Bouldering in the Big Easy: New Orleans Boulder Lounge’s Inclusivity and Diversity Efforts
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It’s not hard to find the New Orleans climbing community. With only one climbing gym in the city and no outdoor crags in the state, your search will lead you right to New Orleans Boulder Lounge (NOBL).
NOBL is tucked into the Marigny neighborhood of the Louisiana city and members travel from all over the city to climb there. Costumes are a frequent sight at NOBL and when you finish a climb you’ve been working on, the entire gym will congratulate you with the same raucous intensity, no matter the grade. While the gym’s size doesn’t stand up against the giants of the climbing gym industry, NOBL’s thriving culture and community sets it apart.
NOBL’s vibrant culture is not just chance, it is the result of deliberate choices, visions, and actions that the gym’s leadership has implemented since opening in 2015. NOBL’s purpose, displayed prominently on their website, is “to build a welcoming, empowering, and equitable home for the New Orleans climbing community.”
Their commitment to this purpose can be seen in their hiring. Every community member I spoke to mentioned the gym’s diverse staff. Maya Mahendren, a med student at Tulane University, says the diverse staff helps make people feel like they belong at the climbing gym. “NOBL’s cool because they put their money where their mouth is; they are advocating for queer people and people of color to be climbing, and you see it in their leadership, too.”
In September 2020, Cia Blackstock became the CEO of NOBL. Before becoming CEO, they worked at the gym and founded Collective Liberation Climbing, a climbing group for people of color in New Orleans. Since stepping into the role of CEO, they’ve already introduced new priorities that build on the gym’s culture of inclusivity and diversity. The first is a three-tiered pricing system: standard, access & equity, and sustainer. As explained on their website, the standard reflects the base cost, or “the true cost of operating the gym in a good way.” The access & equity level allows people to pay less than the standard price to “mitigate economic barriers caused by social injustice.” The sustainer level gives people the chance to pay more than the standard price if they feel they have the ability to do so. People are able to choose freely which tier they fall under.
It had been five years since NOBL’s leadership team raised their standard price and they realized this was a necessary next step to keep running their small business. “But we didn’t want that to fall on to the folks that don’t have a lot of economic stability,” Blackstock explained. Influenced by other people focusing on economic justice in their small businesses, they decided to implement the tiered pricing structure.
Implementing this system requires trust in your community. One staff member, Ari Kirkman, is excited that this system has been implemented and has already seen it working. “I think it’s interesting and inspiring to see a small business doing this … I think the commitment to equity and access is definitely creating a culture around the gym and the members who want to support it and will continue to support it.”
Another new priority that Blackstock has set into motion is NOBL’s Community Representative Advisory Group (CRAG). NOBL’s website describes this as a “group of climbing gym stakeholders who will work to ensure that NOBL is rooted in its purpose and values while bringing voice to the larger community.” The inaugural term of this group starts April 1st. The CRAG shows NOBL leadership’s commitment to staying accountable to their community members.
Many people in the NOBL community look forward to each month’s community night. These events are held in the gym by various groups: OUTclimb for LGBTQ climbers, Collective Liberation Climbing for climbers of color, and Ladies Climbing Coalition for women and non-binary folks. These meet-ups provide a safe, private, free, and accessible space for groups with less representation and visibility in the climbing community. NOBL provides two staff members for each of these after-hours events and provides a month membership to raffle off to a participant at each event.
Mahendren frequently attends their community nights. She is always drawn back by the amount of support she feels at these events, “regardless of the level of the project that you’re working on there, people are cheering you on like you’re literally climbing El Cap, and it’s amazing.”
Many climbers find it easier to push themselves in this supportive environment. Helen Weierbach always feels like she climbs harder when she’s attending OUTclimb nights, “I think it’s almost easier to work on your projects and get your projects in that space where you feel very uplifted and supported, even more so than you do normally at the gym.”
While one goal of these nights is to get people interested in climbing and hopefully come back for a membership, that’s not their only goal. ”… Ultimately we want to make sure that if we’re going to be doing climbing in New Orleans, anyone can come,” says Blackstock. “If that’s only one night every month, that’s totally fine to us. We just don’t want to be doing climbing if not everybody can be a part of it.”
There is still lots of work to be done at NOBL and throughout the climbing community at large. Naomi Winston, a community member and senior at Xavier University of Louisiana, says she’s often the only Black person in the gym. “If I don’t drive my friends from college to come with me, I’m probably going to be the only Black woman there, and it’s not because they [NOBL] don’t work very hard for inclusivity.” Winston wishes that more people of color had access to the sport. She’s working with staff at NOBL to try and get another community night developed for students at the three Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the city. “It’s an amazing sport, I just want more people of color to be able to access it. Especially my HBCU peers.”
Chelle Kim, a staff member at NOBL, says that the first thing other climbing gyms should do before implementing similar diversity and inclusivity strategies is become aware of the inaccessibility and imbalances that exist in their space. “Awareness first of all, and then you can work out, okay how do I make this accessible for everyone, why would someone not feel safe as opposed to another person feeling entitled in this space, and what can we do to change that. It starts out with being aware and putting your energy and resources into fixing that.”
NOBL is aware of these imbalances and working continuously to create a more equitable and inclusive space. “There’s ups and there’s downs and there’s always things to grow in,” added Blackstock. “But just like with your climbing progress, sometimes you’re in a season of growth, sometimes you’re in a season of performance and if you are focused on the relationships, if you’re focused on the positive vibes that you can get from building a really positive environment, then you can grow as a human being as well as a business.”
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Madeline Taub is a freelance writer and climber based in Washington, DC. You can find her at madelinetaub.com and on Twitter @Madrtz.