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The Town of Crested Butte painted the phrase "Black Lives Matter" across three blocks of Elk Avenue on Sept. 21, 2020. The town council voted to do the mural hoping it sends the message that racism is not tolerated and that people of color are welcome to live, work, visit and recreate in the mountain town. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sun slants through the buildings on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, turning cottonwood fluff into floating sparkle. The surrounding hillsides glow green and rise up into red-hued peaks, some of which still hold bright, white snow. It’s a real-life snow globe scene, and Chloe Bowman stands at the center of it, suspended in the surreal. She stares at 200 of her community members lying on the hot pavement in front of the post office with signs in hand that read “Black Lives Matter.”

Bowman, 26, was born in Colorado Springs to Ghanaian parents and has been a resident of the Gunnison Valley since 2012. With the help of friends, she organized a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Crested Butte on June 27 and was shocked by the turnout.

Chloe Bowman, 26, helped organize a Black Lives Matter demonstration this past summer. The preschool teacher also helps local businesses with diversity training. Bowman says that racism in the Gunnison Valley is “easily disguised and excused.” (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The event occurred 33 days after George Floyd died of asphyxiation under the knee of a police officer. His death sparked one of the largest movements in U.S. history. 

Between 15 million and 26 million participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations in thousands of cities and towns across the country. Many took place in rural, majority-white areas  like Gunnison County, where, according to 2019 Census estimates, 87% of residents identify as white, 9.6% identify as Hispanic, and 0.6% identify as Black or African American. For comparison, the 2019 Census estimates 60.1% of U.S. residents are white; 18.5% Hispanic or Latinx; and 13.4% Black or African American. 

MORE: What happened when Black Lives Matter arrived in Colorado’s deeply conservative Eastern Plains?

As it has in countless communities across America, the movement offers a unique opportunity to examine the social realities in Gunnison County. Bowman understands her community’s desire to remain open-minded and rebellious, and that locals feel fierce pride in how they look after each other. She also recognized the opportunity for people to reinforce these values by standing up for her and other people of color in the Gunnison Valley.

However, she said, “the silence here was deafening.” 

While Bowman, a preschool teacher, never considered herself an activist, she felt it was time to address the much-avoided topics of racial injustice and privilege within the community and no longer wanted to tolerate Gunnison Valley as a “refuge” from racism.

“We get to pick and choose what we care about, that’s the blessing of being here,” Bowman said during her speech at the rally. “But here in this little world we choose to live in, it’s more important to talk about the trails that you’re biking than the heavy stuff on the news. This community has a heart that bleeds…why is this bleeding heart on reserve for us and only us?” 

Racism takes many forms in the Gunnison Valley

Bowman says racism in the Gunnison Valley occurs in many forms, from uncomfortable stares to backhanded compliments like “you are actually very articulate.” There also are acts of active discrimination, like not getting a job because someone distrusts the color of your skin, even if you are more qualified than other applicants. She says visitors and residents of color have shared frustration at repeatedly getting pulled over by the police for no apparent reason or being followed around in retail shops under suspicious eyes. 

The illusion that “we don’t have racism here,” Bowman says, makes it even more painful “because it is so easily disguised and excused.”

Racial injustice resides in the historical foundations of the valley, making it harder to see clearly today. For example, the lands on which residents live, work and play were violently stolen from the Ute people who were forcefully relocated when white settlers arrived. In the U.S., due to accumulated discrimination and lack of access to opportunity, net worth of a typical Black family is $17,150, approximately one-tenth of the wealth held by a typical white family, according to a Brookings report released in February. That kind of economic disparity makes it impossible for most people of color to even contemplate living in Crested Butte, where the median property value is around $1.4 million

Still, the community is generally friendly, welcoming and non-violent, which is part of the reason Bowman has fallen in love with it and wants to stay. The peaceful protest in Crested Butte, accompanied and supported by local marshals, contrasted sharply with footage of police in riot gear that same day at a Denver vigil for Elijah McClain (another unarmed Black man killed while in police custody). 

What shelters the valley from harsh realities of racism is also what makes it the perfect place to have tough conversations around race.

Silence was not an option

Elizabeth Cobbins, who organized the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Gunnison on June 2, has similar, complex feelings around the privilege that comes with living in the Gunnison Valley. As a Black woman, she says that even though she doesn’t have white privilege, she benefits from and is protected by it here. Yet when the whole country was talking about George Floyd and this community was not, she felt she had to act. 

“I was like, no, I live here in Gunnison, too, I won’t be silent just to make people feel comfortable,” said Cobbins, who was the multicultural affairs program coordinator at Western Colorado University at that time.  

Because racial conversations are not common in the valley, Cobbins said she had no idea how people would receive the event. When several hundred people arrived, including the entire Gunnison City Council, leaders from Hispanic and Latinx communities, and local business owners, she thought, “Do you see the amount of allies you have here? There are people in this community who want to do the work.”

YouTube video

The demonstrations in the Gunnison Valley have resulted in small successes and conversations that have rippled out beyond what Cobbins and Bowman ever imagined.

Gunnison Valley Against Racism, a Facebook group with more than 800 members, has furthered conversations by posting various resources and opportunities for direct action. In one case, the group helped gain support for a petition calling for the firing of a Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office corporal after he made comments on Facebook that threatened violence toward Black Lives Matter demonstrators. An official investigation resulted, but the corporal resigned before it was completed.

In more symbolic gestures, many organizations in the Valley have offered statements of support.  When Crested Butte Mountain Resort posted that they “stand in solidarity (with the Black community), I about fell over,” Bowman laughed. “I never thought I would see that here, ever.” 

Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail Resorts, wrote a letter acknowledging that Black people continue “to struggle with the very real impacts of racism in their daily lives.” He admitted that people of color do not have the same opportunity to experience an activity that many people here orient their lives around, and said, “in some ways, these issues might feel removed from the ski industry – to some, it might not feel like our problem. But that is the problem.” 

That lack of diversity, he wrote, is “not only a moral and societal issue, but a business issue,” recognizing that the industry needs to broaden its base to more skiers of color if it wants to survive. 

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2044, less than half of the country will be white. According to a report by the National Ski Areas Association, visits by people of color have remained fairly stagnant in the past decade and are not tracking with the growth of minority populations in the U.S. 

Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers, in the company’s tasting room in Crested Butte. Montanya produces craft rums including Valentia, which was created and distilled by women. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers, wants to move beyond symbolic gestures. After in-depth research, she wrote a comprehensive anti-racism plan for the Gunnison Valley. She found that here, like other ski towns, expensive housing and seasonal work disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) because of biases and lack of access to loans and other economic safety nets. 

Hoskin believes that every organization and institution in the valley has the opportunity to create more pathways toward inclusion. She identifies approaches like housing support programs, targeted messaging to communities of color and start-up funds for BIPOC-owned businesses.

Town councils in the valley have yet to implement more inclusive policies, though Crested Butte made Juneteenth an official holiday, unanimously voted to paint “Black Lives Matter” on Elk Avenue, made an official proclamation condemning racism, and offered diversity, equity and inclusion training to all town staff, including the Marshal’s office. 

Town Council member Will Dujardin said the painting of “Black Lives Matter” in September was a starting point and statement of the town’s commitment to anti-racism work. However, much more was revealed in how badly some wanted to avoid the topic. Social media exploded, and while there was a lot of applause from locals and visitors, there also were comments like “I can’t believe you destroyed this beautiful town,” and “I’m never spending money here again.”

Chloe Bowman is working to help the Gunnison Valley become a leader in diversifying the outdoors by inviting different types of people to recreate in the area. “Opportunity outweighs everything.” (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Despite the blowback, Bowman and a committee of community leaders — including representatives from Vail Resorts, local government, businesses and nonprofits — are working toward various efforts to make the valley more accessible to Black, Indigenous and people of color. A few of the many efforts will include more diversity in hiring practices, collaboration with BIPOC-led outdoor groups, diversifying youth education, and inclusive community messaging.

As residents of communities that market access to the outdoors and perhaps best understand the benefits of getting outside, Bowman and Cobbins agree that a direct way to combat racism is to share this privilege and the peace that comes with it. Like skiing, mountain biking, climbing, hunting and angling industries have also remained mostly white while the face of America becomes increasingly diverse. 

“Opportunity outweighs everything,” Bowman said. “As a mecca of mountain sports, we could seek out people the way Adaptive Sports Center seeks out people,” she explained. She said the valley could become a leader in diversifying the outdoors not by focusing on bringing more people here, but by bringing different types of people here. 

To do this, Bowman believes people in the community must better understand the barriers that exist and learn how to help remove them. Positive platforms, such as Melanin Basecamp and Diversify Outdoors, contrast sharply with the many ways people of color are made to feel they do not belong in the outdoors. Some examples include microaggressions on trails, social acceptance of racist language, and lack of mentorship.

MORE: Shifting cultural winds amplify calls to rename Colorado’s peaks, valleys and creeks

 Jalen Bazile, an outdoor educator and avid mountain biker based in Denver, visited this summer and said he loves visiting, yet is critical of Crested Butte. “I felt like a guest trying not to overstay my welcome,” he posted on Instagram of his visit. While he said he loves the landscape and trails, he asks who this “last great mountain town” is for? Bazile said he felt like he was constantly being watched and judged as if he “was on the other side of the glass at the zoo.” 

In an interview, Bazile said people of color bear the brunt of the awkwardness that white people have when they don’t interact with non-white people often, and when this happens repeatedly, the feeling of not belonging can become overwhelming. He is a member of the Black Foxes, who describe themselves as “an international collective of unapologetically Black cyclists and outdoors-people that are reclaiming our narratives and roles in the outdoors.”

Bowman worked with the Black Foxes and organized an unofficial gathering in September that brought 20 Black, Indigenous and bikers of color to recreate in the valley. After their visit, the attendees expressed tangible feelings of empowerment that come from gathering with other people of color in the outdoors, Bowman said.

Bowman said she looks forward to partnering with other groups, like the National Brotherhood of Skiers and Outdoor Afro, to get more skiers, bikers and hikers of color into the mountains.

“What better than to be one of the only ski towns that fights for Black people,” she said.