Interview by Gale Straub
Banner image by Shannon Corsi
Alyssa Gonzalez didn’t grow up hiking in the mountains, let alone skiing, biking, or climbing on them, but that hasn’t stopped her from throwing her multi-dimensional self into the feeling of gratitude and joy these activities evoke in her life today.
When I asked Alyssa to describe her origin story as a Hispanic/Southeast Asian outdoor athlete, she shared that she had a lot of friends growing up in New England who did “outdoorsy” things, but the thought never crossed her mind. She didn’t have the kind of money, time, or access that her friends had, and she was focused on running track and field throughout high school and college. Her specialty was the 400-meter hurdles, a unique event that requires speed, endurance, and the discipline to somehow summon the energy for an extra kick on the home stretch. She wasn’t the kind of runner who ran for miles and miles while training or in her off time, so once she graduated it was difficult to keep up with the sport.
While I wasn’t a college athlete, I’m familiar with the hole that a single-minded focus can leave in your life. So, I can imagine that when Alyssa went on her first camping trip at 23 and moved to Colorado and found climbing, the timing was right for a new love — one that she stays has only continued to grow in the last five and a half years. She’s nurtured her relationship with nature and moved her body within it in a myriad of ways since then, not just embracing new sports like skiing and biking, but also taking an active role in breaking down barriers to the outdoors for marginalized folks, especially Black, Indigenous, Latine, Asian, and other women of color.
Alyssa first reached out to me back in October as a representative of Women of Winter, an organization whose purpose is to empower women and girls (with the prioritization of Black, Brown, and Indigenous women of color) to spend time outside. She told me about the scholarships they offer that help break down knowledge barriers in snowsports. Alyssa took part in their PSIA-AASI Level 1 Course & Exam scholarship, which prepared her to become Level One ski instructor. It was a lifechanging experience for her to spend time in community outdoors with all women of color.
By day, Alyssa’s a product designer at Outside (formerly Pocket Outdoor Media). That means that she oversees the entire design process for any digital products or experiences. She’s passionate about the technical side of the design work, but she’s also involved beyond her day-to-day responsibilities: Alyssa leads the Outside Inclusivity and Belonging DEI Subcommittee and helps lead the Outside Women’s employee resource group. And as you’ll read, this is just the tip of the iceberg as it relates to her advocacy work.
Alyssa stresses that she’s not at Outside “just for the paycheck,” and that sentiment shines through everything she does. The outdoors brings many rewards into her life, but as you’ll learn through this interview, Alyssa doesn’t just spend time in nature to reap its benefits. She’s also in it to share that gratitude and joy with others, and she does so with the thoughtfulness of a designer and the gritty tenacity of an athlete.
I always feel an immense sense of gratitude and joy. Through the mountain sports I do, I’ve found independence, growth, community and so much more in these last few years! It’s really cool to find these sports and environments where you can be your authentic self. I love how the mountains make me feel physically as well. I feel strong, independent and connected to nature — its amazing. On the flip side, there’s a lot of privilege that comes with being able to recreate in the outdoors and that’s not something I take lightly. I know how lucky I am to be able to afford gear and to have quick access to the places I recreate. I definitely don’t take that for granted.
I’ve only been skiing for a few years and still feel very new to the ski community! It’s cool to see everyone’s stoke on a powder day or how much fun people have on the mountain but I still struggle to feel like I belong in the community as a whole. It’s impossible for me to separate my identity [as a Hispanic-Southeast Asian woman] from the things I do and how I think, so I do feel a lot of frustration and negativity towards the larger ski community sometimes. Apart from the wealth and privilege that generally comes along with skiing, I’ve noticed a lot of gatekeeping and elitist behavior, which I would love to see positive improvements on.
Gatekeeping is when someone controls or limits general access to something. That something could be a physical location, knowledge on a topic or area, etc. In the outdoors, gatekeeping shows up in a lot of different ways. People will refuse to share locations of cool landmarks (trails, hot springs, etc.) because they “want to keep it untouched.” They’ll say that “this is their secret powstash” so they can’t tell you where it is, make comments on how you should tell people you’re in someplace like Kentucky or Alabama instead of Idaho or Colorado to keep people from coming there…pretty much people have decided that others aren’t allowed to access areas they have decided is “theirs.” At its root, gatekeeping is harmful, discriminatory, and elitist. I’d love to see people shift their minds from ownership over ideas, knowledge, and land to having a more inclusive mindset that’s rooted in community, education, and stewardship.
Being a part of the inaugural Women of Winter (WoW) scholarship provided me with valuable education and skills to help my community and gave me the confidence to step up and be a leader in this space. We spent 4 days at Big Sky learning how to be instructors but also how to be leaders in the space as women of color. Being awarded the scholarship was more than an educational opportunity for me, it showed me how important it is for people, brands, and organizations to provide these types of opportunities for marginalized communities to gain equity and feel empowered in certain spaces. I would have never pursued an instructor certification if it wasn’t for WoW. Having that invitation changed my whole mindset on what was possible for me as an athlete and it’s really exciting to see more opportunities like this popping up every day.
A year ago, I would have never labeled myself as an activist. Spending time on the mountain with the women who received the WoW scholarship changed my life. Before that, I had never found a place where I felt like I belonged or where I could be myself. During the pandemic, I struggled mentally, like a lot of people in the world. With the Trump presidency, BLM protests, widespread AAPI hate, and police brutality across the nation I found myself reflecting a lot about my mixed-race identity and the experiences I’ve lived. The scholarship came at a time when I really needed it. At 26 years old, it was the first time in my life that I’d been in community with exclusively women of color. I didn’t have to explain my experiences or worry about microaggressions. I didn’t feel out of place or worry about looking different. I was able to be myself, focus on having fun, and just ski.
The scholarship showed me how important community is, especially for marginalized folks who are often the “minority” in a lot of spaces. My advocacy work now is focused on breaking down barriers for other women of color in the outdoors, helping them build and create community as well as helping redefine what it means to be an outdoor athlete. Finding my voice and the joy of the outdoors was life-changing for me and I hope to pass that on to others.
I’m still figuring out what my leadership role in skiing looks like. I became an instructor because I wanted to gain experience and skills that I could bring back to my community to help get other women of color and people of historically underrepresented communities. After a lot of thought, I decided that working at a ski resort wasn’t the right path for me. For most people, ski resorts aren’t very accessible. Add on expensive gear, lift tickets, and lessons…there are a lot of barriers someone might face. I’m planning on instructing on my own and with groups that are working towards the same goals that I have to create change in the outdoors. I’ve also joined the Rossignol team as an athlete and will be helping with their We Rise program which promotes and empowers women in the outdoors.
I don’t think of leadership as only me leading others. I want to work with BIPOC women and people in my community to find out what they need and want from outdoor brands/organizations and work with them to create change together.
If organizations aren’t doing the work to create more diverse and inclusive spaces as well as providing equity where it’s needed, then I don’t have the time or energy to work with them. It’s really that simple for me to be honest. No organization is perfect and there’s always so much room to grow and learn but in order for me to want to work with someone, I have to feel that the work they’re doing is authentic and genuine.
There is a lot of value in admitting when you don’t know something or make a mistake. I really respect when organizations can come to the table, admit they’re not perfect/still learning but have a true desire to want to be better. Those tough and honest conversations are what really make me want to devote time and energy to help them.
It’s almost impossible to live in Colorado and not meet someone who works in the outdoor industry. I have a lot of friends who are freelance creatives or work in-house with a brand, so modeling came through a lot of those connections. A few years ago, a friend who worked asked me and my partner to be involved in a weekend photoshoot for Kelty, camping and hiking around Vedawoo, WY, so that’s when my “modeling career” started. I was working multiple jobs at the time, so the extra money was a huge incentive to keep looking for gigs. Shoots were paying anywhere from a few hundred to over $1,000 for day rates and to me, it was easy money.
As I’ve worked with more brands and gained experience in the modeling world, I’ve started to reflect a lot on why I keep doing shoots and how it helps my community. I recognize that I have “pretty privilege” and never have to search for modeling work. Brands will reach out to me to work with them just by finding me on Instagram or through mutual connections. I’ve struggled with being singled out for my looks my entire life and have always wanted to just “blend in” with everyone else so modeling is a really uncomfortable thing for me a lot of the time. Apart from that, I know that I’ve been hired for a lot of shoots because I’m not white. I’ve been modeling since 2018 and in 2020, after the BLM protests and people started working on DEI initiatives, I was asked to model in more shoots than I had worked in the previous two years. I was told I had the “perfect” look: they were going for and straight up that brands were asked to exclusively hire “diverse” models.
I’ve been marginalized and faced microaggressions and racism on a lot of shoots. People will tell me how exotic I am, ask me where I’m really from, say how much they love my skin color and how they’re jealous of my tan. Makeup artists never have the right palettes for my skin color and love to straighten my curly hair. There is a lot of work to be done on the back end to create more inclusive environments for people working on these shoots but I continue to work with brands to help clear paths for other women of color in this space. Representation is so important and even if I feel like brands are taking advantage of me sometimes, I hope that working on their shoots can eventually contribute to a more diverse landscape of imagery and representation for ALL people in the outdoors.
Great question! Currently, I hope the people who recreate in the outdoors can start finding ways to be more inclusive, invite new folks into their groups going outside and continue to hold brands and groups accountable for change. Recognizing that we are on stolen land and that Indigenous people should be the true stewards of the land we are on is incredibly important to this work as well. People in the present need to step up and support, elevate and listen to diverse voices to help create change.
In the future, I hope that outdoor brands and organizations have stepped up and are using their power, influence, and voice to support an outdoor industry where ALL people are inherently accepted, included, and listened to. As leaders in this space, they have so much responsibility to the people they are creating products for. It would be awesome to be living in a world where affinity spaces don’t have to exist and the barriers that so many people face today are nonexistent. I’m not exactly sure how we will get there or how long it will take, but I think it’s possible. And I can’t wait to be a part of that world.
Learn more about Alyssa Gonzalez via her Instagram @__alyssagonzalez and their website, www.alyssa-gonzalez.com. In addition to everything above, Alyssa is also a 2021/2022 ReThink Outside Fellow. Find out more about the ReThink Outside Fellowship here.
Gale’s the host and creator of She Explores. If she’s not editing, reading, listening to podcasts or hiking, she’s probably making homemade ice cream or playing cribbage with her partner.