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“Black People Don’t Rock Climb” – Breaking Boulder Barriers

How does one imagine the image of a stereotypical rock climber? Is he a he- and is he white and burly? Does the climbing world need more diversity in it’s media? We sit down with Brothers of Climbing co-founder Mikhail Martin and BKB Team Members Ashton Horton & Pieter Cooper to discuss.

boc Mikhail Martin Climbing Beast

Tell someone to draw you a rock climber and you’ll probably end up with a white, burly man. For now, the belief is that white Americans hold the majority stake in outside adventuring – including climbing.

 

Drew Bellety & Mikhail Martin
Drew Bellety & Mikhail Martin

Anyone who walks into Brooklyn Boulders on a Friday night would see that this is certainly not the case – being located in the heart of Brooklyn allows easy access for people from all walks of life. We’re the exception rather than the rule, and we take immense pride in our diversity.

And yet, indoor and outdoor climbing spots are still generally viewed as a space reserved for people of a certain background and socio-economic status. Like the sentiment expressed in the statement “Black people don’t go to galleries,” is there a subconscious belief that climbing is a sport solely for those that are white and male? More bluntly: is climbing a sport that is less inclusive towards black people?

boc Ashton BOC Goofing
Mikhail Martin, Ashton Horton & Drew Bellety.

We sit down and talk with Mikhail Martin, co-founder of Brothers of Climbing, Pieter Cooper, longtime BKB Manager, and Ashton Horton (Our Youth Programs Manager) about climbing and diversity.

 

boc pieter arm train

So what is BOC’s mission, and how did the group start?

Pieter: Well, we used to just say it, yelling “BOC” while we climbed, and then it sort of just caught on. Between me, David Glace, Drew Bellety and Mikhail, it just sort of naturally happened.

Mikhail: At first we called ourselves the “Blacks of Climbing” because we felt like we stood out. We also had “AOC” for our many Asian friends. It was a joke and then we made shirts to bring everyone together. Being that the sport could be considered as a “white sport” – we wanted to show that anyone can do it, male, female, black, white, Latino, Asian, whatever.

Pieter: Once, a school group came in, consisting mainly of black kids. It was probably their first time climbing, and I saw that one of the kids wasn’t participating. I asked him why he wasn’t climbing and he just said to me “black people don’t climb”. So I asked him what he did and he responded “get money f*ck bitches”. That was the moment when I felt like we needed to be there, to do demonstrations, and to make kids feel more comfortable.

Mikhail: We are determined to turn BOC into something more meaningful. Our first goal is to increase minority participation in rock climbing, particularly blacks. We want to break that barrier of people saying “ I don’t do that” because it’s a racial thing. We want to be role models and ambassadors to the sport. Sometimes, it is easier to relate or connect to something when you see someone like yourself doing it.

 

Mikhail, climbing in the Beast.
Mikhail, climbing in the Beast.

Yeah, it’s important to have a diverse spread of role models. Have you ever had an experience while climbing where you felt unwelcome, or as if you were “othered”?

Pieter: I went up to The Gunks with some friends once, and we went to buy chalk at the store nearby. The guy was really skeptical and asked us what we needed it for – which I thought would be obvious: we were going climbing. Also, when we went on our first BOC trip down south to Tennessee, we encountered a similar situation. We bought a guide book to climbing, and she asked us “what we needed it for” – we’re going rock climbing, duh.

Mikhail: Personally, no – but I do feel really underrepresented in the climbing world. Seeing Kai Lightner and his mother Connie Lightner featured in DPM was a breakthrough, but other than that, there isn’t much out there. Yet, there are so many great climbers out there – Ayo Sopeju up in Canada and Tonde Katiyo, who recently held a route-setting clinic at BKBSomerville, in my opinion deserve more press.

 

Pieter climbing in Hueco Tanks.
Pieter climbing outside.

 

More diverse exposure is definitely needed in the climbing world. Where does gender play into this?

Pieter: People ask – where is Sisters of Climbing? But we never really knew any black females in our circle that climbed. We met Ashton and she was the only one at the time. There are a few that I see around BKB, but we haven’t met them. I’d love to have more females join BOC. We need more women of color to come and try it out. I think a lot of girls could get into the sport.

boc Drew Bellety Climbing

Definitely. That’s why we have our Ladies Night + Women Only Climbing classes here. So do you think there should be a separate Sisters of Climbing? 

Ashton: Do I think there should be a SOC? Sure. In an ideal world, it’d be great. But I think dividing it into genders may weaken the movement; it’s more general. That “Black People Don’t Climb” quote should really just be “Not Enough Black People Climb”.

How do you guys see the future of climbing in terms of diversity?

Pieter: What’s most important is to start promoting a greater understanding or awareness of climbing. Most people think of “black sports” as track & field or basketball – they have their poster role models like Usain Bolt and Lebron James. But they don’t automatically think of climbing, and we just need more coverage of great climbers who happen to be black. I think more people would try it these days – especially if it’s in Brooklyn Boulders. We hit everyone where we are, especially in this part of Brooklyn. I see it everyday, the different types of people who walk through here.

Mikhail: I anticipate a crazy growth of minority participation in rock climbing. Eventually, nations in Africa and South America will create climbing organizations and join the IFSC. They will bring a new style for the sport and I think that is when we will see the level of hard sends. If you want to see the future of climbing, just look at strongest youth climbers today.

Ashton: We need to introduce climbing to the black youth community. It’d be a great start and good way to get kids off the streets and onto walls.

Agreed. So what’s next for Brothers of Climbing?

Mikhail: For the upcoming year we want to revamp the organization, create more events, meet-ups, and bring BOC to other climbing facilities, starting with BKBSomerville & BKBChicago.

Pieter: We want to grow the organization, and bring it to an international level. Last May, I went to Korea and met some climbers on Instagram that I just messaged – they didn’t even speak English. The day after I landed, they picked me up and took me climbing the next day. Until I brought it up, they weren’t even thinking about my race. It wasn’t even a thought in their head. They treated me like family.

Heki from Seoul

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The community that grows out of a mutual love of climbing is powerful, and only needs to grow. Part of our mission at Brooklyn Boulders is to make climbing more inclusive, and to make every person feel welcome, regardless of their background. We host Adaptive Climbing groups, Crux Newbie Night meet ups, and invite local schools to our Open House events. As rock climbing becomes more and more popular, especially in urban cities, we strive to make climbing an accessible sport.

Want to get involved with BOC? Email ’em at info@boccrew.com