My excitement to speak with Emily Taylor is palpable. Due to unforeseen car complications, we have to reschedule our interview and I’m very happy that she is flexible enough to accommodate. As we coordinate, she sends the following email:
“Mia, I’m a beautiful climber to watch on rope, but what I do best is coach. I’m not sure how to portray what I do because it is something that is felt kinetically and individually and perhaps the reason there hasn’t been a huge focus on what goes on behind the scenes of cultivating a climber. It’s more than heart, time, dedication, and passion. It’s obsessive technical focus of detail, logistic and strategic planning, intense problem solving, management, and leadership.
I can’t say it has been easy as the only black female in my field for the past 22 years. I am honored for this opportunity to tell my story next week and share my experience with others with hopes of closing the diversity gap in the industry.”
When we finally meet, Emily’s energy is honest, humble and humorous all at once. She orders a soy mocha and tells me she splurged, breaking her diet but enjoying it because she won’t have another for three weeks. I wouldn’t believe me if I said that, but I definitely believe her.
“I’ll treat myself today, I just hope it ain’t gonna hurt later,” she says with a laugh.
We spend several hours talking. She shares intimate pieces of her journey as she explains her experience as the first black woman to climb “The Nose” in Yosemite Valley and as the only black female climbing coach. Perhaps most importantly, she wholeheartedly opens up about her profound commitment to the kids she coaches and her drive to force the industry into a more inclusive future for diversely abled people, people of color and women.
On growing up and young lessons:
I think a lot of my drive to do what I do now comes from my dad. My Dad’s quote to me was, “If you’re gonna be a bum, you better be the best bum on the block.”
It’s a mantra that many black folks have had to grow up with — you have to do things three times better.
The way he pushed us prepared us for the world in a lot of ways I didn’t even realize until the shooting of Tamir Rice. He always told me, “You’re black and you’re female — don’t let that be an excuse.” I’d later come back to him when I was 16 and say, “Oh, and I’m gay too!” (Laughs)
When people ask me how the kids I coach get so good, I think about being raised in a house with my father’s white-glove inspection — every single thing was about detail. Everything was about being crispy and tight and being presentable before you leave the house because there was a certain mannerism which was expected from a Colonel’s children. We were also black children and we were also black children without a mother. Because we had so much working against us, life was about being three steps ahead. He gave me that skill and ability.
On finding rock climbing:
When I reflect on my work and how it all got started, it really began with my father’s death. My school counselor said, “You need to get away from all this stuff and just deal with your grief.”
An Outside magazine sat in her office and when I saw the Colorado Outward Bound School I thought, “I’ll go do that.” We did two months of outdoor activities and I hated every part of it — except for the rock climbing. A little while in, my guide was like, “You know, you’re climbing a 5.10 and you're doing it in boots.” “Okay!” I said, not knowing what that meant. He said, “You really need to be doing this professionally.” Again, I said, “Okay!”
When I got home I found my first gym. It was in Charlotte, North Carolina and owned by a black dude names Eric Evans. Little did I know he was the only black dude in climbing in the 90s. Around the same time, I joined another gym in Pensacola, Florida owned by a guy in a wheelchair. So my two introductions to rock climbing were a black dude and a dude in a wheelchair. It all comes back to these two gentlemen who cultivated my understanding and awareness of movement.
On setting routes for change:
I started traveling, competing, winning and eventually getting to nationals and on to the podium a few years in a row. I started to volunteer for USA Climbing around this time purely so I could learn more because I got the hint pretty early on that I wasn’t going to get any help. I wanted to learn every single part of the climbing world because no one was willing to teach me or share information, and there weren’t books and resources the way there are now. So I did everything from being a scorecard runner to a judge to a route setter in the 2001 nationals.
Eventually I was asked to become the USA Climbing Regional Coordinator for the Southeast. My territory would be Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. That was my terrain.
Me. Bald headed. Black. Lesbian. Was expected to go into these gyms and tell these owners how to run their competitions. Me.
I kept trying to give the position away, saying, “Somebody please take it from me!” But I kept the job and ended up traveling, meeting a lot of people and understanding the inners and outers of how gyms work, all while training my first crew of amazing little misfits.
On the family you create:
I always wanted to create a climbing program that was holistic and family oriented. I wanted parents to be involved with their kids lives. I think I was held really well in those first few years by amazing parents who believed in my mission and what I was doing for their child. I built some really incredible relationships with the first few boys I trained, and those relationships keep me invested today because I see the lives that they ended up having. I’ve watched them grow up, I’ve seen them hold my daughter in their arms. They are family.
In Atlanta, I had a team of 70 kids and I actually got their parents to bring their crockpots to the gym. (Laughs) The parents would climb, the kids would climb, they’d eat dinner and then they’d go home. We were family, we did family things together and this is how I created my team. I had the parents who worked two jobs. I had the black, brown and diversely abled kids. I had the misfits, and I loved it.
On spearheading a new kind of coaching:
I have always been the coach who refuses to do things the way other coaches did. For example, I refused to do bouldering season. Why? Because I had a lot of prepubescent children and it didn’t (and still doesn’t) make sense to me to have a prepubescent kid falling from 22 feet down to a two-foot pad over and over. You end up with chronic injuries and mangled kids — and for what? I said, “I’m gonna start ‘em young but I’m not gonna break ‘em.”
Sometimes coaching feels like this experiment on my own life. When I used to coach in teams, I would have a theme for the whole year — often a theme of something going on for me personally. One year the theme was vulnerability. I had a hard time with that word actually being introduced into my vocabulary, so I introduced it to my kids and told them, “Hey guys, this is one of the things I’m working on, and we’re going to do it together. Our goal for the rest of this year will be to try and connect intimately with each other in that vulnerable space and to understand what that means.”
It’s those messages that you might get in a yoga class as an adult but that you don’t really get when you’re a kid — the lessons about coming into your body and being still and recognizing what you’re holding on to and learning to let go. This is your spiritual connection to climbing and this is not up to me to define — it’s up to you to figure out what that looks like.
I teach in a way that my kids can connect to and that they can take with them outside of the gym and off the wall.
On Brown Girls Climbing:
I bring these life lessons into Brown Girls Climbing and try to connect to my girls in a way that celebrates them as brown bodies and brown girls and also celebrates our culture and our space.
And every piece and every part of how we climb has a physics lesson, a historical lesson and a life lesson in it. For instance, we have conversations about footwork and the footwork being quiet and thoughtful and mindful. I’m like, “Tell me how is it that Mama Moses Harriet Tubman was able to save 300+ slaves without being caught and not losing one slave?”
Then they get back on the wall and I say, “Now do you think you can bring yourselves into safety into light by having really sound feet?” And it connects in that way where they’re like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that story. These are stories my mom tells me.”
Black Panther was amazing for the girls this year in that way. When they would give up all I had to say was, “Wakanda” and they would say, “WAKANDA FOREVER!” They’re so amazing.
On Taylored Fit Solutions:
Eventually I felt like my work could be done better by helping coaches do their job better. I felt like I had enough years of beating and experience and enough of, “I learned how to do this without anybody’s help and let me tell you, this is gonna work and this isn’t gonna work.” I’m sharing the lessons no one shared with me, and that’s what I truly want to give. With Taylored Fit Solutions, I want to help gyms build sound programs that they can keep, regardless of the coach. When coaches leave they take the program with them and it destroys the kids, instead of having a sound program when the coaches come and go. It should be just like in a school —when the teachers leave, the school doesn’t fall apart. But it’s hard to convince gyms and coaches that they can be doing it better.
I do have a couple of gyms I work with in the Portland area and then Memphis and a lot of coaches in between who call for advice. I also satellite coach kids and adults as well. They bring me to the gym on their phones and climb in front of me. I have an eight-year old in North Carolina and he pays his sister two dollars a lesson to hold the camera while he’s climbing. I coach another girl whose dad is building her a gym so our training sessions can take place in the morning before she goes to school.
When taking clients, I have to meet you first because for me, it’s a long term relationship. It’s a lot of intentional design based upon who you are, what your goals are and what you need. So if a client tells me she has, let’s say 20 tests coming up next week, I’m gonna be like, “Okay what can you do with your climbing? What can you do with your training in the morning? How can you be thinking about climbing on the way to school or after the test? How can you take 15-minute breaks in between your studies to do some training?" What can you do not in the gym?”
And that’s where I feel like life really is — Not in the gym. What you did on the wall is going to resonate out in life. I want my kids to understand that.
I also have clients who are adaptively able. I remember the last paraclimbing nationals I went to, where I met this amazing guy who wheels in and he doesn’t have an arm on each side or anything from the waist down. He rolls in and says, “If i do this, it wouldn’t be called climbing would it?” and I said, “It’s not for me to define.” Who am I to define what this is for you? If you wheel in here and call that climbing, it’s not for me to define whether you’re climbing or not.
On breaking (and making) the rules:
I feel very impacted by people not being able to access climbing — but that’s always been my life.
When I was little, we moved around a lot because my dad was in the marines. I don’t remember very many places I lived in one neighborhood in Virginia I lived next to Kelly, and Kelly had cerebral palsy. She was nonverbal and didn’t have many friends. We were the same age but she went to a different school. I’d always run over to her house after school and we’d sit on a blanket and play together. I felt like we had this special language. Eric also lived in our cul-de-sac. His hip bone didn’t finish growing so he had braces on his knees. These were my friends. It’s always been who I am.
I tell each of the kids I work with, “You are the first ones. You are setting the precedent. We’re going to break a lot of rules and they’re going to make a lot of rules because of us.”
On building inclusivity in climbing gyms:
I think first, we have to deconstruct the historical context of what rope and white space means for black and brown people. For example, the gym we’re going to go to right now is downtown. The door is open as we speak. There are black and brown bodies walking in front of the store but gym owners can’t get them in the door. I said to the owner,
“When black people walk past a room full of white people holding ropes, that’s not a safe space for us. Of course we’re gonna keep on walking.”
Do you think that the average black person will feel comfortable with someone teaching them how to hold and pull and break a rope? Do you not think we go through our own processing and shit? Do not think that that’s not on our frontal lobe. Gyms need to be aware that black and brown people have post slave traumatic stress disorder — and that it is very real.
Consider this: If you are in a car accident or if you witness violence you have post traumatic stress and you go to therapy. Now think about the post traumatic stress from the more than 300 years we’ve had slavery in this country. Then we had X years of Jim Crow. Then we had X amount of years of struggling for civil rights. We still are.
Until we’re able to address the conversation of what the symbols in rock climbing mean, then we can’t break down the barriers of how to invite black and brown into this space.
The other piece of this is what the gyms are doing or not doing in order to attract black and brown people and how they see our role. Are they seeing us as route setters? Are they seeing us as coaches? Are they seeing us with specific skills — or are they seeing us as janitors?
So you say you want black and brown bodies but you’re not willing to go to the college fair in that neighborhood where the black school is? Why? Do you have ladies night? Do you have college night? What’s stopping you from having black night? Do you offer scholarships?
Think about the camps hosted at gyms. Say you have 13 gyms hosting summer camps from 9 a.m. - noon. Tell me, in the Bay Area on a weekday, what black parent gets off work at noon? Many gyms also have policies that you can’t ride BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) if you’re coming to camp. So even with public transit across the street, this rule excludes a population of people who depend on mass transit.
And if gyms pull their competitive teams from their summer camps, then only the kids who can make those camps are the only ones who have the opportunity to be on the team and receive coaching. It’s cyclical.
Bottom line: marginalized people are forgotten in this industry. Girls of color are especially nonexistent in this sport. It is my goal is to have a brown girl on the podium by the year 2024.
In standing behind true diversity:
Big companies are slowly coming to awareness about diversity. Everybody is like, “Oh yeah we see it now,” but there’s still not an understanding of how to not put us front and center as diversity paparazzi and how to actually to stand behind the word.
Don’t just talk about signing this climber to promote diversity outdoors. Ask yourself the hard and important question: Are you willing to stand behind those who you’re supporting and what they’re saying?
It’s very, very different to say, “I respect diversity and I want diversity outside,” versus, “This person is a radical visionary stepping through a very uncomfortable zone to change something — and our brand still stands by it.”
The outdoor world is ahead as far as diversity goes, and there are a lot of incredible people leading that charge. But there is no one talking about what it means for black and brown bodies to be in the “plastic world” — meaning indoor climbing. It’s uncomfortable to be the lone ranger communicating for black and brown climbers in the plastic world, but it’s necessary.
And now we have to take a much closer eye to what equity and fairness and access looks like inside climbing gyms if we’re saying this is an Olympic sport with representation from the United States. No one is talking about this.
On being the first black woman to climb “The Nose”:
One year this gym in Ann Arbor, Michigan paid for all its employees to travel and climb any place of their choice. I chose Yosemite Valley and that was the first time that I saw El Capitan as a climber. As a child you’re like, “Cool, rocks.” But as a climber in the field I was like,
“Wow I want to be the first black woman to climb that.” And I’m one of those people that if I say it, I have to do it. So I did.
I first told myself I was going to do it in 2001, and then I climbed it in October of 2003. I trained for over a year, and I trained hardcore - bricks in my book bag, hiking in the Georgia humidity, that type of training.
It was interesting to be mounted to a wall for six days. I hit 36 pitches and I have to tell you, it’s pretty nasty up there. Every pitch smells like you stuck your face directly into a urinal. And so you sleep at the urinal and often it’s the most popular urinal spot — like more than a porta-potty, we’re talking like the most used festival urinal. It was gross, but I did it. And no one from the media really covered it.
People sometimes say, “Wow you really are incredible,” but I feel like I just did it because I could, and because I wanted to.
On life ahead:
I’ve lived in Oakland for three years now — before this I had been in Atlanta for 20 years. I feel like maybe this is the time for me and maybe this is the place. It’s been a great transition to move here. It’s the difference between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
It’s the difference between “Can I sit here?” and “I’m not asking.”
The mentality is also very different. The political mentality, the social justice awareness and the conversations that manifest in this area are things I’ve never been able to experience before — especially in my industry. These conversations I wasn’t able to have in the south with people or companies. In 25 years I haven’t experienced the conversations I have weekly here. It’s fantastic and unbelievable but it also hurts my brain.
With climbing it’s been a really interesting road. I’ve tried to keep my head up. I’ve tried to believe in what I am doing.
Why do I do it? I do it because there’s nobody else doing it.
I do it because I love climbing and I love movement and what it’s done for me and I understand life so much better because of it. I understand that the best metaphor for life is right there on that wall.