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Diversifying the Outdoors, One Climb at a Time

“You know … black people don’t climb.” It rang in my ears. The comment. The voice. All day. All night. 24/7.

The Start of a Mission

Around this time last summer, I began a new hobby: indoor rock climbing. Every Friday evening, my friends and I gathered for Ladies Night at our local rock climbing gym in northern New Jersey. I rented gear but soon felt like this hobby was going to stick; I wanted my own. So before I knew about Backcountry, I went to a local outdoor retailer to buy my very first pair of climbing shoes … a harness, some chalk … the works. It wasn’t long, though, before a non-person of color began lurking around my area. I made eye contact after a minute and he smiled, thinking he just wanted to see if I liked the harness or climbing shoes I picked out. We began chatting about climbing and little did I know it was going to take an odd turn. Before he walked away he said, “You know, it’s weird seeing you in here … black people don’t climb or hike.”

He chuckled and walked away. At first I felt confusion, then anger started to trickle in.

I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, I am biracial, and I have never been subjected like that before. I started to think: it  was bound to happen in the outdoor space eventually, right? There are times when I feel a little discomfort in public due to my skin color. It’s just part of our world’s reality lately. I think: what do people think of me? Am I welcomed? But, if the outdoors is free for all, why not for me?

Later that week, I reached out to this national outdoor retailer about my incident and received a painfully generic, “We’re busy and will get back to you soon” type email. I reached out again weeks later and finally got ahold of a human being. This individual apologized, but was wondering why I didn’t go to management in the store … a weird, side-swipe at blaming me for not doing anything. Um, maybe because I was verbally subjected and didn’t know what to do? I was incredibly embarrassed? Am I not allowed to reach out when I feel like the time is right for me to do so? I wanted to think and be able to process what happened. This person proceeded to address the company’s core values, which I have seen to be true: they have hired a more diverse group over the past few years, sure, but what about their customer-base? What about their campaigns? What about me? The email did mention that the company does not condone this type of behavior, but it didn’t really give me any hope beyond that sentiment.  I felt like it was a dead end.

Marketing Matters

Later that summer, I began to recognize that a lot of outdoor brands have been using white, skinny, fit, young folks in their outdoor marketing campaigns. And, no, I am not against seeing white, fit, skinny young folks on advertisements. That sells and I get it.  But I do want balance. Of white, black, and all nationalities. People of all shapes, sizes, ages, genders, and sexual orientation. If I was a little black girl interested in any outdoor sport, I might think I couldn’t do it because I didn’t see anyone that looked like me doing it on the national stage. I wanted to be someone that is refreshingly real about the outdoors. My first hiking and camping experience was as a child. My mom and I went summer camping. Seeing the morning light dance along the insides of our tent made me smile. I can remember that day like it was an hour ago: the smells, the sights, the sounds. It’s mesmerizing, addicting, a raw natural experience..

I kept thinking of all of the things people of color may be indecisive or fear if they explored the outdoors. This was the moment when I knew it was up to me and all of the other “unlikely hikers” to take a sledge hammer to these stereotypes in the outdoor space. We do hike. We do climb. We do the outdoors darn well. We just have to be seen.

I began working with outdoor brands that I believed in, getting my melanin face onto their social media pages. I was noticed by SELF Magazine and later featured on their channels … they were the first to publish my story to the world. The feedback was remarkable. The comments and messages were filled with people of color complaining about the lack of diversity, age variation … LBGTQA discrimination, body shaming, and so much more. I reached out to other outdoor groups and individuals on social media who were fighting to make the outdoors more diverse and asked them to start a conversation. I encouraged friends, family, and everyone I could to get outside and share their adventures. Show others that nature is breathing every second of everyday and waiting to be discovered. And then, Backcountry entered the scene …

Talk It Out

I became a Backcountry Ambassador in late 2017. The teams with which I’ve worked have been the most supportive in this endeavor, and my trust in them to help hold up my mission of diversifying the outdoors has grown every day. I feel at home within this brand, as though it has helped create and shape my formerly absent community. In July 2018, Backcountry partnered with Arc’teryx SoHo to run an event around my story and mission. I shared my favorite hikes in New York (Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Valley! What are you waiting for!), tips on outdoor photography (use natural light, it’s seriously your very best friend), and much more. After the event, I met so many amazing outdoor enthusiasts. The stories they shared touched my soul and I can’t wait to cross paths with them on the trails.

Getting into the Gunks

On Saturday, Discover Outdoors, an outdoor group looking to connect people to the outdoors, along with some of their following, joined Arc’teryx and Backcountry for a day of climbing at The Gunks with EMS Climbing School. Backcountry team members flew in from Park City, Utah (and invited a few friends) to join myself and Backcountry Ambassador CJ Goulding for a fun filled day. As we began our short but steep hike up to the climbing area, we introduced ourselves along the way. I met CJ the night before at my event and was so excited to get to climb and become more acquainted with a fellow ambassador (who, I might add, is also pushing hard for the diversification of the outdoor space). And he’s a photographer, too! Since I was documenting the day, I wanted to learn as much as possible on how to balance climbing whilst taking my best shots on the wall. This was also my first time outdoor rock climbing. In the gym, I boulder more than I top rope (fear of heights! Can’t win ‘em all)… Eric from EMS Climbing School was probably the best person I could have had to help me conquer my fears that day. I am so proud of myself for being able to shoot, climb, and encourage my new climbing friends while on the wall. I learned a lot about outdoor rock climbing that day. Eric told me, “Be careful, you’ll get addicted!” … he was right.

From my event in SoHo to climbing with new friends in The Gunks, I’ve come to find more diversity in the outdoors. I’m being outside in my own dark skin. There are so many wonderful souls out there, from the trails of your National Parks to the hills outside your home, there’s so much to see, and there are people who want to do just that with you.

No matter what you look like or who you are, the great outdoors is waiting for you. Awaken your passions, surprise yourself, and educate others. As for me: this is only the beginning. Let’s work together to create something great … to prove that we are all created equal in a space that was made for each and every one of us.

Backcountry Ambassador, Gina Danza, is a TV producer, outdoor enthusiast, and photographer in New York City. She is using her passion of photography and storytelling to promote that the outdoors is for everyone. She is looking forward to keeping her mission alive on the trails for many years to come. You can follow her on Instagram @wildginaa.