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Carving Out Space

Athlete-Meets-Artist-Meets-Instagram Influencer Brooklyn Bell is leaving her mark on the ski slopes and making room for other black athletes to do the same.

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Brooklyn Bell exits the warming hut at the top of Revelstoke Mountain Resort and cranks the latest Drake album through her earbuds as she clicks into her skis. She sidesteps her way up to Sweet Spot, where she shoots through the narrow, cliff-bound entry to the top of Lower North Bowl. 

Though she’s about to drop in on a burly Freeride World Qualifier run, she had to convince people all the way up the mountain that she even knows how to ski. With her braided dreadlocks and dark skin, there’s rarely anyone else who looks like her on the slopes at ski resorts. Or in adventure sports in general, for that matter. At a 2019 Patagonia athlete team event (Bell’s a sponsored mountain biking athlete with the brand and recently released her first biking film, “Becoming Ruby”), she found herself the sole person of color sitting at the table. “The only other people of color were the ones serving us,” she recalls. “That sort of thing happens all the time. And I think, ‘How did I get here? How do I get to be here?’” 

The lack of role models is one reason that Bell, a talented artist, created Ruby. Red-lipped with a pierced nose, wearing a beanie and mysterious reflective goggles, Ruby is Bell’s imagined idol who guides her aspirations in skiing and biking. “If you’ve seen someone hit a cliff or do a trick and then you can see yourself doing it, that’s what Ruby is for me,” she says. “She helps me try new things, she’s the validation I need to chase my ski dreams. Ruby’s a badass who takes up space. She gives me the courage to do that, too.” For Bell, “taking up space” means owning up to who she is and her potential without fear of judgment from other people. “Maybe what I’m doing isn’t ‘normal’ or you haven’t really quite seen it yet. But I’m going to take up that space and carve out my own culture.” 

Bell, 23, has only been skiing seriously for about five years. Neither of her parents skied—her mother was a figure skater, and Bell grew up tracing the lines her mom laid down in the ice. It was her grandparents who introduced her to the mountains, taking her to Mt. Baker whenever her Seattle-based family visited Bellingham. “My grandma still skis, she’s the lady who’s got a senior pass to Baker every year,” Bell laughs. 

Brooklyn Bell airborne in the Mt. Baker sidecountry after an early February Dump.
Bell tests the landing conditions in the Mt. Baker sidecountry after an early February dump.Photo by Matthew Roebke

When Bell graduated high school and headed for Western Washington University, she bought her first pair of fat skis and a pass to Mt. Baker. In those first days she mostly skied alone, emulating styles she scoped from the lift and privately racing people down runs. “Finally, a group of guys I’d gone to high school with said to me, ‘You keep catching up to us, why don’t you ski with us?’ They showed me how to drop cliffs, and once I started doing that, I was so completely lit.”

After only a few years on skis, the self-taught Bell decided to begin competing in the Freeride World Qualifier, a series of events that serve as the gateway to the Freeride World Tour, the pinnacle competition for the best big mountain riders in the world. She finds the events immensely challenging—she fell down most of the slope on her inaugural FWQ run at Lake Louise—but Bell has a knack for seeing the big picture. She’s only falling because she’s pushing herself, she says, and out of the failure comes improvement.

“To be honest, she’s inspired me,” says Emile Zynobia, a snowboarder out of Jackson, Wyo., who’s on the shortlist of skiers of color who Bell looks up to. “I have a lot of friends who say things like, ‘Why don’t you go pro?’ As Black women, it’s not as obvious for us. People think it’s a level playing field, but it’s not. We don’t all come from backgrounds where we learned to ski at age 2. We have to make our own way and set our own standards, and it’s been so cool to see Brooklyn do just that.”

Over the last year, Bell invested her signature fierce passion into creating a leadership role for herself in the ski industry. She was the artist in residence for Girls Do Ski, a popular women’s-only ski clinic led by fellow Patagonia athlete Leah Evans. She’s worked with SheJumps, which aims to get women and girls from all backgrounds outdoors. On June 9, two weeks after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police sparked protests around the world, Bell hosted a talk on how to be an ally on Instagram. Her account, like many POC-led social media accounts, ballooned in a matter of days as the white-dominated outdoor community began seeking leadership on the issue of diversity and inclusion in the outdoor space.

“I feel like I exist between two worlds,” Bell says. “I don’t always feel like I can go to my people who I ski with and say ‘I feel hopeless or lonely and wish other people would speak up.’ Sometimes being a part of these outdoor sports, especially really intense ones, means that I have to pretend like everything is okay and lose a part of myself. I don’t think that should happen. I should be bringing all of myself to the table. Even the parts of me that are uncomfortable for other people.”

Speaking of uncomfortable: Bell’s been accused of being highlighted as a skier out of tokenism. “I’ve heard the comments that she’s only being seen because she’s a young Black woman, not because she’s actually that good,” says fellow Mt. Baker local Adam U. “I’ve been the token pan-Asian guy plenty of times. But then I think: If this is the one time you can use that to your advantage—when for generations it’s hindered you—then by all means, take what you can get.”

U and Zynobia both agree that tokenism is at least a start, better than the all-white standard that the industry has exuded for so long. “But I don’t think that’s fair when applied to Brooklyn,” says Zynobia. “Calling it ‘tokenism’ or ‘affirmative action’ takes away from the effort and work she put in to get to where she is.”

For Bell, finding her place in skiing isn’t about leveraging tokenism, it’s about authenticity: “Showing up, deciding I’m not going to be what people think a young Black woman should be. But even when I’m out there being me, it’s so political that it’s shaking things up,” Bell says.

“Brooklyn stands to be an icon in the ski industry and challenge the status-quo,” says SheJumps Executive Director Claire Smallwood. It’s up to ski culture to accept the change, she says, and amplify Bell’s capability and multi-dimensionality.

This article was originally printed in the October 2020 issue of SKI Magazine.