Diversity in Climbing: An Interview with Clmbxr and Project One

clmbxr logo with the text diversity in climbing, an interview with clmbxr and project one

In January 2020, Sport England released Sport for All, a report investigating BAME participation in sport. Upon its release, Sport England stated that ‘the deep-rooted inequalities that mean people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are far less likely to be physically active have been laid bare in a new report’.

Looking specifically at climbing, after doing some digging, the British Mountaineering Council Press FAQ page states that “the results of the latest BMC equity survey… suggests that 98% of climbers are white and that only 2% come from all other categories combined”. A pretty stark statistic.

Project One Climbing

Carmen McIlveen is founder of Project One Climbing, “a group dedicated to the inclusion, increase and support of Black And Minority Ethnic people within UK climbing”. Their website states that it’s difficult to find any statistics on the ethnicity of climbers – “however, if you ask anyone within the community, they will tell you that BAME people are massively underrepresented. It is visible in our indoor facilities and strikingly obvious when we get outdoors”.

“I want to be instigating bigger organisations in climbing to [gather statistics on ethnicity],” says Carmen. “We can’t change unless we know where we’re starting from. If they were to conduct a survey then we could get some data and measure if there is progress or not.”

Carmen McIlveen, founder of Project One Climbing.

Carmen and Project One believe one of the main issues regarding BAME representation in climbing is financial accessibility. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that in the UK, 35.7% percent of BAME households live in poverty compared with 17.2 percent of white households.

“I work on the reception at a climbing gym, I’ve been privy to watching the financial limitations unfold. I’ve had families walking in from the street wanting to give their kids a go and looking at the price list and realising it’s not something you can just walk in and do. I’ve had to turn people away based on that and it didn’t make me very happy.

“When we’re talking about financial accessibility, disposable income is what we’d be spending on these things. If we’re thinking of low income families that have maybe one parent with multiple children, there just isn’t the money to have each child do the activities they necessarily want to, let alone if that activity is an expensive one like climbing.

“I just don’t feel like there is enough money floating around in BAME families in the same way so that just creates a massive barrier initially before you even step foot into a climbing wall.”

Carmen climbing.

Project One aims to tackle the issue through providing free and subsidised access to climbing walls and coaching.

“Once you’ve got people in the door the next barrier then is whether they can maintain continuing to come. Adults that supervise you need to be qualified to a certain point and they’re probably not unless they’re climbers. So the next thing I want to do is to get parents and carers to that standard so that they can bring their children, because that significantly reduces the cost.

“We’re now talking about £7 a session rather than £20 with an instructor or a termly course that can be hundreds. It just gives that independence for people to come and do it when they want and when they can afford.”

Clmbxr

Project One has partnered with The Castle Climbing Centre in London, to begin offering taster sessions once the situation with Covid-19 allows. Clmbxr is a climbing community based in London helping to introduce the sport to underrepresented groups in climbing and, like Project One, has also partnered with walls. Their partnerships allow them to offer discounted entry fees and shoe hire to its members. On Clmbxr’s site they state that they have “partnered with climbing walls that want to make a difference in servicing Black and underrepresented communities”.

Rotimi Odukoya, Clmbxr’s founder, believes these partnerships are “really important”.

Rotimi Odukoya, founder of Clmbxr against a blue background
Rotimi Odukoya, founder of Clmbxr

“Allowing first timers to have access at discounted rates helps. Maybe it’s the catalyst to help them go not just once but twice and thereafter. Partnering with these walls has been fantastic because it enables my community, people who look like myself and those who are underrepresented to have access to these climbing walls and go more often.”

Clmbxr began life as a WhatsApp group. Rotimi was invited to go climbing with a friend and posted about it on Instagram. His friends quickly messaged him about it and asked to go with him, so he started a WhatsApp group which then “spiralled into something organic which is today a 100 or so person community”. As a result, many people from underrepresented communities are being introduced to climbing through Clmbxr.

“I think representation matters both in sport and outside of sport,” says Rotimi. “So many people haven’t seen the sport of climbing or feel like it’s a sport they don’t have access to. So just seeing someone who looks like you in that space can give you that inspiration to start. 

“It also brings diversity. Diversity of skillset, diversity in how you approach a problem. There’s not just one way to tackle problems in climbing anyway. Even though you do have a set beta, once you bring different people to see that problem, you also find greater solutions.”

Both Carmen and Rotimi were featured on Louis Parkinson’s Instagram takeovers, in which climbers from unrepresented backgrounds use Louis’ platform of 104,000 followers to discuss their experiences.

A post from Rotimi’s takeover of Louis Parkinson’s Instagram account, showing some of the members of Clmbxr.

“I think what Louis did and what he’s done is great,” says Rotimi. “Louis has influence within the space of climbing and him using his platform to magnify us and other black people and people of colour within the climbing space is really great. Our stories need to be told as well. We haven’t got a microphone like Louis has with these 100k followers to speak about issues –  really difficult issues within diversity, race and how that sort of cross correlates with climbing. Louis using his platform to do that is really respectable so I’m grateful for him to do that.”

Looking ahead, both Clmbxr and Project One have big plans. Rotimi has found that the reception to Clmbxr has been great and wants to see the community continue to grow.

“I think climbing walls have recognised they need to broaden their horizon and bring more new faces and fresh faces to the walls. From a personal standpoint I love meeting new people so any time someone new comes I love it. I get a chance to meet someone I’ve never met before in this world and they’ve decided to come and climb with us for the first time, I think that’s really special. London is where we are today but in the future maybe Manchester, Birmingham or even Europe. And maybe even opening our own climbing wall. Who knows?”

“I want to see an Olympian!” says Carmen. “I want to cheer on an Olympian that comes from Project One. If half of the people in London aren’t climbing then how do we know that these people aren’t going to be the best? I also want everyone to have a really nice time. We know how great climbing is and I just want as many people to experience that as possible. I’m in this for the long haul, it’s not just about doing this now because everyone is talking about it. It needs to be something that is long lasting, and maintained and improved. Hopefully we’ll see some big changes!”

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