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The Real Cost of Affinity Spaces For BIPOC and Underrepresented Climbers

Affinity groups provide community for BIPOC climbers. But are they sustainable?

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The climbing world is in the midst of a cultural reckoning. Affinity groups, groups for people who share a common identity, have been quietly popping up in climbing spaces over the last five years. In the last year, they haven’t been so quiet. 

“Magic,” says Anna Castro, a participant of a Denver-based affinity group Cruxing in Color. “It brings magic and community for BIPOC climbers that other climbing spaces don’t provide.” 

That is the general consensus from affinity group participants I interviewed. They describe letting their guard down, being heard, and the feeling of being home. It is clear that the BIPOC climbing community needs affinity spaces in order to thrive. Community leaders on both a local and national level understand this, and they provide. 

Shara Zaia at the 2021 Outdoor Retailer Show, in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Holly Chen

When Shara Zaia took over the management of Cruxing in Color, the group had a meager following. Their first meet-up post-lockdown consisted of six people in masks at a local park. Today, Cruxing in Color has accumulated a following of over 2,000 people, funded 12 gym scholarships, and hosted 17 meet-ups at eight different gyms. The meet-ups have become so popular that they’re often fully booked with long waitlists. 

Zaia said this with the air of a proud parent sending her kid off on their first day of school. It was a brief moment of levity before the topic changed. On the surface, it’s all about building community, mentorship and providing better access, but underneath it all lies a hidden cost.

It wasn’t sustainable. Committing to organizing an affinity group is committing to a part-time job that doesn’t pay. Zaia said she was easily putting in 15 or more hours per week. Cruxing in Color is 100% volunteer-based. “Every organizer steps in and out of all these roles; communication, fundraising, volunteer coordinating,” Zaia said. “I recognize that all these roles are full-time jobs somewhere.” 

Other Cruxing in Color organizers cited the same issue when they thought about the future of the group. Enrique Tovar and Menesha Mannapperuma described the battle of balancing their full-time jobs, their own climbing training, and the demands of running Cruxing in Color. But Tovar added: “It’s so rewarding to see new friendships form at the meet-ups. I can’t refuse that.” 

This trend is becoming more and more prevalent in the BIPOC climbing community. Community leaders like Zaia, Tovar, and Mannapperuma set aside their cognitive reserve, energy, and time. This is energy that most people are investing back into themselves. Another Cruxing in Color climber who asked not to be named wondered aloud, “When I see my own performance plummet because I spent more time investing in community building efforts than I do myself. I need to ask—how long can I do this for?” 

Azissa Singh instructing. Photo Emma Longcope

When an affinity group like Cruxing in Color finds success in building a community, people are bound to notice. Suddenly the spotlight is on you, the organizers, people who did not get into this work for attention. The spotlight brings opportunities, which Zaia is grateful for. Brands like Arc’teryx provided access to gear discounts and donated to gear caches; local guiding services offered clinics for those who wished to transition from gym to crag. Partnerships must be maintained. Gear caches and gear requests must have an inventory. All this work takes time and energy, often at the personal expense of the organizers. 

While gear donations are great, little monetary funding reaches affinity groups organizers. These groups turn to fundraisers to sustain the community. Despite this, it doesn’t seem to stop brands and organizations from asking for more unpaid work from community leaders. A community leader who was asked to host a talk at a climber’s festival was told, “everyone else is doing it for free,” when they asked for compensation. They asked not to be named, for fear of throwing the organization under the bus.  

It seems every brand and organization is looking for a spokesperson, paid or not, to represent them on sensitive issues like equity. Latino Outdoors Programs Manager Christian La Mont describes their organization as “the larger of the small guys,” and cited it as the primary reason they face authenticity issues when they look for partnerships. Latino Outdoors is often approached by agencies, brands, and individuals who have fantastic ideas. “But are people being intentional?” La Mont asked. “Is this worth our emotional effort?” The fear of others’ performative allyship is a constant worry, and social media is littered with virtue signaling and words without action. “This weighs heavily,” said La Mont. 

Performative or not, cultural backlash is usually not far behind initiatives designed with the intention to aid in diversifying the climbing space. The American Alpine Club’s social media moderators describe a stressful and emotionally taxing day when Climb United was announced, deleting racist and harmful comments as they appeared.

Azissa Singh, the Education Manager at Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival said, “I don’t think that’s going away. I’ve had hard conversations, sometimes with friends. The classic, ‘this is reverse racism’ line gets brought up often. The root of that is feeling excluded, especially if historically, you’ve always been included. Suddenly they’re faced with the fact that there is an affinity group, and it’s not for them.” 

“Do you think affinity groups will still be relevant in five years? Ten?” I asked Singh.

“I’d like to hope that in five to ten years we’ve made some progress towards building a community where we feel comfortable being ourselves” Singh responded. “However, this problem has existed forever. I don’t think the problem is going to go away in less time than it took to create.”

The legal barriers that prevented BIPOC climbers from accessing climbing and the outdoors no longer exist. But it is undeniable that the climbing community remains white and male-dominated, especially in positions of authority. “I do have hope,” La Mont said towards the end of our interview. “I see a shift. I hope it continues.” 

Community leaders are refusing to let this moment pass without making a lasting change, even if it comes at the expense of themselves. The moment asks so much of them, and they are giving it their all.

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