Diversity within the National Ski Patrol and Solutions for Improvement
By Eryka Thorley
(Originally published in Ski Patrol Magazine)
When is the last time that you walked into a room and you were the only person that looked like you, the only person in the room that spoke your native language? Or the only person that shared your religious or political views? Whatever the determining factor, when is the last time that you stood out in a group based on some characteristic that you have in contrast to the other people around you?
For many people reading this article, it has likely been a while. Perhaps you identify as a female ski patroller and you are the only one working as a patroller on your mountain for the day. Perhaps you are on exchange in the Southern Hemisphere and cannot keep up with the Spanish discourse in the room. Maybe you are injured, and it is the first time you have had to navigate your resort with crutches or even a wheelchair. Whatever the catalyst, this feeling of “other” is real, and it can be extremely uncomfortable, sometimes even dangerous and part of what so many people around the globe are working to change under the campaign of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Diversity has been a buzzword for at least the past decade. Yet, with increasing events around the country and globe, its popularity and recognized importance has grown significantly over the past year. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were recent victims of structural violence against Black persons in America and perhaps unconscious bias. With the tragedy of their deaths, segments of our country have opened their eyes to the perpetuation of structural violence that has long existed and continues to permeate the United States and many other parts of the globe.
Diversity and the Ski Industry as a Whole
The numbers that we do have on skiing participation for persons of color is illuminating. According to the National Ski Areas Association, “preliminary data from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), 88.2% of visitors to U.S. ski areas during the 2019-2020 season were white. Just 1.8% were Black.” Perhaps more important, despite increased racial awareness with movements such as the #BlackLivesMatter, there has been little change in the social and racial demographics in the data over the past decade, which is also not representative of the U.S. population as a whole.
With the increasing focus on diversity the past few months, the number of snow sports organizations sharing statements of support is vast and includes the Outdoor Industry Association, U.S. Ski & Snowboard, Snowsports Industries America (SIA), Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI), the National Ski Areas Association, and Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico (Ski Area Management, 2020). In addition to this list, in June Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz shared a letter with all employees boldly titled “We are part of the problem.” In this letter, he explains, “While I’m sure most everyone in our industry believes they are tolerant and welcoming, we need to acknowledge that there are parts of the culture of our sport that are clearly not inviting. Maybe the image we have created of the mountain lifestyle needs to be more varied. Maybe, as a fairly close-knit and passionate group of skiers and riders, our community carries a deep implicit bias. It would not be a stretch to call us a clique. Maybe it’s our fear of change. While I would like to think that I have been an agent of change in this industry, a decade later I am still running a company that has very limited racial diversity.”
Katz continues with an impressive directness, “Explicit and implicit racism, sexism or any kind of discrimination has absolutely no place at Vail Resorts. Personally and professionally, we need to continue to be vigilant in creating a culture of acceptance and inclusion, expand access for communities that face barriers to enjoying the mountains, and contribute to groups that are on the front lines of standing up for basic human rights, especially for those who have historically been marginalized. But we also need to realize this is not enough.”
The June statement by Katz, who is the head of a large corporation and directs 37 ski resorts around the globe, is significant and shifts the conversation for much of the industry. As an example of this shift, just a few days after Katz statement Alterra Mountain Company CEO Rusty Gregory wrote a similar letter committing to improve diversity within its resorts and promising action, saying, “Merely standing against racism and discrimination does little to create change. Talk and intentions are cheap. So, I choose to act, as an individual and as your CEO.” As NSAA Director of Marketing and Communications Adrienne Isaac confirms this shift, saying, “With the greater attention to non-white voices, there is a greater self-reflection in skiing than I’ve seen before.”
With the biggest influencers in the ski industry now outwardly committed to improving diversity within their operations and clientele, what next? How does the snow sports world actually increase the numbers of skiers, employees, and industry-related personnel to include a more diverse representation?
If you want to see more black people on your slopes, advertise to them
According to David Perry, the vice president of Alterra Mountain Company, strategic outreach works. He offered the example that after a targeted marketing campaign at Big Bear Mountain Resort to engage the nearby Korean-American community in Los Angeles, the resort saw a 17% uptick in Asian guests in 2019 (Travel Weekly, 2020). If you want to increase a specific demographic within your clientele and employees, you need to seek out these groups and work to inspire their participation, as exemplified by Big Bear’s marketing efforts.
Isaac suggests that the snow play program outreach for some of the Californian ski resorts could be responsible for a slight uptick in Asian and Pacific Islander visit increases recently. For example, Mountain High Resort offers a number of entry-level programs, including multiple “first-timers” packages, as well as many non-skiing activities like tubing, sledding, snowshoeing, snow play, and scenic sky chair rides. Mountain High is advertising “snow play” to those that may not already be familiar with skiers, and this, along with other California ski resorts offering similar programs, may be responsible for the bump in Asian skiers last season.
It is important that people can identify with those around them, including the people they see in advertising and marketing campaigns. Right now, many ski resorts are still marketing to an all-white club, with websites and outreach materials often illustrating homogenous groups of white people skiing. In an interview with KPCW, a National Public Radio station out of Salt Lake City, Kelly Pawlak, the president and CEO of NSAA, talks about the barriers to entry into the snow sports world, including the lack of representation within the already established skiing community. Pawlak explains, “If you do some research and nobody looks like you that’s doing it in the photos, in the YouTube videos, or on social media, you’re going to say, ‘Ummm, I don’t know.’ That’s what we know is happening in terms of, let’s say you’re a young Black girl and you’d like to go skiing. If you’re looking at the photos, if you’re looking at the videos, if you’re looking at the ski area’s social media feeds, if you don’t see anybody like yourself, you may not think that you belong there.”
Isaac echoes this, stating, “It’s true, there is a representation problem in skiing. If you do not see people that look like you in the videos, marketing materials, or staff, then you might not think you belong there.”
Mandela Echefu, a patroller at Wisp Resort in Maryland, is the only Black member on his patrol. When asked about people of color skiing at his resort, he talks about an uptick in minority groups at his resort and also the great pride that he feels when he sees other beautiful skiers on the slopes that are also people of color.
Echefu says, “In the past few years I have seen great skiers that are making beautiful turns and are typically difficult to recognize from the lift. When they ski closer, sometimes you can see that they are clearly a Black girl or guy, and I have this overwhelming sense of pride. I’ve seen younger Black kids do a double take when they see a Black guy wearing a cross, and I have a lot of respect for that. My patrol is proud to have me as a Black guy as a patroller, and I get a lot of support and recognition. It’s a point of pride on my mountain.”
Significant work is still needed as far as marketing to people of color in the snow sports world, but it is slowly changing for the better. For example, as part of its commitment to improved diversity, Vail Resorts is planning to increase outreach to minority communities and groups around the globe through expanding its already established program that hosts almost 4,500 underserved children each year at their resorts. Moving forward, Vail’s goal is to bring a program like this to each of its 34 North American resorts (Travel Weekly).
Share Winter is a nonprofit “grantmaking organization that works to improve the lives, health and fitness of youth through winter sports.” This organization was started in 2016 and aims to have over 100,000 diverse kids on the slopes every year by 2028. They are not far off, with over 45,000 youth on the slopes during the 2019-20 season. Kids participating in the program are 5-18 years old and are required to have at least four days on the slopes for a program to receive funding through their competitive grant application process.
In 2019, the National Ski Patrol, SIA, NSAA, and PSIA-AASI joined forces to support Share Winter through its winter coalition. Specifically, NSP utilized funds to support a young adult patroller program with funding focused on internships, gear, training, and access to participation (Share Winter, 2019).
Constance Beverly, the CEO of Share Winter, spoke very highly of the support from these large ski industry partners, saying, “As we work to grow a more diverse and inclusive snow sports community, we’re honored to add these outstanding partners to our efforts.” Learn more about their organization at www.ShareWinterFondation.org.
Numerous other organizations are focused on specific outreach to increase participation for people of color. The National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS) is one such organization. NBS works to improve participation from urban residents while also supporting budding Olympians. When asked why it is important for all kids and people in general to be involved in snow sports, Isaacs responds, “It is the mental and physical health benefit of being out in nature. I can’t over-emphasize enough how important those benefits are, especially after we’ve had the recent pandemic and so much screen time. The benefits of being outside are immeasurable. Additionally, it’s so important to get kids involved because the data shows that the earlier you get on snow, the more likely you are to make winter sports a lifelong activity.”
Getting kids involved with skiing early not only provides people with the health benefits of the sport, it also draws more enthusiasts to the sport and will eventually sustain the industry as baby boomers continue to fade from the slopes.
How does race affect the NSP?
The National Ski Patrol primarily consists of white men. According to available data, there are roughly 80% men to women within the NSP, and the organization currently does not track race or ethnicity. The lack of data that confirms NSP’s self-identifying members of color, which presents challenges in assessing the current status of diversity and planning for strategies and initiatives to effectively increase that diversity. It is important to share this information through the lens of change and improvement versus solely criticism. In the current social climate, it is crucial to talk about the elephant in the room while simultaneously working on innovative new ideas, brainstorming and supporting one another to create a more equitable and ultimately sustainable longer-lasting skiing future, one that consciously provides accessibility and welcome to all skiers exclusive of race, socioeconomic background, and ability.
To gain more perspective, we spoke with Echefu about his experience as a ski patroller in Maryland, where he is the only Black person on his patrol and sometimes on the slopes at his ski resort. He offers an interesting perspective, as he is originally from Nigeria and moved to the U.S. for college when he was 18. His now-wife taught him to ski only eight years ago!
When asked about the low participation of persons of color within ski patrols, Echefu offers an analogy, saying, “It’s one thing to say that we need diversity, but the bigger question is how important is it to us? An example could be the coronavirus and the race for a vaccine. The vaccine is really important. Are we looking for a vaccine for the NSP and other organizations to dramatically improve their diversity?”
How to Attract More Diverse Skiers
Speaking with Larry Douglas, an African-American and a 25-year veteran on the Winter Park Ski Patrol, he believes that the lack of people of color on the slopes is primarily a matter of finances. Douglas explains, “You don’t see many Black kids playing hockey, it’s a lot of equipment. Instead, they play basketball. With basketball, all you need is a ball.”
He continues by explaining that skiing is similar to hockey and that the industry as a whole needs to better support people with the high entry costs as they begin the sport, saying, “I suggested to Winter Park that ski school teach people how to ski for free up until the intermediate level. The better you get at skiing, the more you enjoy it.”
Douglas connects free skiing lessons to an overall economic sustainability for the sport. The more people that are introduced to the sport of skiing, the more economically stable the industry will be, as it has more patrons willing to buy a lift ticket, ski gear, or even lodging.
Echefu agrees about the financial hurdles into skiing, and to combat this he is launching a nonprofit in his community, Appalachian Outdoor Academy, whose mission is to introduce lower-income kids and families to various types of sports, including skiing. Echefu explains, “This is an opportunity to get the socioeconomically challenged people in my community into the outdoors, to get them to fall in love with the outdoors and expose them to outdoor careers like guiding, being a National Park Ranger, or even being a professional ski patroller. I want to show these kids that there is so much outdoors and that it can lead to a career.”
Another huge hurdle to accessing the snow sports world is exposure. If you are not introduced to the sport through a school-sponsored program, your family, or even friend’s family, how do you know that skiing is available to you? Douglas does a great job of connecting people with mentors in the industry and has mentored others throughout his tenure on the slopes. In his early days of teaching ski school, he once worked with a young Black kid who was missing a leg. Douglas shared with his student the story of Ralph Green, who was shot in the back as a teenager walking down a street in New York City. After losing his leg, Green started skiing the next year and quickly adopted the sport. Now, he is a 10-time U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team member and four-time national champion.
Two to three weeks later, after recommending that this student and his parents research Ralph Green, the parents returned to Winter Park and sought out Douglas to tell him how inspired they were by Green’s story and how impactful it had been for their son. Again, it is important to identify yourself and see others like you if you are going to embark into new terrain like skiing. Not only did this youngster have a person of color teaching him ski lessons, he also was given a role model that took his skiing ability to the highest achievement our country has to offer, Olympic status.
Improving National Ski Patrol’s Diversity
It is important to identify the challenges and what limits diversity in the snow sports realm, but it is equally important to identify solutions. When asked about potential solutions, Echefu outlined several excelllent suggestions for improving diversity within the NSP.
- Conduct a poll. How many self-identified minority members does the organization have? We need to know where we are now in order to track any changes, plus minorities within the organization are a wealth of knowledge and a vital resource.
- Plan. Everything starts with planning. Although diversity is mentioned in NSP’s strategic plan, there need to be measurable metrics. Bringing experts into the planning conversation, including a diversity and inclusion professional, will help the organization improve its diversity.
- Open form conversations. He says, “We need to really start talking about this stuff as an organization, and it needs to be a two-way conversation where people feel comfortable expressing their opinions and concerns.”
Echefu believes that the issue of diversity is one of the heart, saying, “I think that the solution really is a matter of the heart more than policy. Creating opportunities for candid conversation is probably the most difficult thing to do given the polarization of our world, but it will have the biggest effect.”
It is important for the conversation of diversity to continue, as this is a cultural movement, not a moment, and we need to continue doing the work. It is easy to rely on ingrained biases and assume that people of color do not ski because of financial reasons, but it is time to think beyond this inaccurate assumption and confront our own unconscious biases. As an industry and members of an organization, it is important that we recognize that the outdoors are not equally accessible to all people, and there is a lot of work ahead in order to change this. As Isaac explains, “We need to commit to the work and make outdoor recreation a welcoming and inclusive environment.”
Echefu eloquently reminds us of both the problem and the solution, stating, “If we all start listening and thinking with our hearts, we will begin to peel back and expose our unconscious bias and ultimately will be in a much better position as a country and globally.”