Why Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Matter for Climbers

Categories: Perspectives , Community

Though a daily concern for many people, the concept of "justice" has rarely been so front of mind for such a wide swathe of the American public. People across the country are rallying to demonstrate their belief that this country should be a place "with liberty and justice for all"—in practice and not just in name. The climbing community is far from immune to these concerns. While for some the simple act of going climbing may not seem like something that is tied up in social movements, many folks—whether because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identities—do not feel able to, or even safe, participating in climbing and other outdoor recreation activities.

Carlos Flores gets a hand chalking up at the first ever Color the Crag Climbing Festival, an event that celebrates diversity in the sport of rock climbing and works to build community, promote leadership from people of color, and provide a positive narrative of underrepresented communities in the outdoors. Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek territories. Photo courtesy of © Irene Yee

What is the solution? Of course the answer is incredibly complex, but one way it can start is with a set of principles known as "JEDI", which stands for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Sometimes alternatively presented as DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), the term JEDI packs a lot of meaning into two syllables. This article discusses what it is, and why it matters for climbers.

JEDI is a practice. It is a body of work that strives to make communities more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and ultimately, just. This work can take on a massive variety of forms, from something as seemingly simple as including underrepresented populations in marketing materials to something as multifaceted as getting legislation passed in Congress that facilitates outdoor recreation in urban communities. JEDI work can involve storytelling, and amplifying the voices of climbers of color, or of indigenous communities that have lived on and stewarded the lands we climb on for thousands of years. It can be about reforming hiring practices to make sure that an organization is reaching the best candidates, no matter who or where they might be. For a local climbing organization (LCO), JEDI could be about making sure your board has the same proportion of women as your local climbing community, or perhaps it’s simply taking steps to make your next event wheelchair accessible.

So why does any of this matter? The reality is that climbing, like many other outdoor activities, is not representative of the demographics of our country as a whole. According to the US census, around 40% of Americans—with the numbers rapidly growing—are nonwhite or hispanic. Yet climbing, skiing, and their peer activities often don’t reflect this. This is a problem on two levels. On the pragmatic level, if we want to ensure that the places we love, and climbing itself, continue to have a robust constituency that is impassioned to step up and defend them, we need to ensure that we are welcoming new voices. We must grow and change to preserve our ability to fight for what we care about. And on the ethical level, it’s also just the right thing to do. There is no reason certain folks should believe that climbing isn’t for them, based on their skin color, gender, or the fact that they don’t own a car. That runs in conflict with the evolution of our society and it is the nexus of where practicing JEDI comes in. With all that in mind, let’s dive into the fundamentals.


Justice, simply put, is about what’s right. Everyone has an instinctive understanding of justice—that people should be treated fairly, that everyone should have access to the same opportunities in life, that no one should be disadvantaged because of where they were born, what they look like, or who they are. In the context of JEDI, justice is often specifically about dismantling systems and structures that create inequality, replacing them with systems that promote fairness, and creating opportunities for diverse groups of people to thrive together. In essence, justice is a product of creating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable society.


Though often confused, equity and equality are not the same. Imagine this scenario: three climbers arrive at the crag with no gear. Each is randomly assigned to a different climb that, for whatever reason, they must do. One is a splitter crack, 0.5 C4s the whole way. Second is a discontinuous crack that goes from tips to offwidth with bolted face sections in between. Third is a fully bolted sport climb. Equality is giving these three climbers the exact same rack, regardless of the climb they have to face. That’s fair, in a sense, because everyone is getting the same thing. But is it right, let alone effective? Equity is dividing the rack so that each climber gets what they need to send the route they need to climb. Equity is ensuring that individuals and groups get the resources they need to succeed, based on their own specific circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses. In an ideal world, equality would be enough, and everyone would get the same fair shake from the beginning. But that’s not how the world works, and building towards justice requires equity, so that everyone has the rack they need to send the climb that is their life.


This is the “easy” one, and probably the one you’re most familiar with. Diversity is the degree of difference within a given group. Many people think of diversity in terms of race and gender, but it can encompass a much wider range of attributes: class, sexuality, age, ability, whether you live in a rural or urban area, and also non-demographic factors like what discipline of climbing you most closely identify with and even your mindset and skills. The benefits of diversity are well-documented, with more diverse companies, for example, tending to outperform their competitors. But deeper than quantitative proofs for why diversity is pragmatic is the simple ethical notion that in a fair society, no one should lack access to or feel unwelcome in a community or activity they might have an interest in based on the traits, inborn or otherwise, that make them who they are.


The old cliche about inclusion goes something like: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Yeah yeah yeah, but it’s also kind of true. Imagine telling a new climber that you’re going to the crag with your crusty old climbing partner and they should come check it out. Sure, they might come by to see what’s going on, but if all you do is lap the classic 5.8 with your old buddy, and never offer the new climber the rope, they’re not exactly going to get a chance to climb. Inclusion is an intentional, sustained, and specific effort to make people feel welcomed, valued, heard, and respected. It’s about integrating new folks into your community, and ensuring that they understand that they have the same rights, resources, and responsibilities as everyone else in it.

Access Fund board member Shelma Jun presents on the JEDI implications of public lands policy at a Congressional panel during Climb the Hill 2019. Access Fund has committed to integrating JEDI principles into its policy work to ensure that all climbers are represented when we lobby on Capitol Hill. | Photo © Stephen Gosling

Bringing It All Together

We string together justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in that order because JEDI is a nice catchy acronym and reminds people of Yoda and lightsabers, two things which seem universally liked across a divided American public. But if we really think about it, the acronym should go the other way. Being inclusive of others—true and deep effort to understand and welcome folks with different lived experiences than ours—fosters diversity. Diversity, by bringing many people with different stories, backgrounds, skills, and needs into one place, requires equity to be sustainable. And equity, which strives to give people the specific resources they need to live up to their own individual or collective potential, aims to remove unfair barriers to opportunity and ultimately build a just society: one where everyone, regardless of who they are, is equally able to live a full and meaningful life.

For many of us, climbing and other outdoor pursuits have had a profound impact on our lives. Think about how your own life has been impacted by climbing and imagine who we might be or what our lives might have been like without access to the outdoors. By being advocates for JEDI, we can help ensure that people from all walks of life have a chance to experience the power and beauty that climbing has to offer. And that benefits all of us and our work to protect America’s climbing.

Access Fund would like to thank the many people in our community and beyond who have led and contributed to this work in the past, and continue to do so today.

Taimur Ahmad
Taimur is Access Fund’s JEDI fellow and also works on California and national policy issues. Taimur is from New York City and got his start in climbing bouldering on Rat Rock in New York’s Central Park, on Lenape and Wappinger lands.

Credit Photo Courtesy of:
© Irene Yee

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