Controversy in Brooklyn

Climbers want action. Demands were made. Change is ongoing.

Jeremy Balboni, former CEO and co-founder of Brooklyn Boulders, on June 13, issued an apology to gym staffers and patrons. The apology addressed the company’s inaction as regards to diversity, inclusivity and a Black Lives Matter-related Instagram post perceived as lacking basis.

Three days later, an anonymous collective of New York City-based Brooklyn Boulders (BKB) employees and former employees sent a letter of grievances and demands charging systemic racism within the organization. Since then, the petition has garnered over 1,000 signatures (some public, others anonymous).

Established in 2009, BKB maintains locations across New York, Boston and Chicago, with headquarters in Denver. The company is managed by an executive team, three of which­—Balboni; Lance Pinn, co-founder and former president; and Allison Glussi, former senior director of people and culture—have since stepped down from their positions in response to the collective’s actions.

The interim CEO, Martin Adler, spoke to Gym Climber:

“While I don’t have perfect information about all the things that have happened in the past, my top priority is a fresh start for the organization and ensuring that in people’s lived experience with us, whether they be staff or our members, that they feel that they’ve been treated with respect and with dignity, and that the organization is fundamentally structured in a way that is equitable.”

 

In late May and early June, up to 26 million Americans participated in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and demonstrations over police brutality and our country’s ongoing discrimination against people of color. To show support for the movement, on June 1, BKB posted two slides, each with a black background, white text and the hashtag Blacklivesmatter. The first slide read: “It’s hard to climb with a knee on your neck.” The second: “It’s hard to train when you can’t breathe.”

Members responded with anger and disappointment over BKB’s past inaction and failure to implement antiracist policies. Among other things, the post was dubbed on Instagram a “missed opportunity.”

Following those posts, upwards of 75 individuals drafted the petition against BKB’s management. Grievances include:

“A toxic culture that protects top executives with a history of racism, misogyny, and discriminatory actions against BIPOC employees” … “a troubling history of targeting Black people for termination unrelated to job performance, as well as passing them over for promotions and valuable training opportunities in favor of white employees” … “the executive team has long been dangerously secretive, completely unapproachable by facility employees, and accountable to no one.”

The letter outlines 30 demands that range from executive turnover to a commitment to financial reparations, programming and mentorships for BIPOC community members.

Gym Climber reached out to the collective regarding specific allegations; however, none of those contacted was willing to be quoted.

In response to the letter, BKB management released an “Accountability Dashboard,” which is linked on their social media. The Dashboard lists each of the demands from the petition and provides comments and status of completion. So far, BKB management has committed to complete or partially complete at least 14 of the 30 demands.

For example, BKB management wrote: “We agree to a tangible commitment to increased program and facility access for the neighborhoods and communities that we operate within,” and, “BKB is committed to incorporate robust, recurring, implicit bias training for facility and HQ staff. Several training programs are already being explored and quoted.”

Reasons are also given for the demands that BKB has not committed to meet. One such response was: “Demands that we create HR policy that is different for certain employees based entirely on race are unacceptable and illegal, and demands that would immediately cost millions of dollars in unsustainable benefits, such as automatic raises every three months for all full-time and part-time employees, unspecified reparations, etc., would serve only to bankrupt the company and culture that we are trying to improve.”

Community members gather for a local comp, food and drinks with friends. Photo Lorraine Ciccarelli

The Layoffs

Due to the pandemic, Brooklyn Boulders facilities closed March 16. Two facilities, located in Illinois and Massachusetts, reopened in late July. Brooklyn Boulders Lincoln Park location, which is new this year, had its grand opening on September 14. The two New York locations didn’t reopen until September 2.

Following the March 16 shutdown, employees were initially furloughed, and BKB covered 100 percent of furloughed employees healthcare premiums through July. On July 2, however, two weeks after the Collective’s letter was sent to management, 150-plus staffers were laid off, or about 50 percent of a total 298 employees. Most of them were New York City-based, although some in Boston and about half of the Denver-based employees also lost their jobs.

The layoffs caused a storm of Instagram comments and anger from community members, who felt the layoffs were implemented as collective punishment. Adler responded, telling Gym Climber:

“My priority is bringing back our staff in New York. I do understand that the timing [of the layoffs] really led to suspicion and misunderstanding. I want our staff back” … “We’re reaching out to the staff that we laid off and letting them know that their jobs are available for rehiring. Unfortunately, in New York, our capacity is 33 percent of pre-COVID levels. So we’re not going to be able to rehire all of the people that we had working previously, when we were at 100 percent capacity” … “My intention is to be able to bring back as many former employees as possible in the short order, and ultimately to bring everybody back.”

Sebastian Casper-Schulte goes for the dyno at the annual Do or Dyno Comp. Photo Lorraine Ciccarelli

Future Plans

Since releasing the Accountability Dashboard, the BKB executive team has put several plans in place for increasing diversity and inclusivity within its organization. After bringing back the original staff, the goal is to increase outreach to match community representation.

Adler says, “The outdoor sports industry historically has pooled from people who already have experience and affinity with the industry. And that’s been overwhelmingly homogenous, which impacts the type of people that come into the pipeline for those jobs. We are working to create partnerships to widen that funnel and make sure that we bring people into the industry who are more diverse to begin with. And then that we have training programs to ensure that we can bring people up through our ranks and into the highest tiers of the organization.”

Another plan is the Climbing For All initiative, with the goal of, among other things, providing a million dollars worth of access over the course of the next year. Community members will be able to use the gym on a sliding scale at reduced cost to no cost. Local groups and community organizations will receive about a half a million dollars in access grants and a half a million in community grants.

Says Adler, “We’re starting with a seed grant of $500,000 in access and targeting a million dollars in the first year, which comes from a portion of our membership dues. We do understand that in our local communities where we operate, the fact that we run premium gyms at a premium price point, does price out some of the local folks that we want to be part of our community.

“Over time, you’ll see more progress in more announcements about additional components of Climbing For All that go beyond the democratization of access.”

 


 

Also Read

When Gym Members Come to the Rescue

 

  • Delaney Miller is a three time U.S. Champion in the open Sports Climbing Series. In total, Miller has won 12 Championship titles between youth and adult, National and Pan-American competitions. She has three years of coaching experience and a degree in Health and Exercise Science from Colorado State University.

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