Gabrielle “Gabby” Dickerson doesn’t fit traditional stereotypes. She is an African-American rock climber and outdoor adventurer who lives in decidedly non-outdoorsy Baltimore, MD.
She is a social media influencer with more than 18,000 Instagram followers and an athlete ambassador for brands like Marmot and Dueter, while also speaking out about racism, lack of diversity, and sexism in outdoor spaces. She teaches climbing at a Baltimore climbing gym and she is a Cybersecurity and IT Compliance engineer pursuing a master’s degree in the field.
Where did your love of the outdoors and particularly, rock climbing, get its start?
My love for the outdoors started in my grandmother’s “backyard” as a child with my sisters. My grandmother had a fair amount of land and a lot of that land was in the woods. Our imaginations ran wild out in that backyard and we spent every waking moment back there. My love for the outdoors was strengthened when I started rock climbing outside. My absolute love for rock climbing, and my connection to the outdoors through it, came from the friends and community I became immersed in. I became friends with such strong and amazing women who really supported me when I was at a low point, and also got me connected with Brown Girls Climb.
When did you start to notice that your experience outdoors was different from other climbers at the local crag?
I noticed immediately that my experience as a black woman at the crag was different than other climbers who are a part of the majority. My first big trip climbing outside was to the New River Gorge in West Virginia (located on Moneton ancestral land). I remember hearing what my climbing partner’s mother had said before we left and compared it to how my parents reacted. My climbing partner on that trip was a white male and his mother basically just drilled us about safety, making sure we wore our helmets, and anything else you could think of that a concerned mother would say. My parents had those same concerns and said those same things to me, but they also shared their concerns and warnings about my being a black woman heading to the backcountry of West Virginia.
Your advocacy focuses on educating people about the racism and sexism you see in climbing and on inspiring and empowering others to create their own connections to nature despite the challenges that BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) face while outdoors. How do you balance those?
I believe that I balance it in the education I try to provide on my platforms, while also trying to do my part within the community through instruction, introducing friends to climbing and the outdoors, engaging in Brown Girls Climb events and meetups, and helping in whatever I can to enable access. Sometimes it can get overwhelming and sometimes I don’t think I’m balancing it well or doing enough, but then I remember to relax and remind myself that I’m doing the absolute best that I can.
What is an “affinity space” and why are they important for BIPOC looking to deepen their connections to natural spaces?
Formally, an affinity space is a space or group where people with shared interests or who possess things in common, come together to engage in conversations and activities. In climbing, affinity spaces such as Brown Girls Climb have been integral in my connecting to the land and exploring my passion of climbing outdoors. I was able to intentionally connect with a group of people who looked like me and shared similar experiences. I was able to just be. I was able to tell about my encounters outdoors and how I felt isolated without the fear of being gaslighted, told I was too sensitive, or told that I was overthinking it.
Additionally, events that Brown Girls Climb put on helped me to meet and connect with new friends that became my climbing partners. Brown Girls Climb has been integral in inviting brand new BIPOC climbers to the gym and making climbing accessible by providing free climbing shoes, free belay classes, and free instruction. We’ve taken new climbers out to the crag for their very first time and deconstructed the many barriers that have often kept us from the outdoors. But also, BIPOC have been exploring outdoors since the beginning of time, and we make sure to recognize that, educate others about it, and represent it constantly—something many companies in the outdoor industry fail to do.
When you first started climbing, you noticed you were often the only African-American woman at the crag. Now your Instagram feed is full of photos of women of color climbing with you. Are things changing?
I wish my answer was an absolute yes, but it is not. I have been so blessed to meet and connect with amazing women of color through climbing, and that is due to the labor of BIPOC who create affinity spaces, have meetups to bring more BIPOC into the gym, and create a more inclusive space in the gym.
A lot of this also comes with pushback from the outdoor community or gyms that hold this space. I can’t express enough how often I’ve seen hateful things written online when an affinity space shares a climbing meetup they are about to have, or heard of climbing gyms shutting down meetups or simply not allowing affinity groups to reserve gym space at all. What I would like to see change is that the labor and work is not all on the backs of BIPOC. Many of my friends who’ve never been climbing, hiking in the backcountry, or camping share the same experiences of how historical barriers have been generational and have decreased our access to this kind of recreation. The uncertainty, the fear of being the only one, and just a lack of representation across the outdoor industry has held many of us back.
Those of us who have been privileged enough to climb and engage in other outdoor recreational activities have worked hard to open these gates. We offer our time and labor to provide free instruction, mentoring, and so much more to ensure our family and friends get through. We provide access. But I’d like to see the big corporations within climbing and the outdoor industry who have the money and resources commit to this labor. This means consistent education on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI), dismantling barriers that have stemmed from systemic racism and oppression through proper education and intersectional approaches, valuing the voices and opinions of indigenous communities whose land we recreate on, and more.
The seriousness of these actions, the increased access and positioning of BIPOC in leadership positions in the outdoor industry, and the intentional sharing of resources focused on JEDI initiatives are the changes I hope to see.
You spend a lot of time in National Forests. When and how did you first learn about National Forests and how has your understanding of them changed as your climbing progressed?
To be honest, I always knew what a National Forest was as a formal definition but didn’t truly understand them and what they offer to the outdoor community until I started climbing outdoors. Growing up in Southern Maryland there was not a National Forest anywhere near us, and we never went out backpacking, camping, or hiking in one. It wasn’t until I started making road trips to the crag and passing the “Entering 'Such and Such' National Forest” signs that I really learned what National Forests were. When I started learning trad climbing at Seneca Rocks in Monongahela National Forest, I truly understood the importance and impact National Forests have not only on my experience in climbing, but for their capacity to increase access to public lands.
What is your favorite place to climb and where would you go if you could choose any climbing destination in the U.S.?
Currently, my favorite place to climb is at the New River Gorge in West Virginia. It’s got everything; traditional climbing, bouldering, and sport climbing, but it’s also a great place to hang out at if you’re not a climber or just want to change things up from climbing. I often take friends who have never climbed before to the “New” for its easy access to climbing, but we could also hike, or swim, or do other fun things too. If I could choose any climbing destination in the U.S., it would be any crag in Utah.