Downhill Integrationists: The National Brotherhood of Skiers

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.
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(Photo: gorillaimages/Shutterstock)

(Photo: gorillaimages/Shutterstock)

The National Brotherhood of Skiers was founded in 1972 to diversify what has been called "the whitest and least integrated popular sport in America." On an average day, only two percent of the skiers on American slopes are black. But for one week a year, the NBS's Black Ski Summit draws thousands of African-American skiers to a single ski town—making it, in some years, the largest ski gathering in America. The narrow goal of the National Brotherhood of Skiers is to place a black skier on the U.S. Olympic Team.

When and why was the National Brotherhood of Skiers founded?

The NBS was founded in 1973 by Ben Finley of California and Arthur Clay of Chicago, Illinois. They got together at Sun Valley, Idaho, and decided to form the group. We have 60 clubs across the United States and 3,000 members. So we’re the largest national ski council in the United States.

Has the group been steadily growing since the beginning?

At one point, we had 71 clubs, but through some attrition we’re down to 60. Membership at one point was probably around 7,500 people. Those are people who’ve aged out and are no longer skiing. They’ve turned to golfing and other fun sports. We’ve had some ebbs and flows with respect to membership.

Nationally, fewer people are skiing. Are your decreasing numbers just a part of that?

We’ve not been alone in this experience. In talking to other ski council organizations, they’re seeing the same thing. The challenge is to refill the pipeline with leaders and with skiers and boarders that are coming up through youth development programs. We also want to reach out to others who may not want to be part of a club, necessarily, but they want to be part of the organization. We’re looking at our membership structure to see how we might expand that to give others that want to be a part of our experience—but not a club—an opportunity to be connected with us.

Diana Starks, 58, vice president in financial services and president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. (Photo: Chris Langer)

downhill

What does a year look like for one of your clubs? How often are they skiing? How often are they meeting? And what do those meetings look like?

For the member clubs, they all hold their elections at different times. Some of them do their elections at the end of the ski season before they’re going to move into their summer activities, around the April or May Then they’ll move into their summer activities—biking, canoeing, kaykaing, camping, hiking. They’ll do cookouts, go to jazz festivals, or go white water rafting.

Then, before the fall actually starts, we start talking about where the national organization is going. We’re going to Snowmass this February, and information went out to all the clubs in June, so clubs are already putting forth their plans. This event is called the Summit. They’re all coming to the Summit.

The clubs in the Northern part of the nation will have weekend trips, bus trips, and they may have another trip where they have to fly to a location. But they do all that around when the Summit’s going to be held. For southern clubs in Texas or Florida or Atlanta or New Orleans, where they have to fly to get to snow, they don’t have a lot of winter trips planned outside of the Summit, but they might piggyback a trip onto something else to get another snow experience. Then that pretty much takes them all through their year, back to April and May.

Throughout the year they’ll have general membership meetings. Most of the clubs meet in a community space, others will meet in a restaurant. And some of the clubs will do conference calls. That has really changed over the years.

How was it in the past?

In the past, a lot of people were meeting face to face.

Has that affected the clubs at all?

It depends on the leadership of the club—and this is something I’m hearing across the council, not just at the NBS. When you don’t try to do something different from time to time, the process can get stale and people become disinterested. They’ll pay membership, but they may not participate in the club meetings. That puts a strain on the leadership of their clubs. And I think that’s how a lot of the clubs have lost their standing in their communities because leadership hasn’t risen to the top.

The economic downturn did take a toll on some people. Hurricane Katrina was a prime example. For our club in New Orleans, a lot of them had to leave, but they still wanted to be connected the club in New Orleans. So you gotta think outside the box. You don’t have to live in your region to be a member of that club. We’ve got people in California who are members of a club in Detroit. And some people hold multiple memberships. Times have called for innovative thinking and innovative practices on helping clubs grow membership.

Does every club have the same leadership structure?

It varies from club to club. The national organization cannot demand a set structure from a club. We do ask that they have a president and a treasurer because somebody needs to be paying the membership and making sure they meet the requirements for registration for the Summit. We will suggest to them some best practices, but we can’t mandate to them that they have a structure.

What’s a day at the Summit like?

We go in on a Saturday night to welcome everyone, and they all reconnect from across the country. Sunday morning we have a non-denominational gospel fest for those who want to attend. Opening ceremonies are that afternoon. Monday morning, that’s first tracks. At 7:30 in the morning they’re all out skiing. People are out running the mountain until the lifts close. Happy hour will start around 3:30 and will go to 7:30. After that, happy hour closes down and everyone will grab dinner, and then they go to some other kind of social function or party.

That’s a typical day. It’s skiing, it’s happy hour, it’s dinner, it’s social hour, for those who wanna go out later they can go out and do that, and then you get up the next morning and you do it all over again.

Not much sleeping, then.

Yep, not much sleep. We’ll have races on Tuesday, and we’ll have a picnic on the hill, another party out there on the mountain a little bit. It’s a big camera day. Groups will take pictures. They’ll all have their colors on.

Have the mountains and the “regulars” at those mountains shown any resistance?

We haven’t had pushback. We haven’t had any altercations of any kind. We haven’t had anybody who’s run into any problems on the mountain. If it exists, it’s managed very well. People generally look forward to the National Brotherhood of Skiers being at the resort. They know that it’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna be lively, and it’s not gonna be your typical day skiing on the mountain. And they’re always trying to find ways to connect with us so they can be part of the week. The resorts have been very accommodating.

Do most members come from a certain economic bracket?

Yeah, middle class to upper-middle class mostly. It used to be a sport for the elitist, but that has changed over time. The more people heard “Blacks don’t ski,” the more there was a desire for them to try it. And we now have people that are professional ski instructors. That presence on the mountain has helped increase diversity.

Our core mission includes working with the National Black MBA association, the National Association of Black Accountants. We are working on tapping into colleges and universities, fraternities and sororities, some of the other professional organizations—and making it economical for their constituents to attend events.

Beyond your group’s efforts, it seems like skiing is becoming, more and more, a vacation thing for people. Rather than one-day ski sessions, it’s basically a form of tourism at this point. Yet, if I see a commercial for skiing or a poster advertising Mount Snow, you still don’t ever see a black face on there. Can they do a better job to make it more appealing for people of color?

Yes, and not only the mountains, but the industry and the retailers when they advertise; there should be more diversity. I think they can definitely do a better job with that. Just having a face of a person of color on their websites would help. I think understanding the economic power that exists within the African-American community should help drive some of that change. We’re not seeing it yet, but it’s something we continually talk about with the mountains. Let folks know that you do value that people of color are participating in skiing.

One of the original goals of the organization was to get an African American skier on the U.S. Olympic team. Is that still a goal?

We’ve come very close to having an Olympic skier, but not yet. The closest we’ve come on the team for alpine downhill has been Earl Kerr and Andre Horton, but they didn’t get selected. Earl actually decided to ski for Jamaica, his father’s native country. We’re still looking for the Olympic hopeful.

I’ve also seen mention of the sort of Tiger Woods or Venus and Serena Williams impact—where you see a person of color succeeding, and that then hopefully inspires a younger generation of kids. Is this another benefit you guys see from having an African American on the Olympic team?

Yes, I think that’s a benefit. It’s not just about skiing, but it’s about showing that if you work toward a goal, you can achieve the goal. That’s something that a lot of people can embrace and connect with. We’d love to have someone who stands on the podium and receives a gold, silver, or bronze medal in the next Olympics. And we would feel good because we helped to support that person getting there. They have to have the skill and the determination, but they have our backing. Having that person would mean something to a lot of our young children.

Is that the hardest part of getting young people involved? Not having someone for them to see as an example?

You just want to expose them to the sport, and that’s done at our club level. A number of clubs in the Midwest have very active youth-exposure programs—every week they’ll take a bus full of kids to give them experience on the mountain. They're doing dry-land training with them in the off-season. We’re still looking for that one or two who will break the ceiling. We’re not giving up. It’s gonna happen.

What’s the biggest challenge for getting young people interested, then?

One of the biggest challenges is funding. It take a lot to get a child to an academy. We can offer some scholarship money for that, but it’s just not enough, so we’re looking at how else we can increase the funding opportunities if we see someone who’s really, really close and if they can just get this training. The other piece is visibility. The visibility of that skier or that racer. Having the right people, the ones who are making selections, look at them and see them as a person they need to provide support for.

Do you do any outreach with lower-class people or inner-city kids?

A lot of that happens in the club level. My own ski club and our sister club in Cleveland works with inner-city youth through the school system, the Boy Scouts, or community organizations.

That then goes back to funding.

Exactly. The parents can only offer so much support. The funding is just not at the magnitude that the student would need if they’re going to go into the ski academy.

A lot of this, I guess, comes down to being able to cross the threshold where you’re just able to provide the kids with opportunity and then letting them find out whether or not they have the potential or if they like to ski.

We’re not giving up. it’s gonna happen. We’re too close.

Why are you so passionate about skiing?

It’s an activity and a sport, it’s something I can do in northeast Ohio in the brutal cold winter. I’m serious. I love being outdoors—every season. When I first heard about skiing was in 1974. I was in high school and somebody said, “We’re going skiing.” And I said, “Skiing? OK, I’ll try that.” I loved it. I fell, but I laughed. And I tried it again. Then I heard that there was an African-American ski club and I went, “Really?” And I connected with them in 1979 or 1980, and I really enjoyed it. I loved the people that were in the club. I loved the activities they had year round. And when I went to my first national Summit, in Lake Tahoe in 1984, I loved it. I loved it. Loved being at the top of the mountain, being at the top of that beautiful lake, looking to my left and seeing all the snow and to my right and seeing the desert. That’s what drew me.

Do you still ski today?

I am still skiing. Now, as a president, I don’t get to ski as often as I want to because when I’m at the Summit, I’m working, and so I tend to do try to ski after the Summit. After my term ends, I’m going back skiing.

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