For all their differences, winter resorts have a few things in common. For one, their skiers tend to match their snow: white.
Starting Saturday, though, Sun Valley will see a rare flush of diversity—one that reaches select Western ski areas for a single week each year.
The National Brotherhood of Skiers’ 2020 Black Summit runs from Saturday, Feb. 29, through Saturday, March 7, bringing some 600 black skiers to the Wood River Valley. When they arrive, they’ll increase the number of African-Americans in Blaine County 10-fold, up from 64, according to counts by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. As a group, they’ll account for about 4 percent of all black people in Idaho.
All of which is to say, the Brotherhood is coming to a predominately white state to participate in an almost entirely white sport.
But that’s been the group’s M.O. since 1973, when the Colorado National Guard sat on standby for the first Black Summit at Aspen’s Ajax. This year, the summit’s theme honors the Brotherhood’s founders, Art Clay and Ben Finley, the two men behind that initial summit and, soon, the first black inductees into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.
Since its inception, the Brotherhood has pitched two main goals: helping black Americans compete in ski and snowboard events at the Winter Olympics and breaking down the minds-eye image of who belongs on the slopes. On both counts, they haven’t gotten all the way there just yet—but, according to NBS President Peggie Allen, there’s progress.
“When you think about skiers, you always think tall, blonde and thin,” Allen told the Idaho Mountain Express. “Well, we are not all tall and thin—and we’re definitely not blonde. We people of color come in in all shapes and sizes.”
Allen herself came late to the sport. In Albany, N.Y., she lived a short drive from the Green Mountains of southern Vermont, home to some of New England’s most popular resorts. But she never thought about going.
In other words, she said, “I was a typical black person.”
The comfort wasn’t there until she found a black ski club—the Ice Breakers, out of Valley Stream, N.Y.—and took her first turns at Sugarbush in northern Vermont. All her life, she had a recurring dream—gliding, on ice, she thought, into a hockey stop. Feeling the swoosh and the spray. After three days of lessons, she threw her skis sideways, and came to a skidding stop. She felt it, realized the feeling in waking life. Allen hasn’t had that dream since. Now, she just skis.
“It was like a light went on,” she said. “I asked myself, why haven’t I been doing this all along?”
In part, she thinks, because the images and advertising of ski areas were—and, for the most part, remain—taller, thinner and blonder than most modern skiers. Representing diversity in marketing could go a long way, she said, and it “needs to be an ongoing effort.”
Outreach helps too, which is where the local clubs that make up the NBS come in. Allen still remembers the support of the Ice Breakers. She has since founded her own, the Nubian Empire Ski Club, in Albany. Then, as now, she makes sure the Brotherhood takes newcomers—“never-haves,” she calls them—under its wing.
“Forty-seven years ago, people would ask, ‘What are you doing on the mountain?’” Allen said. “And we still get looks. We still get people who don’t talk to us on the chair. But other people ask, ‘What are all you black folks doing up here?’ And we tell them about the Brotherhood. We welcome them in.”
That’s what caught Sun Valley resident Stu Siderman when the Brotherhood came to Ketchum in 2014. He asked, and they told him. (Then, they taught him to dance “The Wobble.”)
The Brotherhood has visited Sun Valley five times to date: 1975, 1979, 1998, 2012 and 2014. But after the last one, things went silent. In 2018, Siderman asked some of the friends he’d made why they hadn’t returned. Sun Valley just wasn’t on the radar, they said. So, he approached newly elected Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw to brainstorm toward getting them back.
“They vote on where they want to go—and I want them to come back here on a regular basis,” Siderman said.
With a seven-figure economic impact, according to Siderman, businesses would welcome a regular rotation spot, too. He called the summit’s positive impact on the community “amazing.”
“I want people to embrace it,” he said.
Bradshaw, now entering his third year in office, also put out the welcome mat.
“Ketchum has a history of celebrating diversity, and making everyone feel welcome,” he said. “[The NBS] had good experiences in 2012 and 2014, and so did we—it was mutual fun. What’s wonderful about the NBS is they bring their own spirit and sparkle. Together, it makes for a week of maximum fun and festivity.”
Allen, who is retiring after the summit, said she’s looking forward to that feeling once again.
“We ski hard, we party hard and we contribute to our cause,” she said. “We’re going to be up, down and all around. The town welcomes us with such open arms. That’s why we love Ketchum—they love us.”