Bethany Lebewitz didn’t really start climbing until she was 24. She was living in Austin, Texas, and had just ended a long-term relationship. “I was going through that ‘What happened? Who am I?’ kind of post-breakup hangover,” she says. Looking for something to “help her find her voice again,” she researched the nearest climbing gym, rode her bike there and asked how she could learn to climb.
“I was preparing for school applications, and every time I went to the gym it was like I was trying something new. I was kind of terrible at it. I fell. I had to get back up and keep trying,” she says. Persistence was especially valuable to her at that point of her life. “To be the first person in my family to apply to school, it was a constant thought in my head that ‘I’m going to fail.’ Climbing really helped remind me that you’ve got to get up and try again.”
“I pictured everyone around me different shades of brown, like I was, and I realized how different of an experience that would be.”
But the more she climbed, the more she started to crave camaraderie. And, as she spent more and more time with climbers, she started asking questions.
“I was at the New River Gorge one time and I looked around and realized just how many white people were climbing,” she says. “You sort of get used to this. But this one time, I pictured everyone around me different shades of brown, like I was, and I realized how different of an experience that would be.”
Lebewitz, who identifies as bi-racial—half Mexican and half white—started thinking about how she could help make that daydream a reality. “I exist in the climbing community, so how do I lead in this? How do I do something, especially when I don’t work in the outdoors?”
The answer was to launch @browngirlsclimb. “My brother and friends had encouraged me to start an Instragram account, so I thought, ‘If I’m going to do an Instragram account, let me try and do it in a way that other people can find some value in it.’”
@browngirlsclimb isn’t the only Instagram account focused on inclusion. Well over a dozen others are dedicated to profiling climbers and climbing communities that haven’t historically been well-represented in climbing media. @indigenouswomxnclimb profiles Indigenous women at the crags and in the mountains. There’s @boccrew from Brothers of Climbing, a New York-based group devoted to promoting inclusion and better representation for climbers of color. And, of course, there’s the well-known @heyflashfoxy, Shelma Jun’s Instagram account that’s dedicated to female climbers and eventually blossomed into a full-blown women’s climbing festival.
With traction growing on social media, outdoor brands and media are also talking more about diversity and inclusion. Publications like Climbing magazine are publishing essays on the topic. This year, REI released a video profiling Brothers of Climbing. And Outside magazine released a women’s issue in celebration of their 40th anniversary.
“I feel like @browngirlsclimb isn’t just my thing. It’s not just one story. It’s all of these women’s stories.”
While Instagram certainly isn’t the only cause of this rising trend, it has helped. As Lebewitz explains, the role social media has played is helping to connect people who don’t see themselves in the typical climber traditionally portrayed by brands and climbing media. “I didn’t know there was this POC [persons of color] climbing community, but once I got started, I found folks like Brothers of Climbing, Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro,” Lebewitz explains.
And, once she started to find that community, she also found herself playing an important role in it. “All of these women have responded, and I feel like @browngirlsclimb isn’t just my thing. It’s not just one story. It’s all of these women’s stories. There’s diversity of color and race, but there’s also diversity of experience and economic, educational and family status.”
For her, this new community has been an encouragement to keep @browngirlsclimb going and growing, helping to build a kinship both online and at the gym and crag. “There’s a lot of cross talk and side conversations, and a lot of women are meeting up across the country through seeing their photos on Instagram,” she says. “That’s a blessing to me, to know that this kind of idea can help foster community and friendship and really encourage women who may be struggling with feeling isolated, or may just want some other people who look like them to climb around.”
Kiyana Pulido, who lives in Arizona, is one of those women. When she started climbing early in 2017, she “noticed right away that there are hardly any climbers of color outdoors.” But, she was quickly introduced to Brothers of Climbing—a friend and fellow climber showed her the REI video profile of the group.
“After watching that video, I was inspired to share my climbing experiences in hope of reaching other climbers like myself,” she explains. “I started off on Instagram, hashtagging random things, hoping that the right people would see. #browngirlsclimb happened to be one of those tags. Right away BGC, was responsive with encouraging comments and reposted my pictures.”
Since connecting with @browngirlsclimb, Lebewitz published an interview with Pulido and friend Rakelle on the Brown Girls Climb Facebook page, focused on their friendship and diversity in the sport.
James Mills, author of The Adventure Gap, explains in an article for National Geographic that “it’s estimated that by 2042, the majority of U.S. citizens will be non-white.” This, he writes, “begs the question: What happens when a majority of the population has neither an affinity for, nor a relationship with, the natural world? At the very least, it becomes less likely that future generations will support legislation or advocate for federal funding to protect wild places, or seek out job prospects that aim to protect it.”
A more diverse climbing community means more people who love the places we climb—and more people to protect them.
In other words, diversity and inclusion in climbing are crucial to the long term protection of the places we climb and play outdoors. And right now, some of the most effective work building a more inclusive climbing community is happening, or at least beginning, online. “I think we have to be open to how this thing can be used as a way to protect these places,” says Lebewitz.
Because, says Lebewitz, at the end of the day, a more diverse climbing community means more people who love the places we climb—and more people to protect them. “Many of our cultures are deeply rooted in the history, establishment and maintenance of these great places. Selfies can be an important way for us to recognize that we belong out here. Social media can be annoying, but it’s also helpful in keeping momentum up and spirits high in the midst of a lot of issues this country is facing right now.”