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Culture change and the ski industry; MLK Weekend arrives in a new light

12th January 2021 | Craig Altschul

National Brotherhood of Skiers annual summit changes resort culture briefly

National Brotherhood of Skiers annual summit changes resort culture briefly

George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis late last spring was the spark that led to Black Lives Matter and other protests across the country. A national dialog seemed to begin anew as is usually the case when America’s attention becomes focused.

It led to the seemingly insular world of skiing and snowboarding getting a loud wake-up call. It is, after all, an industry where only 7.3 percent of African-Americans are among nearly 60 million participants who, in a normal year, come out to play. Leaders from all corners of the industry looked in the mirror and didn’t like their reflection. Though they were hardly surprised.

They spoke out and didn’t mince words. There has to be real change this time, they said in different phrasing, but in unison. You can read their comments on almost any resort’s or resort association’s website. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has been part of industry dialog for two, maybe three, decades, but it hadn’t translated to much yet that is tangible. America’s ski runs are covered with white snow and mostly the same color skiers and riders enjoying it. 

It seems appropriate as the industry readies for what in a normal year would be a blockbuster Martin Luther King weekend across the country, to slow down. To ask after all the upheaval and rhetoric if any real action has been noticeable as we near the season’s midpoint. 

The only black (his choice of reference) CEO of a ski area in the country or, as he suggested, probably in the whole world, gave OnTheSnow.com a one-word answer. 

“No.” 

Schone Malliet is the nation's only black resort CEO

Schone Malliet is the nation's only black resort CEO

Copyright: National Winter Sports Activity Center

Schone (pronounced Shawn) Malliet is CEO of the National Winter Sports Activity Center (the former Hidden Valley Ski Area) in Vernon, N.J., home of Winter4Kids, a nonprofit aimed at changing lives of children through winter activities. 

Malliet is a former banker, financial advisor, founder and CEO of a comprehensive business solutions firm and past Executive Vice President of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. He’s been board chair of the Harlem YMCA and the National Winter Sports Education Foundation and serves on the Alumni Association Executive Committee at College of the Holy Cross.

Significant culture change

“I do think the country is going through a significant culture change,” expanding on the short answer to our question. “People are getting a voice and there’s some listening going on. But changing culture takes a long time. We have to work at it constantly. “

Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management (SAM), the snowsports’ leading trade journal and former editor of Skiing Magazine, agrees. “My concern is that most resort managers and employees do not understand how big a change is involved in becoming more diverse,” he told us. “Culture change will come more slowly if and when winter resorts become more broadly diverse, but it will be more enduring,” he says.

That thinking appears to be widespread. Adam White, who joined the Vermont Ski Areas Association (VSAA) staff as communications director three years ago, says he brought a personal “platform” of addressing the DEI issues with him. He notes his ideas found widespread support among the state’s 14 ski areas.  

Those initiatives in a state with a black population of only 1.7 percent, but one surrounded by a market area (think Boston and New York) where the population grows even more diverse each passing year, started to take off well before the latest rekindling.

“Moving the needle will take time,” he says. “The old perception that people of color just weren’t interested in skiing has to be replaced. We have to invite people in.”

Marketing imagery is one of the first steps to promoting DEI. White describes it as “low hanging fruit.”  He described how Bromley Mountain offered days on its slopes to the Nubian Empire Ski Club of nearby Albany, N.Y., in exchange for being able to take and use images from its member skiers and riders in its marketing. It’s not inviting to people of color when they do not see people who look like them in materials designed to lure them to the mountains and the sport.

A human resources issue

White says it comes back to human resources at ski areas as well, pointing to the naming just last month of Bobby Johnson Jr., a longtime professional ski instructor, to head the Snowsports instruction Center at Magic Mountain in Londonderry. He becomes the first African-American to head a ski school in the Green Mountain State and perhaps the country.

Bobby Johnson Jr. (left) is the first black man to head a ski school in Vermont

Bobby Johnson Jr. (left) is the first black man to head a ski school in Vermont

Copyright: Rutland Herald

“Skiing is an expensive sport and places to ski aren’t in areas that are reachable to a lot of black and indigenous people of color,” Johnson told The Rutland Herald. “The keys to attracting more are having more media and marketing campaigns featuring people of color, and more work with clubs.” Still, Johnson said he had encountered institutional racism working at ski resorts and in the towns surrounding them, “but it varies from place to place.”

Ski Area Management’s Kahl points out the answers don’t lie in “simply bringing more people into the existing culture. Think of how snowboarders changed ‘ski’ culture. And they were just more white kids, by and large. How smoothly did that go?” Those of a certain age know that answer. Not smoothly at all.

Kahl suggests imagining how big the change will be “once we bring in people whose culture — African-American, Hispanic, Asian — is quite different from the current white, resort culture. Think of how a resort’s culture gets turned upside down, briefly, when the National Brotherhood of Skiers Summit rolls into a resort for a week. Are we ready for that?”

Schone Malliet, closing in on the key issues, told us about an intern at the National Center last summer. “He asked me whether the issue is about committees or culture. That was sort of an inflection point for me.” 

‘I am crying’

During all that happened following the George Floyd killing, Malliet recorded and shared with many a deeply personal statement, starting by saying, “I am a black man and I am crying. 

“Think about what happened with George Floyd,” he explained. “What was just as troublesome as the officer who killed Floyd were the three officers who just watched. That event certainly changed my perspective. Personally, I was sidelined. No more.

“When I look back on my experience of being black, I understand that real cultural change requires personal individual reactions. First thing needed is access. That means getting into the ‘room’ in the first place. Then, we need equityEveryone who gets into the room is equal and can speak from their own perspective. Finally, there’s belonging. We need to feel we belong in that room.”

The prolog to all this, he added, is any individual of any gender or race needs to know the room even exists at all for them. “A ski resort needs to be a welcoming environment for everyone.”

Malliet believes that’s a very different discussion than inclusion or diversity. “The vast majority of the population doesn’t have familiarity with those who are different. Thoughtful people want to learn,” he says.

Perhaps, just perhaps, a bit of introspection can combine with the long MLK weekend on the mountain this year. 

That, and more than a dollop of patience.

 

            

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