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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

These groups help people of color and the LGBTQ+ community find a ‘radically inclusive space’ in the outdoors

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For 16-year-old Zyshawn Gibson, snowboarding down the indoor ski park at Big Snow American Dream in East Rutherford, New Jersey, was a welcome change of scenery.

Gibson’s participation at the ski park was made possible through the Hoods to Woods Foundation, a nonprofit based in New York and New Jersey that “promotes awareness of the outdoors to inner city children through snowboarding,” according to the organization’s website. Through its 15-year history, Hoods to Woods has helped hundreds of underserved youth such as Gibson develop a new interest and outlet through snowboarding, co-founder Omar Diaz estimated.

“It keeps me out of the house,” Gibson told WHNY News from a lounge room in the Big Snow complex. “It’s a different thing to do, instead of being outside in the streets and being in danger and stuff like that.”

Hoods to Woods, the brainchild of Diaz and co-founder Brian Paupaw, is dedicated to providing new opportunities for teenagers and young adults who come from similar backgrounds to their own. The group hosts weekslong programs across urban areas in the two states.

The organization is just one of several across the United States working to bringing people of color to outdoor activities, including winter sports — spaces where they are often marginalized and underrepresented.

A 2019-2020 participation study released by Snowsports Industries America showed that the participation for white Americans remained at 67.5%. In comparison, Asians accounted for 7.7% of the participants, while Black people made up 9.2% and Hispanics came in at 14%.

Similarly, a demographics study updated by the National Ski Areas Association in 2023 found that white participants represented 88.1% of guests.

One factor that contributes to this divide is the high barrier to entry for these winter sports, given the average expenses when it comes to equipment and transportation. The same study from Snowsports Industries America revealed that more than half of winter sports participants in 2019 through 2020 made over $75,000 a year.

Breaking down barriers

But organizations such as Hoods to Woods have made it their mission to break down these walls.

The nonprofit started in 2009 as an effort from Paupaw and Diaz, two seasoned snowboarders, to give back to their communities by introducing youth to the outdoors through snowboarding.

“The representation of people that looked like me and even came from my environment was important, because you could be out on the mountain and you hear people talking but they don’t sound like you,” Diaz said. “You grow up in an urban environment, and in the mountains everyone around you sounds completely different.”

The entire program — including snowboarding lessons, transportation and meals — is free for its youth participants. Paupaw and Diaz raise money to pay for travel and food.

The group also accepts donations of gear or gifts, while Big Snow has lent its facilities at no charge to the nonprofit for years.

Curating communities in the outdoors

Outside of Hoods to Woods, there are other nonprofits in the United States dedicated to similar causes.

For instance, Edge Outdoors in Washington state, aims to “[address] the invisibility of Black, Indigenous, women of color in snow sports,” founder Annette Diggs told WHNY News. The group also works to include women who belong to the LGBTQ+ community, including both trans and queer-identifying participants.

“One thing that’s unique about Edge is that we work with the community — a lot of our participants are being taught by people from their community, meaning Black and brown people,” she said.

Ciera Young, who is Black and has multiple sclerosis, learned adaptive skiing through a scholarship from Edge.

“I was just so grateful that my instructors listened to me, and they said, ‘We want to make sure you’re able to ski the way you want to ski and that you feel empowered,'” she said. “Being in a space with other BIPOC folks was incredible.”

Meanwhile, Vermont-based nonprofit Unlikely Riders, created in 2020, is planning to build a people of color-stewarded outdoor community center, which co-founder Abby Crisostomo envisions will one day be a “radically inclusive space.”

In the four years since its founding, Crisostomo estimated that Unlikely Riders has hosted more than 145 events, donated 2,500 pieces of winter gear and instructed more than 570 community members for free. In addition to skiing and snowboarding, the group also introduces people of color and LGBTQ+ communities to mountain biking while fostering a welcoming environment.

Small businesses, such as Skida or the people of color-owned ToughCutie, have been instrumental in championing the efforts of Unlikely Riders by donating gear and hosting events.

Coming full circle

Besides their mission of inclusivity, the co-founders of Hoods to Woods also emphasized the importance of mentorship within the program, including checking in with their community participants and helping with financial literacy, college applications and employment offers.

“I saw kids who had behavioral problems at school and at home, do a 180 because they were able to be in environment where they could be themselves and think freely,” Paupaw said. “To me, that’s one of the most powerful things I’ve witnessed as a human being, but also as a co-founder of this program.”

Through Hoods to Woods, Diaz, Paupaw and their volunteers have built many relationships with their participants. Some come back to volunteer after graduating from their programs.

“This is the perfect combination,” Diaz told WHNY News. “Giving back to the youth, changing their lives, doing it in a place that I love — I’m happy. There’s no better way to give back.”

Miquan Chisholm, 27, was one of the program’s first participants 15 years ago. He’s now a dedicated volunteer to the cause. His daughter is just 3 now, but he envisions a future in which she will one day join the community.

“It changed my life because it gave me a different view on life. I never thought that I would be snowboarding as a Black person … And I fell in love with it,” he said. “Hoods to Woods definitely gave me the confidence to try new things and just be open-minded about things in life and realize there’s so many opportunities for people out there.”

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Chris Washington
Chris Washingtonhttps://whnynews.com
Chris Washington brings over 25 years of experience in financial journalism to WHNY News. A Schenectady native, Chris has a keen eye for business trends impacting upstate New York. His insightful reporting has earned him numerous accolades. Chris holds a degree in Economics from Syracuse University.
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