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The original Brooklyn Boulders gym, which opened in Brooklyn, New York, in 2009. Today, BKB has five gyms in three major cities. (Photo by Gustavo Moser)
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“It’s hard to climb with a knee on your neck.”

#BlackLivesMatter

White letters on a black background. This is what Brooklyn Boulders posted on Instagram on June 1, one week after George Floyd’s murder.

“To us it felt like an opportunity to bring attention to a really important moment and a really important conversation,” said Kayci Baldwin, BKB’s Marketing Director and author of the post. “I certainly wanted to grab people’s attention.”

Martin Adler, the interim CEO of BKB explained, “Either we were going to be actively anti-racist or we were going to be complicit and accepting of the things that were occurring.”

The company, Brooklyn Boulders, owns and operates five climbing gyms back east: two in New York, two in Chicago and one outside of Boston.

The Instagram post did, in fact, grab attention — perhaps too well. People either praised it or condemned it. And those in the latter camp — climbers and the community at large — reacted so passionately, that BKB decided anything short of a radical response would have been too little, too late.

Brooklyn Boulders boasts a number of youth programs, including their youth teams: the BKBeasts. (Photo by Caitie McCabe)

“For me personally, as a black woman working in a largely homogenous industry, to have so many people in the Brooklyn Boulders community say we want you to show up for black people, we want you to show up for BIPOC climbers, we want you to show up for people who have not historically felt safe in this space, is so, so, so important,” said Baldwin.

They decided to shake things up. Right away, the company founders stepped down, making room for new leadership with Adler at the helm. Under his direction since early August, BKB has undergone a fundamental restructure in order to become more diverse (they already host a more diverse staff and clientele than most climbing gyms), more inclusive and more affordable for those living in the neighborhoods where BKB operates.

“We heard clear from people who really care about the organization, who care about their communities, that we can do better,” said Adler.

For him, and for BKB, doing better means Climbing For All — the name of their new initiative. The first step, to be put into practice by the end of this month, is a sliding scale for memberships based on self-reported need.

“If climbing is for all, climbing should be accessible to all,” said Adler.

The scale will be tiered, based on what customers can afford. For example, a full-price membership to BKB’s original Brooklyn location (established in 2009) costs $135 per month, but with the sliding scale, those in need will have the option to pay as little as $29 per month for the same membership.

“Consumers want to trust the brands they choose to give their money to,” said Baldwin. “And trust has to go both ways: it requires the brand to trust their community as much as it asks the community to trust the brand.”

The second part of Climbing For All includes free access for nonprofit organizations to use their facilities, including future visits for individuals in those nonprofits. Adler explained that they don’t want a visit to a BKB gym to be a one-off thing, like a visit to a museum.

“We want you to become a climber,” he said.

To pay for Climbing For All, BKB took 5% of membership revenue and 100 percent of activation fees (a $100 fee applied to full-price memberships that historically went toward operational expenses) and put that into a fund.

“We’re starting with $500,000 of annually pledged access,” Baldwin explained.

That’s $25,000 per gym, per quarter that BKB is donating — all of which stemmed from a controversial Instagram post. Talk about a radical response!

Perhaps the best part of Climbing For All is that it sets an extremely high bar for other climbing gyms, and other companies, across the country.

“It is absolutely our hope that the climbing industry overall will take steps to make the sport more inclusive,” said Baldwin. “We are proud to be contributing to the evolution of good faith climbing gyms.”

Contact Chris Weidner at cweidner8@gmail.com. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.

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