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Sending in Color: How One Group is Bringing Diversity to the Chicago Climbing Community

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Lisa See Kim, a climber of six years, was getting ready for another problem at Chicago’s First Ascent Uptown bouldering gym. Surrounded by a diverse group, Kim told the organizer of the event that she’d been waiting for a climbing meetup for people of color for the longest time.

“I think that in general, most climbing spaces that I’ve encountered have been predominantly white,” said Kim. “I guess it’s a trend in my whole life. I feel like I’ve been seeking out spaces with more people that look like me or share a similar experience.”

Photo Gallery: The Faces of Sending in Color

Sending in Color Chicago Rock climbing Diversity
Pat Nabong

Pilar Amado, co-founder of Sending in Color, started climbing at a small basement gym in Chicago before bigger gyms like First Ascent and Brooklyn Boulders popped up in the city.

“It was very intimidating at first because there was a lot of people, but they all knew each other, and then here I am knowing nobody, barely speaking the language,” recounted Amado. “I was super scared and it took a couple of months until I felt comfortable talking to people. Everybody was super nice and super welcoming, but it’s really hard to continue climbing if you don’t know anybody.”

Sending in Color Chicago Rock climbing Diversity
Pat Nabong

When Christine Antonio was a kid, she was always climbing things, like tables and poles, but “there was never really any opportunity to get into [the sport] in Chicago: no money, no time, no transportation, lack of access,” said Antonio. “Diversity in any community or activity is important for having different ideas. Including people from different backgrounds and experiences makes anything more interesting, and we also don’t end up neglecting or overlooking the experience of marginalized groups.”

Sending in Color Chicago Rock climbing Diversity
Pat Nabong

“I’ve lived in places where I was one of the only black people, so I’m very used to [people looking at me] like, ‘Are you sure you belong here?’” said Stephanie Kinuthia, who started climbing in December 2016. She shook that awkward feeling off and kept going. “You have to make the decision that this is something you want to do and keep moving forward.”

Kinuthia has attended every Sending in Color event and plans to continue, despite living 45 minutes away. She appreciates the group’s effort to move forward in a “place where representation doesn’t always exist.” 

Sending in Color Chicago Rock climbing Diversity
Pat Nabong

To Lisa See Kim, “Climbing’s been the way of building strength that I can stick with because it’s puzzly and fun.” But now that she’s joined her first Sending in Color hangout, she sees it as an opportunity to find a sense of community.

Sending in Color Chicago Rock climbing Diversity
Pat Nabong

“A lot community spaces for people of color like me—an Asian-American woman and particularly a Korean-American woman in the Midwest—are spaces for church and worship,” said Kim. “Because my beliefs and my politics have veered away from that, I felt myself lacking and craving more spaces of communion with people of color, or people who also might share an immigrant experience.”

Sending in Color Chicago Rock climbing Diversity
Pat Nabong

Leicester Mitchell has attended several Sending in Color events. “I just thought it was nice to have a community of people of color climbing. When I first started climbing here in Chicago, it was normal for me to be the only person of color in the gym … Sometimes people just don’t think of it as anything other than a white person sport, not necessarily that anyone’s trying to discriminate or anything.”

Sending in Color Chicago Rock climbing Diversity
Pat Nabong

Lisa See Kim and Leicester Mitchell get some simultaneous sendage.

Sending in Color Chicago Rock climbing Diversity
Pat Nabong

Pilar Amado works her way around an overhang. 

Justin Forrest Parks also took note of the sport’s lack of diversity.

“When I would talk about climbing or going on these trips to people [from the South Side of Chicago], they would be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a Justin thing,’ or ‘Black people don’t do that,’” he said.

Parks felt welcomed by the climbing community when he started climbing six years ago, but he also couldn’t shake the nagging question in the back of his mind: “If I’m the only person of color here, is that because others are choosing not be here, or is it because they’re not getting access and we’re not making it accessible?”

Access was the issue for Pilar Amado, who stopped climbing for a year when she moved from Colombia to Chicago. She found it difficult to get back into the sport because she didn’t know anyone in the then tightly-knit climbing community. The language barrier and the cost to enter a climbing gym added additional challenges.

Parks suggests that the price of gym memberships, concentration of gyms in the North and West Sides of a segregated Chicago, and the lack of efforts to introduce climbing to people of color hinder the diversification of the city’s climbing community.

Inspired by their experiences, Parks and Amado decided to create Sending in Color, a group that aims to make climbing more accessible, create a community, and introduce the sport to climbers of diverse backgrounds. Sending in Color organizes monthly hangouts where they partner with climbing gyms in different Chicago neighborhoods to offer reduced day rates.

Sending in Color bills itself as a place for climbers of color to meet others, support one another, encourage new climbers, and find a community. The group has had three hangouts since its inception in November 2017. Their attendance ranges from 15 to 80 climbers of all levels, with a number of regulars.

“I don’t think anyone’s saying, ‘Let’s keep these people out,’ but by not really working on trying to bring them in and being inclusive, it can be just as damaging,” said Parks. “There are people of color out there, and they’re crushing, and they’re doing great.”

Follow Sending in Color on Facebook to learn more about the group and find out about upcoming events.