Strengthening the Role of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Gunks
Over the last year the Access Fund has launched a national initiative to address diversity and inclusiveness in the climbing community. This initiative focuses on a set of core principles the Access Fund calls JEDI: justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
While the importance of climbing pales in comparison to some of the civil and political struggles this country has recently faced, the resulting shift in our national culture has been seismic and as climbers we’ve been presented with a host of new access issues to tackle. At the GCC we represent one of the largest metropolitan climbing areas in the country, and one of the most diverse. The Gunks is the home crag to over 18 million people – and that’s just counting the NY metro area. Add in the surrounding states and that number easily doubles.
The GCC recognizes that more needs to be done in the Gunks to be more inclusive for all communities. To kick off this effort, we spoke with Taimur Ahmad. Taimur is the JEDI and Policy Associate with the Access Fund, and started his climbing journey in NYC.
A Discussion with Taimur Ahmad of the Access Fund
What exactly is JEDI?
Fundamentally, JEDI is about fairness – making sure that everyone in our community has the same opportunities to experience everything climbing has to offer, regardless of who they are. While it’s true that anyone can, in theory, roll up to the Trapps and start climbing, in practice there are many barriers to participation, whether it’s something obvious and tangible like a lack of transportation or not having the money to buy gear, or something less physical, like feeling out of place or unwelcome at the crag. JEDI work seeks to dismantle these barriers.
Can you provide an example of a specific situation in a gym or crag where the JEDI principles should be utilized?
I’d like to reframe this one a bit. Obviously if you see blatant bigotry, be an upstander and not a bystander – it’s so easy to just walk away and say “that’s not my problem” when we really should step in and do what we know is right. But honestly those sorts of textbook examples of discrimination are not the way most climbers will have an opportunity to show up for JEDI work – most change happens through slow, consistent, unglamorous advocacy. What does that look like? It could be volunteering with a local affinity group to help them out with events, planning, bookkeeping, guiding, whatever. It could be talking with your local gym owners or land managers about why JEDI is important to you and your community, and then helping them brainstorm ways to engage with it. It could be having a thoughtful conversation with folks who think JEDI is a waste of time, and trying to frame your perspective in a way that resonates with them. It could be using your platforms to share stories from communities that have traditionally been marginalized. And, as simple as it sounds, it can be taking the extra time to be kind to the new climbers you run into at the crag – make it clear you’re happy to see them there.
How can the average climber help address this?
Be engaged in our society. Vote, with your ballot and with your dollar. Lobby, in your city, state, and in DC. Join organizations that represent your voice and work on causes you believe in. Educate yourself and those around you. Write letters, make calls, protest, advocate. Learn about policy issues and comment on management plans for landscapes you care about. And have the hard conversations in your own community to advance an agenda centered on justice. Sometimes all this can feel pointless or like it’s not going anywhere, but we have to keep in mind that this is a generational struggle, and it’s only through a mass collective of relatively small acts that the big wins eventually come. With that said, I feel like we have a lot to celebrate right now, as per your next question…
Any JEDI success stories that come to mind?
Many! I feel so privileged to be a part of a movement that I see actually succeeding right now. One big picture success story is just that climbing is diversifying – all we need to do to see that is look around. Participation in affinity groups has exploded, LCOs all across the country are forming JEDI committees, and by and large our community has embraced social justice advocacy, which is incredible and not something we should take for granted. I mean, just the fact that probably ~20-30 LCOs have reached out to Access Fund for help with JEDI shows how far we’ve come.
The outdoor industry has taken notice – brands are actively diversifying their athlete rosters, it’s amazing to see how fast that’s happened. And even just the stories we are telling – from Reel Rock to the magazines, there is clearly this hunger for new voices and different perspectives within our community.
One movement in particular that is emblematic of our progress is a push for more diversity in route development – I know of three separate events around getting more women and people of color involved in putting up new lines, which is just incredible, because it shows that we’re not just talking about getting folks into climbing anymore; The conversation has moved past that – we’re actually talking about getting more folks from underrepresented backgrounds into literally creating climbing and leading our community.
Can you speak to what you’ve heard nationally about route renaming?
Having been a part of the route naming conversation with groups and individuals all across the country, there is a pretty concrete trend I’ve been seeing, which is a movement towards renaming climbs that negatively impact the climbing experience for large groups of people. Based on my own non-scientific count, I would say a solid majority of the climbing community supports rethinking egregious route names.
What is sometimes lost in the vitriol around this topic is the really excellent dialogue I’ve witnessed: thoughtful and good-faith discussions around names and why many should stay and a few should go. Sometimes there are excellent opportunities to provide context around a name that sparks learning and discussion, and sometimes a name is simply awful and should be a no-brainer for change. I think it’s up to local communities to decide which is which for themselves.
What is one complaint you hear over and over about climbers when it comes to JEDI (behavior, language etc.)?
I wouldn’t say there’s a single complaint or theme, honestly. As climbers we’re certainly a little different in some ways, but ultimately we’re still human, and the ways we screw up in terms of JEDI are the same as anyone else. Obviously the route naming issue has gained traction, largely (I think) because it’s so visible and the changes are very immediate and tangible, so in that sense, in terms of stuff like mainstream media coverage and the public perception of JEDI issues within climbing, it would be route names.
But fundamentally it’s just basic human behavior. We all have unconscious biases. We all have a resistance to change and to new things that disrupt our personal status quo. We all act in ways that, unintentionally or not, make life harder for others. In the end we’re good folks – I really do believe that most climbers are solid, decent humans. But we all have behaviors that we can do better at. It’s stuff as simple as thinking about how much you’re talking versus other people in the room, or whether you made sure to ask your partner if they wanted to take the lead before racking up, or not assuming that just because someone is enjoying the land in a way different from you, that they’re clueless or out of touch with nature.
You’ve got a history with the Gunks – what issues have you observed about the area that climbers can step up and address?
This might seem a bit out of left field since we’re discussing JEDI here, but honestly as someone who has been climbing in the Gunks for over a decade now, seeing the widespread die-off of ash trees from emerald ash borer infestations – a result of warming winters, which allows the bug population to flourish – really hurts to see. Boulders where I’ve been climbing for years look different now because all these beautiful ash trees that used to grow in those areas and shade the rock are dead on the ground. This is climate change in real time.
I’m worried the hemlocks are going to go next. And this has a connection to JEDI – we’ll discuss this more later, but if we want a strong constituency to demand political action on climate, we absolutely need diversity within that coalition. Government only moves on the big, gnarly issues when the public speaks with overwhelming force, and that means building the biggest tent we can. If communities are disconnected from nature, and aren’t seeing those ash trees go down and feeling that impact, they are less likely to advocate for conservation and climate justice.
What do you see as being the biggest challenge nationally to making climbing more accessible?
At the risk of sounding grandiose, the movement for JEDI within climbing is just one small part of a much larger, 400+ year old quest for social justice in America. The barriers to participation in the outdoors are a product of generations of inequity and discrimination. It’s definitely important that we do this work at the scale of our community, but the underlying sources of the challenges we face are fought at a society-wide scale. In other words, while not having a car may be the immediate barrier to getting up to the Gunks, the broader barrier is the legacy of generations of systems designed to oppress large groups of Americans, and that legacy remains to this day the overarching block against folks from marginalized communities getting outside.
Why is JEDI critical to ensuring the future of climbing access?
To me, the main reason to do JEDI work is not practical, but ethical: it is simply the right thing to do. With that said, there is also a pragmatic argument for why JEDI matters for access. This country is changing rapidly, and growing more and more diverse. If we want the public to care about climbing – or to care about conservation, wilderness, climate change, etc. – we need to stay relevant to these communities, and that means diversifying our own community and making it truly inclusive. Ultimately though, I just want everyone to get a taste of how amazing being out in nature and getting on the rock can be.
We at the GCC are happy to provide links and support for local organizations championing access to climbing, as well as share the below resources from the Access Fund. As climbing grows in popularity and access, so do our numbers, which means the issue of access can no longer be ignored by any climber. It is all of our responsibility to preserve and protect our spaces, as well as to be good advocates for those we share them with.
Need an example? Recently here in the Gunks we had a strong local effort to address certain route names at our more popular crags, an issue many other climbing communities are facing as Taimur mentioned above. Addressing inflammatory/hateful route names is just one small portion of the JEDI principles. Further route renaming information by the Access Fund can be found here.
You may be asking yourself as a climber what you can do to help access, and as Taimur said it all starts with education. Learn about others with whom you share climbing – and how you can support their organizations to foster access to the Gunks. Chances are you’ve seen some of the kind folks below climbing in the Gunks, and many of these organizations welcome support. Volunteer to assist on climb days. Donate. Mentor. Advocate.
We at the GCC welcome your feedback on how we can do our part in leading the Access Fund’s JEDI initiative, and remain committed to the JEDI principles in effort to make the Gunks a better place for all climbers.
Helpful JEDI Links
Special thanks to Taimur for taking the time for this interview, and leading the JEDI initiative within the Access Fund.