An Oral History of the National Brotherhood of Skiers
Since 1973, a groundbreaking organization has gathered thousands of Black snow-sports enthusiasts for a week of on-mountain revelry. But the event has always had a more serious mission, too: changing perceptions about who belongs on the slopes.
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In June, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz wrote an open letter to his employees, calling the ski world “overwhelmingly white, with incredibly low representation from people of color,” and pledging to change that. Currently, just 1.8 percent of American skier days are logged by Black people, according to the National Ski Areas Association. That number hasn’t risen in a decade.
But it might be a lot closer to zero were it not for the National Brotherhood of Skiers. Launched in 1973 with the mission of creating a national Black ski summit and attracting more Black people to the sport, the Brotherhood’s biennial event has seen up to 6,000 attendees gather in a premier ski town—Vail, Park City, even Innsbruck, Austria—for a week of revelry. There are giant outdoor feasts, rollicking on-snow dance parties, and all-night celebrations. Skiers in matching parkas perform choreographed mogul assaults. The organization also coordinates discounts on lessons and rentals for first-time skiers—the NBS calls them never evers—while its cadre of experts, the Sno-Pros, provide mentoring and tips.
The NBS acts as an umbrella group that unites 55 regional Black ski clubs scattered nationwide. With an all-volunteer staff and a $250,000 annual budget coming from donations, fundraising, and sponsors like REI and New Belgium Brewing, the group has received considerable media coverage, and has introduced thousands of Black people (both children and adults) to snow sports. It’s also supporting Black skiers and snowboarders hoping to make the U.S. Olympic team.
As the NBS moves into its 47th year, it faces a new set of challenges. Its founders—Ben Finley and Arthur “Art” Clay, now 81 and 83, respectively—have become legends, but the group’s membership has aged, without an influx of younger constituents. In March, the group made news after its summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, had a devastating encounter with the coronavirus—scores of members fell ill, and four died. Now it’s wrestling with how to leverage the momentum of a national reckoning with racism.
Recounted in the voices of its own members, here is the story of how the NBS came to be, its accomplishments, and the direction it’s heading in the future.