Mai Li O’Keefe feels a special form of pride on a snowy March day at the Mount Hood Meadows resort, as they join a Black, Indigenous and People of Color group for skiing and snowboarding — most of them for the first time.
“Just seeing, you know, as many as 20 BIPOC people just all hanging out, in the parking lot today …we were front and center as people were walking into the resort,” O’Keefe said. “It’s just so cool, and it’s just something that I really haven’t experienced before.”
O’Keefe helped bring this group to the mountain as part of Open Slopes PDX, a grassroots organization that started in 2021 with the goal of promoting diversity in winter sports by addressing barriers preventing people of color from taking part.
“I think that the ski culture has predominantly relied on white generational wealth,” O’Keefe said.
Open Slopes breaks down barriers by offering free ski rental, lift tickets, clothing and transportation to the ski resort for a dozen participants. All of these are provided through donations from the community and outdoor gear stores. But it’s not only the high cost of these winter sports that has created a lack of diversity on the slopes. It’s also something less tangible: a feeling of belonging.
“I think so many BIPOC people feel that in order to participate in certain activities, especially ones that are in predominantly white spaces, you have to showcase exceptionalism to feel like you even have a seat at the table,” O’Keefe said.
In 2022, the group hosted three winter sports events, an increase from just one event held in 2021. Something of importance to the organizers of these events was that ski and snowboarding lessons be offered by instructors who are also people of color to create a sense of community with skiers at all levels.
“A lot of these people, it’s their first time in the snow, on snowboards, on skis, and people are having a great time, which I love to see,” ski instructor Destinie Davis said.
Davis has been skiing for around six years and said she doesn’t see a lot of diversity on the mountain.
“Growing up, it was never something that was available to me until I saw other people who looked like me doing it,” she said. “It’s becoming more and more diverse, which is awesome and amazing because one of the things that I want to be able to see is people who look like me not just skiing but also teaching and leading.”
During the March session, the group was given a quick lesson before starting on the bunny hill. Amongst children skiing for the first time, the group of adults who weren’t afforded the same opportunity in their youth learns.
Participant Muri Rodriguez said thoughts raced through her mind: “This is really happening. I’m going to put my gear on, put the snowboard on my feet, and I’m going to go down like a tiny hill — but still a hill.”
Rodriguez has never done winter sports and learned snowboarding for the first time at the Open Slopes event. She said cultural barriers do prevent diversity on the slopes.
“You’re already already an ‘other,’ and then also on top of that you’re new to the outdoor sport you’re trying,” she said. “It just kind of adds an extra layer of discomfort and … it’ll be much harder to relax and learn and ease into it.”
But getting to try the sport along with other people of color brings her a sense of comfort. The skiers and snowboarders at this event fell a lot. But every stumble, slide and fall was combated with smiles and laughter. The mood on the mountain was jovial.
“I have been just blown away by how quickly everyone’s picking up on things,” O’Keefe commented.
One of the participants, Jeremy Gomez, had snowboarded before a handful of times.
“I come up here because I need a thrill,” Gomez said. “I like to have fun. I like to go fast. I like to learn something new, and I like that feeling of being scared sometimes when you try something new.”
But Gomez said the unique experience of snowboarding with other people of color is new, and he quickly found inspiration being around other people like him.
“I’m from the Dominican Republic, so if I can find somebody to talk Spanish with, it gives me a little bit more confidence that someone has my back out here,” Gomez said.
For years, he admired competitive skiing and said, “I don’t see myself in it.”
But after experiencing Open Slopes, Gomez said he feels motivated and empowered to pursue the sport more seriously.
“Because I belong here,” he said.
O’Keefe said diversity on the mountain benefits everyone — not just people of color.
The winter sports community has been a white-dominated space for generations, they said, and “making more room for these BIPOC outdoor groups and queer groups, as welI, I think that it sort of disrupts that, and it makes it a richer experience.”
Open Slopes has already planned multiple events for the 2023 ski season. An increase in exposure has brought in more donations, and also more people interested in partaking. O’Keefe said organizers are also looking into creating events for children.
“This is a lot of people’s first or second time skiing, but we are all adults,” they said. “You hope to see more children of color getting into this, like, earlier in life.”