,” Shannon said. “If I was skiing and my leg hurt, and now I have a frown on my face, these are things I actually think about, like how do I present in front of people?”
Embracing events like the National Brotherhood of Skiers summit is one way to help foster a more inclusive culture on the mountains, Shannon said.
“I think we shy away from diversity sometimes, and if we acknowledge that we’re different, we’re somehow prejudiced in some sense,” he said “Acknowledging difference is a beautiful thing … Having a group of diverse individuals coming to Aspen should be celebrated the same way that I know Gay Ski Week is celebrated in Aspen, and it’s a really big deal, and people come out there for that, or the way that the X Games is celebrated, and people come out for that.”
The summit is also a way to ensure longevity when it comes to diversifying the sport by passing a positive experience onto the next generation of skiers and snowboarders, according to Ceci West, one of the summit co-chairs for this winter’s trip to Snowmass.
The organization’s fundraising is crucial in their efforts to support promising young competitors through the Olympic Scholarship Fund and also backs outreach programs to boost participation for newcomers to the sport, she said.
“We have to continue to introduce the sport of skiing to our younger people, and younger people just don’t have the kind of funds that older people would have, so that’s why we have to, we say, ‘help them, make them and mold them,’” West said.
“A lot of the … seasoned skiers would have had the means to be able to see the sport and let the sport see them,” she added. “However, a younger person coming out of college, they just don’t have that.”
Plus, ongoing outreach can help bust the misconception that “black people don’t ski” — a “myth” that West said she herself once believed before she joined the Jim Dandy Ski Club in Detroit on the recommendation of her doctor. (West later did a stint as president of the Jim Dandy Ski Club, which was founded in 1958 and was the first Black ski club in the country; it’s also a charter member of the National Brotherhood of Skiers.)
“A lot of people are still not aware that black people do ski, you know, and they’re really surprised to find out,” West said. “And once they find out, they’re all in.”
GETTING TO ‘THE DIRECTION WE’RE HEADED’
Another way to make more people of color feel welcome on the slopes? Don’t show only white people in ads, according to leaders like Hare and Shannon.
But the concern among folks like Schendler and Berman was that putting out marketing materials to make people of color feel more welcome at the resort might also come off as tokenizing or what Schendler calls “race-washing” — making things look more diverse than they actually are, much like greenwashing can make companies appear more eco-friendly than their practices suggest.
“It’s kind of this chicken or the egg situation: which comes first, who’s on your slopes or who’s in your ads?” Berman said.
The “where we’re headed” tagline on that sustainability report helped Skico “split the difference” between inclusive and representative advertising, according to Schendler.
About that caption, and how to get where Skico claims they’re headed: there’s been some trial and error along the way.
After the pandemic hit and the pipeline of international workers dried up, Skico needed employees. They also wanted to diversify their employee base. So the company started recruiting efforts through partnerships with groups like the Urban League Young Professionals of Metro Denver, which offers support and community for Black professionals in their 20s and 30s, and UPortunity, which offers travel and adventure opportunities to at-risk youth.
(Shannon is a past president of the Urban League Young Professionals of Metro Denver; the recruiting effort was how he connected with Skico in the first place.)
Berman said there were plans to model recruitment efforts in Denver after similar college programs that give prospective students of color a chance to connect, get the lay of the land and experience networking or mentorship opportunities. It didn’t exactly go as planned.
“We tried doing this last year, and we totally failed, because there was this misunderstanding on both sides about what it would take to work,” Berman said.
“We were like, ‘Okay, we got this ready,’ and we hadn’t built the relationship so that there is enough trust and enough understanding of even things like, ‘Will I be safe here?’ for folks to want to come,” she added.
That safety concern has more to do with the experience of being a person of color at the resort than it does with the hazards of skiing itself, according to Shannon.
He was also concerned that some of the entry-level positions Skico needed filled weren’t the kinds of jobs with upward mobility toward the C-suite that members of the Urban League might be looking for. A public health crisis also wasn’t exactly ideal timing to move to a new place where the culture might not be the most welcoming.
“I think it was a hard time to have somebody move their life, at a time when there’s a global pandemic … but to also move your life to a location like Aspen that has a lot of, just variables within itself, right?” Shannon said. “I may not see other people who look like me, I may not be able to engage with other people in the same socioeconomic class as myself, and I don’t even know if I can afford the city that I’m trying to move to.”
There also are people who are already in the industry, and already in the area, who still feel the impact of skiing’s exclusivity, according to Schendler and Berman.
“It’s true that there’s another population, the Latino population in the valley, and the question there is more for us, one, … How do you give them access to the sport?” Schendler said. “But the other is, how do you enable your Latino employees — and we have a lot of them — to advance? And we have not cracked that nut.”
An overview from a listening session led by Valley Settlement (a nonprofit that serves the local immigrant community) this summer revealed that there are a host of factors impacting some Latino employees’ upward mobility toward guest-facing and executive roles: language is one component but there’s also transportation and child care and other components, too, according to Berman.
“That’s our ‘everything is everything’ problem,” Berman said. “We have to just keep chipping away at it.”
In the meantime, the company and other local groups offer some programs that get more of the valley’s kids out on the mountains. Skico continues to offer School Ski Days, a program that offers a day of comped tickets and rentals as well as discounted lessons to any class in the Roaring Fork Valley.
But one day a year on skis doesn’t make for a sustainable culture of inclusivity, and folks like Berman, who helps coordinate School Ski Days, recognize that.
So organizers also look toward initiatives with more longevity, like the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s recreational Aspen Supports Kids program. The club offers scholarships for that program, which features six or eight days out on the mountain each season and year-over-year progression with the aim of making skiing more accessible to local youth; financial aid is available for more competition-oriented programs.
The Aspen Supports Kids program also partners with local businesses like Gorsuch and Four Mountain Sports to help alleviate some of the equipment costs for participants, and organizers coordinate transportation from downvalley communities, according to Meredith Elwell, the program director for Aspen Supports Kids.
But identifying and pulling up plucky young athletes with potential from those Aspen Supports Kids programs to the level of competition and development teams is an effort that AVSC is still working on, Elwell said. Part of the work comes from ensuring that families are aware of the “pipeline” to snowsports competition.
“I don’t know that we’ve perfected that bridge, but it is on the forefront of what we’re doing. … Just through bigger levels of communication, building a trust and a relationship with these families, I think is a big step,” Elwell said.
It can certainly help build trust with more families when there’s someone that speaks their language, said Lauren Serafin Martinez, the program director for AVSC’s Bill Koch Ski League recreational cross-country skiing program. (She has also helped Elwell with registration for Aspen Supports Kids, Serafin Martinez said.)
Sometimes, helping kids see themselves as skiers can be boosted by a program organizer who is also learning the sport for the first time — someone like Serafin Martinez, a born-and-raised valley local who had never tried cross-country skiing before the Nordic program director August Teague recruited her for the position. The last time she was on skis was in an AVSC Aspen Supports Kids downhill program when she was still in elementary school.
“I personally have no background in Nordic, so that was a big thing for me. I was like, ‘How am I going to do this if I don’t have any (experience in) Nordic?” she said. “But at the end, especially downvalley in the Carbondale groups, it brought us closer — you know, the never-ever kids then there was me, a 21-year-old on skis for the first time.”
Part of Serafin Martinez’s job focuses on outreach to kids and families that might not otherwise be exposed to cross-country skiing. The program’s expansion to Carbondale was intended, in part, to involve more young skiers from downvalley communities.
Serafin Martinez sees that work in inclusion as something that goes well beyond representation for representation’s sake.
“Such a big part of the community is out on the mountains here, and I think something I’ve seen, obviously, is that in the programs, it doesn’t quite reflect the community that we have,” Serafin Martinez said.
“If I have a goal in this, it’s to have it be a mirror … We want the representation to be there,” she added. “I think it’s like an easy way for kids to make friends and to be in the same groups and, you know, make it comfortable for everyone, and hopefully as they grow, they learn to all be inclusive, and they learn more than just skiing out there.”