Brotherhood of Skiing: Changing the mindset about who skis
January 10, 2020
From the pages of Issue 5: Black + White
By Faith Briggs | @faithevebee
When most people think about skiing and ski culture, they might think about something on the spectrum of family vacations to Vail or long-haired ski bros who use words like gnar and stoke. It’s a narrow image. It doesn’t include most of the skiers I know. It almost never includes any Black and Indigenous People of Color.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise as historically in this country, People of Color have been disconnected from the land and disenfranchised in ways that affected socioeconomic status, freedom of movement, safety, and access. Though the emancipation proclamation abolished slavery in 1864, it wasn’t until almost 200 years later in 1954 that Brown v. The Board of Education ruled that “separate but equal” was unacceptable in public schools. This ruling set the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the precedent for desegregation in everything from parks to beaches to lunch counters.
Many cities shut down public parks and beaches rather than have to open them to Blacks. Wealthy whites moved their recreation to private clubs. The newly “desegregated” parks, including local ski hills, were not yet an option for most people of color for fear of safety.
This is the climate in which Art Clay and Ben Finley, the founders of The National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS) started skiing. The NBS is an umbrella organization that has grown to over fifty chapters since its founding in 1973. NBS members, including its founders, have been skiing since before it was founded, and they’re still skiing now. They’ve influenced over 50,000 skiers across the country to change the mindset about who skis and to make skiing a part of the culture of their families and their communities.
Clay and Finley have been skiing for decades across many slopes and against many barriers as some of the few black faces. It's unthinkable that in the wake of Civil Rights in the peak of the Black Power Movement, they were forward-thinking enough to hit the slopes.
As we work to rewrite the narrative of the outdoors, we need to include the stories of people who have been breaking barriers even before they were being recognized as doing so. We need to highlight them as individuals and as trailblazers in an ongoing legacy. Clay and Finley aren’t instafamous, but they’ve changed the culture and created a space for others. They are true influencers.That’s why I’m so proud to have produced a short film on their story: Brotherhood of Skiing.
“I really want to get a shot of some of the kids on the magic carpets, those are always so cute. Let’s head that way first.”
That’s Tyler Wilkinson-Ray, one of the co-directors of Brotherhood of Skiing. We are at Mt. Sunapee Ski Resort in New Hampshire filming a short documentary about The National Brotherhood of Skiers.
In this moment, we are at a local ski hill where it was tough to find parking at 8am on a Friday; folks out here love their skiing. It’s a different world from the one I grew up in, never clipping into a pair of skis until age 28. I grew up on the East Coast and skiing had been one degree away my entire life, yet there were barriers to my participation. My own experience is similar to the experience of so many. Snowsports and outdoor activities that are a core part of the childhood experiences for some communities seem completely out of reach for others.
When we decided to make this film, we wanted to share an incredible story. We also wanted to explore the reasons why skiing and snow sports can be so inaccessible, especially for historically marginalized communities. We wanted to create a bridge that contributed to real change by highlighting the people who have made skiing more welcoming, more inclusive, and more representative.
One year after premiering Brotherhood of Skiing at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in November 2018, Clay and Finley were nominated and inducted into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. They are the first African American inductees.
Schone Malliet, the Olympic Scholarship Fund Administrator of the NBS, has the best answer I’ve heard to the most asked question I receive about diversity and inclusion in the outdoors: What are the barriers? Schone outlined the multiple barriers to entry to winter activities as financial, geographic, social, cultural and historic.
While we hear a lot about finances being a problem, what we don’t hear about and certainly don’t hear solutions to, are the other contributing factors. In making the film, we realized that the NBS was overcoming each barrier in communities across the country.
Financial limitations are the most tangible and thus the most acknowledged answer when it comes to why participation in some outdoor activities is inaccessible. Paying for skis, lift tickets, gas, and transportation can make skiing inaccessible. It’s not just the money itself. As an outsider looking in, skiing looks expensive with its special gear and far off locations. Even if you could scheme ways to do it on the cheap, how would you even know where to begin?
The NBS tackles the financial limitations by making it affordable. They tackle the geographic limitations by bringing people to the mountain. They tackle the social limitations by doing it in big groups and focusing on a community approach to skiing.
If you don’t know anyone that skis, what are the chances that you’ll want to try it or even think it’s for you? Growing up I had no idea that mountains had names and that people went up them. I didn’t grow up hearing about people skiing. I didn’t know anyone that skied. Now, in Portland, Oregon, I look up at the sky and hear people say, “Mt. Hood is out today,” meaning the mountain is visible. I’m surrounded by skiers and people headed “to the mountain” on the weekends. Now, I’m surrounded by a culture of skiing. Now, I’ve started skiing myself. By having annual gatherings and functioning as an umbrella organization, the NBS creates a social scene. When Clay and Finley first started the organization, people had to form clubs to become members. The club model still exists. It forms community and builds in opportunities for mentorship, sharing resources and sharing the fun.
During production, co-director, Colin Arisman, and I attended the annual NBS summit at Squaw Valley. We experienced pure joy. When most people describe the summit they simply say, “It’s a party!” And it is. It’s the best party. Everyone wears bright colors and has major ski style. They’ve worked over the years to remove the cultural barriers and the stigma that says “Black people don’t ski.” They’ve created their own ski culture. From the electric slide in the middle of a Squaw Valley plaza to nightly themed happy hours and early morning first tracks, they are there to ski and have a good time. It isn’t about what lines to ski, it’s not about pursuit, no one looks down on “groomers,” no one is forcing newbies onto blues and blacks (harder graded slopes). We met mogul skiers, hung out with Errol Kerr (former Olympian representing Jamaica), and, regardless of skill level, everyone was just stoked about skiing.
One of the things I’m most proud of about Brotherhood of Skiing is that the film is fun and representative. That’s why it sticks out at film festivals that often celebrate a “sufferfest” mentality on the mountain.
I think the film says what I want to say about being outside: Do it your way. Wear what you want, speak how you speak, go with whom you please, bring your full self. The mountain is ready for you. The ski industry and those in power influencing mainstream ski culture are the ones playing catch up.
And while they do, Ben and Art are going to be out there skiing.
[Photo Credit: Colin Arisman, Wild Confluence Media]