The Battle for Inclusivity at Brooklyn Boulders

In late 2012, just a week after Hurricane Sandy flooded the streets of Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying Gowanus neighborhood, Outside sent a reporter to an obstacle course at Brooklyn Boulders (BKB) as part of a story about indoor climbing called “the Next Urban Sports Craze.””The rough scene in the gym, as described by Outside, was millennial cool, with the theme song of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which shot out of the speakers, climbers and slackliners who were competing for prizes that included free beer, and zealous climbers turned to the door because the event was full, despite the recent destruction of Sandy.

“We made the party climbing and voila,” said Lance Pinn, who was described outside as” the gym’s former frat-Boy co-founder.””

Investors wanted to be pure. Nine months after the party, BKB opened its second facility in the Boston suburb of Somerville; one in Chicago and one in Queens soon followed. In 2015, private Equity firm North Castle Partners, which invests in Barry’s Bootcamp, Crunch Fitness and Equinox, entered into an agreement with BKB. And last year, the company opened its first fitness center in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, described on its website as part of the adventure Lifestyle ecosystem of the Brooklyn Boulders.’”

From the beginning, BKB members have not only climbed the walls, but they have also been a cool place to be a part of it: the five gyms are located in gentrifying urban areas with a unifying theme of fake Graffiti decor. The company’s facilities include full Cardio and weight rooms, conference rooms, and Wi-Fi areas where members can stretch and work out. “ We tried to create an environment where you don’t want to leave, ” Pinn said in 2014.”we want you here for five or six hours.”

When the domestic escalation scene exploded-before the Coronavirus crisis, the industry was expected to reach 1 1 billion in 2021, up from 6 600 million in 2017—BKB’s approach made it a media favorite. The New York Times ran three plays at the Gowanus gym in the first three years of operation and featured the company prominently in an article last fall about the popularity of indoor climbing.

But in June, a group of more than 90 BKB employees sent an open letter to management describing a “toxic culture” in which they said “Protect the best executives with a history of racism, misogyny and discriminatory acts.The letter listed a number of demands, including a majority turnover of the management team, increased investment in the black communities where BKB built its gyms and an end to arbitrary employment, which they said allowed the targeted dismissal of black employees. A “total failure of leadership,” the employees wrote, ” Put the company in danger of losing its entire membership base and completely undermined the trust of the Brooklyn Boulders Climbing community.”In the weeks after the letter was published, more than a dozen former and current employees told Outside that racism and sexism have long existed in BKB’s work culture and that company executives have been aware of these issues for years.

Rock climbing venues across the country experienced similar setbacks after the death of George Floyd that sparked nationwide protests against social justice over the summer. In North Carolina and Virginia, Triangle Rock Club climbers have launched a petition and Instagram account to hold the company accountable for its goals, including hiring more BIPOC staff. Hoosier Heights, a fitness chain in the Midwest, has faced accusations of racism and sexism from its members and employees. But Brooklyn Boulders is the best-known gym in the country, and the company’s reaction is being closely watched.

On July 1, BKB responded in a public statement to employee requests when the company stated that it “will not tolerate discriminatory practices of any kind and is committed to investigating and resolving all reported cases of previous inappropriate dismissals.That same month, Martin Adler, then vice president of the BKB, told Outside that Pinn and co-founder Jeremy Balboni, who met as fraternal brothers at Babson College, gave up their roles as president and vice president.

Balboni declined to comment on some of the BKB collective’s allegations, but in an Interview with Outside in August, he stood at Brooklyn Boulder’s record for creating a diverse and inclusive workplace over the past decade. “My personal belief is to have as diverse and inclusive a team as possible, because as has been demonstrated time and time again, it is a more successful team,” he said. He also said that 60% of the company’s executives are women or BIPOCS and that the company has hiring, promotion and firing committees for years to ensure that recruitment decisions are fair and impartial.

Adler said outside that the company is working with the employee collective in a series of “listening sessions” to implement the changes. On July 1, BKB responded to each request from the group in a public scoreboard and held a three-hour meeting with the work Collective to address concerns.

The company’s management seemed to indicate a real commitment to change, but the employees were understandably cautious: the next day, all New York employees of BKB who had been entrenched since the beginning of the pandemic (with health insurance, if they had done so before) were informed by e-mail that they had been fired.

In an email to Outside, Adler attributed the layoffs to the company’s struggle with delayed reopening due to the Coronavirus, and he said their hope was to revive the majority of those who were laid off when gyms were able to be reopened. (In fact, several have been rehired since, after gyms reopened in New York in early September.) But the timing of the layoffs, announced just after an important hearing meeting with employees on diversity issues, made many employees blind.

“We are very upset that they just dropped this on everyone without notice,” a member of the Collective told Outside. “The Timing and lack of communication is just crazy.”

For many BKB members, the first sign of problems in the company was an Instagram Post on June 1 after the death of George Floyd.

“It is difficult to climb with a knee to the neck,” read the first slide published on the official BKB account. “It’s hard to train when you can’t breathe.”

Worried members posted comments with questions, some asked for an explanation of what was widely considered a tactless message. But the post remained. A week later, the company doubled down and wrote in a separate article that the first response was “led by a black woman.” This post caused a second wave of outrage in the comments. (“[I] F you think this post will make me feel like I’m safely returning to BKB Somerville as a respected member of the community, you’re wrong, ” reads one comment. “Yikes,” read another.)

Many current and former employees say that George Floyd’s responses on social media have been a symbol of major issues that have covered BKB for years. Samantha Lopez, who worked at Gowanus Gym between 2012 and 2018, was not surprised when she learned of the controversy. “I thought it was BKB treating it as a trend rather than really worrying about what’s going on,” Lopez said.

Another employee, Maria, who requested a pseudonym for this article and worked on Gowanus ‘ site, laughed when asked if black employees like her were treated differently by the company than their white colleagues. “One million percent,” she says.

Maria recalled an HR staffer telling her that she had “not smiled enough”-a comment she had never heard from her white colleagues—and her supervisor constantly berated her for being late. She and other employees who spoke to them said they had regularly seen white employees arrive late with little or no recoil from management.

“All people had to do when they were white was use the excuse that they were tired and they couldn’t do it, and that would be nice,” she said. “But for me it was a problem to arrive late.”

The open letter of the work collective repeated Mary’s experiences. “Brooklyn Blocks … has a troubling history of targeting blacks for dismissal regardless of job performance, as well as passing them off as valuable promotions and training opportunities in favor of white employees, ” the letter read. In response to questions about BKB’s treatment of black employees, Adler Outside said in June that the company “takes these concerns very seriously” and is “reorganizing” its human resources department to “dive deep into our work practices.””

Cyrena Lee was hired in 2014 as a content strategist at Gowanus Gym, where she wrote for the company’s Blog, which included articles with black climbers and Mansplaining in climbing. BKB, she said, experienced rapid Expansion after the Somerville site opened, and she moved to the company’s Denver headquarters after being promoted to a Manager role.

Lee, who was the only woman of color in Denver, said she felt underpaid and undervalued, which escalated her anxiety to a point where she cried every day, while the “Fraternal environment” made it possible to make jokes about her race and gender Routine—and unwanted—part of her professional life. When Lee asked if she could join the executive team’s annual trip to Japan, she remembered Pinn and said she could come “if I kicked them in the back.(Pinn did not respond to Outside’s request for comment.)

In 2016, Lee collaborated with the female climbing group Flash Foxy to create a survey of climbing sexism. Brooklyn Boulders published and distributed the survey to its mailing list, but when completed, Lee said Balboni removed BKB’s name from the published results and said the questions had been “in the lead”.(Balboni declined to comment on the poll.)

“I guess it’s not too surprising, because sexism is also present in our own corporate culture,” Lee wrote in an email to a company director after receiving a Pushback on the release of the survey results. “There were many people who called BKB “fratty ” or” bro-like ” (internal and external).”

The company, according to Lee, did not listen-even though articles reflecting his concerns were published on the workplace review site Glassdoor. “I don’t think they see how their attitudes affect their people,” Lee explained. “The outdoor industry is so steeped in racism and sexism that they can’t see it.(When asked about Lee’s allegations, Brooklyn Boulders responded in a statement to Outside: “while we cannot comment on some cases, we have a rigorous staff documentation process to record and address questions, comments and concerns.”)

In 2017, Lee REI helped produce a short film called Brothers of Climbing, which has since been viewed more than 300,000 times on YouTube. The Film documents how a group of young black climbers found themselves at BKB. In it, black climbers – including a longtime BKB employee who was later fired—are asked at BKB’s New York gyms about their experience of climbing racism, Clips interspersed with photos from outside the Gowanus gym. Brooklyn Boulders contributed $5,000 to the film’s funding.

However, BKB employees, who are also members of the Brothers of Climbing group, claim that the company has never offered additional financial support to the group, for example by paying a fee for participation in the annual Color the Crag festival. The competition New York Gym the Cliffs, on the other hand, offered fellowships to climbers to participate in the Festival, while brands like the North Face and Patagonia are sponsors.

Some employees say the BKB’s lack of support contrasts with its annual Pride celebrations, which took place last year in all gyms with Live music nights, with proceeds donated to LGBTQ charities. “Brooklyn Boulders was very early on engaged in the LGBTQ movement because he represented so many people in our gyms,” Adler said.

However, other employees questioned the sincerity of Brooklyn Boulders ‘ support of the LBGTQ movement. In Interviews with Outside, an anecdote repeatedly appeared, called the”buffer incident”. In 2018, Somerville employees placed Tampons in the men’s restroom in response to member requests to make the gym more welcoming to Trans people. When BKB executives arrived at the gym for an annual staff meeting, the staff said that a former member of the management team entered the men’s room and found that its cleanliness and outdated posters did not meet the company’s standards, and then he threw the Tampons in the trash and shouted at the staff. The next day, according to the employees who were there, the executive began the meeting by saying that he had “gay friends” and said that he had no problems with the Tampons, only with the representation. Although the tampons in the men’s room were replenished, many BKB employees said that the incident indicated that the company’s social commitment was less related to core values than to improving the end result.

“I’m afraid that Black Lives Matter will give BKB just another opportunity to make money and prove that this is this elite and worthy climbing gym,” Lopez said.

Nearly two weeks after George Floyd’s first instagram posts, BKB apologized and archived the original images on its public dashboard—a step that effectively removed the hundreds of comments from climbers and former employees on the site.

This month, there were a lot of things at BKB. In a resignation letter sent to employees in late June, Balboni appointed an Adler executive committee and four other men dressed in white to “lead the team.” The company hired a diversity consultant, turned Junet into a corporate leave, created the Public dashboard, and launched a series of diversity initiatives, including hiring a new vice president of culture, creating funds and scholarships to make its gyms more inclusive, and implementing anti-racism and anti-bias training for its employees.

Two months later, in late August, I called Adler to register after the company’s tumultuous summer. Adler had recently been named interim CEO, and the company was preparing to reopen its gyms in Chicago and Boston, including a new facility in Chicago. (The company’s sites are now all open and operate with limited capacity.) Balboni and Pinn were no longer on the operational management team. Adler had just received anti-bias training and was part of a CEO task force, and he spoke fervently of a new convert. “I could move through life without fighting systemic racism,” he said. “This time highlights things that, once you see and understand them, cannot be ignored.”

Adler informed me of his various initiatives. Under his leadership, he said, BKB grants an access value of half a Million dollars, which allows for large-scale gym memberships, while half a Million dollars is spent on access to local non-profit organizations in the neighborhood of each gym. More money was promised for youth team climbing scholarships. A “large subset of the organization” had been trained and the company was working to select employees from each gymnasium working on committees to advise Adler on various diversity projects, including local nonprofits expected to receive funds from the company.

“We want to be fair and representative in our communities, but also: how can we be part of the wider solution in the world of outdoor sport?Adler said. “When you go to the big outdoor industry conferences, I see a lot of people who look like me.”

I asked him why it took so long for the company to come to a settlement. Why have leaders faced structural racism and prejudice in the climbing industry when their own employees had expressed concerns for years?

“I think it’s a fair question,” he said, pausing. “I think the culture basically comes from above. I think most organizations for years basically focused on growth and profitability. I think there is a new understanding within the organization that we want to run our business in a much more socially responsible way. I can’t say exactly why these problems didn’t have front-wheel drive, but I think our society’s understanding of the importance of these things has changed dramatically.”

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