Being Ruby J

I first came across one of Brooklyn Bell’s designs at Color the Crag, a climbing festival for people of color in Alabama, back in 2019. A climber wore a long-sleeved white T-shirt with a person’s face done up in purple line work: full lips; chunky climbing-nut earrings; and thick full hair that swooped up, contoured and lined into a range of granite mountains. I thought immediately of the stone eaters in Black science fiction and fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. Stone eaters are made of alabaster, antimony, syenite—in short, they are made of durable brilliant stone. Their unique strength (literally made of stone) allows them to be agents of change and transformation; they physically remake the fictional world of The Broken Earth.

Bell had designed the shirt the previous year for Brown Girls Climb, an organization that provides mentorship, resources, and support for climbers of color. At that point, Bell was a professional mountain biker studying graphic design at Western Washington University and already working on design collaborations with Sego Ski Company and Kona Bikes. Over the next few years, she would debut a number of short films, most notably Becoming Ruby J with Patagonia and The Approach with The North Face. Both films showcase Bell’s philosophy, the hard edge she must bring to both worlds in order to move to the fullest extent of her ability within them.

What is clear, studying the curving, flowing lines and distinct colorways of Bell’s art, watching her in her elements—leaning into muddy, gnarly single track or shredding pillows in the Alaskan backcountry—is that Bell is an agent of change and transformation. She is shaping and reshaping herself, and remaking the world of big outdoor sports as she does so. She imagines the lines she wants to travel, and then fills them in with herself, hoping and trusting that other Black and Brown people will be able to more easily follow where she’s led.

You’re an artist, a professional mountain biker, and a professional skier. Can you tell us about where you’re from—who are your people and places?

My dad ran a hot dog stand at the Seattle stadium, so I would go down there and help him when I was little. My family are entrepreneurs and they are self-made; I guess American. I would spend a lot of time outside, playing outside, climbing trees, and collecting frogs. (I wanted to be a frog scientist back then. That was my dream!)

My parents had property in south Seattle that had a pond and apple, pear, and cherry trees. So I spent a lot of time outside. My parents would put me to work all the time. One of my chores was gathering pine cones and raking leaves; there was always something to be done in the yard. And even though it’s a city, it’s filled with a lot of parks and green spaces; I think that’s one reason why a lot of people like living in Seattle.

Now, I live in Bellingham, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. It is kind of as northwest as you can get without crossing the border, close to Seattle and Canada. When I moved to Bellingham, things were a lot closer. I would walk to things—my friend’s house down the street, or to the park, or to Walgreens. You don’t have to drive. Being able to walk places gave me a lot of freedom in my middle school years.

It’s still rare to see Black and Brown people as professional athletes—especially in sports like mountain biking and skiing. In fact, one of your films, Becoming Ruby J is about how you had to create a character (Ruby J is a Black femme professional skier) to look up to. How did you get into both sports competitively and professionally?

For me, the drive has always been for progression. I think people think they need to be perfect to show up, and that’s not the reality. There is so much potential in people who want to become professional skiers and mountain bikers, who want to be part of this space. And the truth is, power and privilege and access really makes a difference.

Before I started mountain biking, I was working at a bagel shop, and I was also running. Every single day after working at the bagel shop, I’d go running at our local mountain bike hill. There was a regular who would come into the bagel shop every day. He’d order the same bialy and black coffee—it was funny because I didn’t know his name or anything about him, but I would serve him the same thing every morning—and then I’d run into him at the mountain bike hill. One day, he was like, “I keep seeing you here running. Why aren’t you on a bike?” I said I didn’t know if I could afford a bike. And he was like, “I’ve got an extra bike, let’s go riding.” I loved it.

It’s pretty simple. It’s not necessarily that certain people are more athletic, or ballsy, or risky, or better at things. It’s just… who actually gets to have the opportunity to go on these trips, try these things, and get exposure? People who have more resources and more access to space get better.

When I first started getting support for mountain biking, I didn’t feel like I deserved it, or was a good rider. But in the past couple of years—because I’ve had access to better bikes, food, and clothing—I’ve progressed a ton. It’s because I’ve had more support. So I was like, maybe the same thing can happen with skiing.

[When I first started skiing], I got invited to shoot on a trip. I got to ride my first set of “pillow stacks” [when snow stacks on top of a boulder, and can be skied or jumped off]. I was exposed to other professional skiers. They let us ride pretty challenging terrain. And I was like, [sponsorships] could be a cool avenue to learn to be a better skier.

Since The Approach film took us [Bell, Emilé Zynobia, Vasu Sojitra, Anna Soens, and others] to Alaska, I’ve progressed. Now, I show up from a place of joy versus putting pressure on myself to beat something, which I think really helps me be able to ski better. I’ve been able to recognize what equipment is really helpful for me. I think I understand and lean into what my style of skiing is, and I am able to identify what my progression looks like on any day. I have a better mental map of how to ski, where to put my turns, and how to put down a line. All of that just comes with time and experience.

I think most people would be like, “two Black women and disabled folks in Alaska? You know…we’ll see if they can progress from there. Probably not.” But the truth is, when we got that opportunity, we took it and ran with it.

For The Approach film, you were able to go up to Alaska and spend a lot of time with other Black and Asian skiers. What needs to change in the outdoor industry to break down barriers for Black kids and other people of color to start skiing?

There are so many different factors. Of course, resources and being able to get a ride to the mountain are big barriers. Transportation is a big overlooked factor. Even if you have the money to buy a pass and skis, you might not have the money to buy a four-wheeler. I spent a lot of years hitchhiking to the mountains. It wasn’t until the last couple years that I actually had a car that was capable of making it. I relied on other people for rides.

Then, the culture itself is white. It’s based on limited space. If you’re there on a powder day, there’s only enough powder for some people. It’s also a culture of looking perfect and looking cool. There is a lot the culture of skiing can do to be more welcoming and create more space for people to be themselves. I don’t necessarily think all Black and Brown people are poor. That’s not always the case for access. There is a cultural piece. For example, in these white mountain towns, there is this culture of “you can be a dirtbag; you don’t need a safety net; you can spend all your money on skiing.” But culturally, a lot of Black and Brown people see that as a really big risk—selling all your things and buying a ski pass and having that be your path.

The industry could also invest more money in people. The Approach is proof of concept. If you actually give people the opportunity to go to these places and ski, they might actually get better. More companies could put more resources into people being able to try things.

There are a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives happening. There is a ton of interest in Black and Brown people in the skiing space. More companies could do more to listen and say, “We want to help you develop”—helping people with ski passes and helping with resources, instead of just putting people on billboards or ads for lifestyle stuff.

You’ve mentioned you love having a team and a community of people with whom to ski. What inspired you to join Faction? What do you love about the Faction team?

Faction felt natural to me. A big draw for me is having a community and not feeling alone. I have friends who really enjoyed their skis, so I bought a set. They were just the most fun skis. Vasu, from The Approach, connected me with them. They sent me a couple of skis and gave me a chance to try them. And it kind of progressed from there.

In my head, I thought, “Sweet, I have enough sponsors on the biking side to help me pay for skiing. I’m not going to worry about being sponsored.” I assumed I wouldn’t be able to get technical sponsorships for hard goods. It’s really special and surreal to actually have that support. I wasn’t really expecting it.

What’s next for you? What are your dreams? In five years, 10?

I want to continue filming. I want to become a better skier. I want to hit more pillows. I really like the idea of having conversations about the culture of skiing and what we can do to change things. I’m hoping in the next five years, we’ll see new conversations about breaking down barriers to skiing—and more people getting sponsored. I would love to collaborate on a design with Faction. I think it would be cool to do a movie that’s all about biking, skiing, and art all in one. It would be cool to retell the story of Ruby J [the cartoon image of a Black femme, professional skier that Bell developed years ago], because I have made a lot of progress as Ruby. That story is so powerful.

When I first came out with Ruby J , people didn’t think I could possibly, in any world, be Ruby. People were like, “Brooklyn’s going to do all this work with DEI, and the next generation will have a Ruby.”

And I was like, “No, I am Ruby. I want to be a big mountain skier.”

Now… it would be great to tell that story.

by Endria Richardson

photos by Matthew ROEBKE

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