’Twas a white winter in Washington, circa 2008. Mount Baker was blanketed with packed powder, but only up near the resort’s 5,089-foot peak — a surprising discovery for Brian Paupaw, an East Coast snowboarder who hadn’t yet experienced such heights. But his mind had already been expanded.
Hitchhiking to the mountain along Highway 542, he’d found catching a ride with his thumb to be easier than hailing taxis in Times Square as a Black man. “That was so cool — to be a person of color and have people treat me [with open arms] because of snowboarding,” he says.
The cofounder of Hoods to Woods, a nonprofit that introduces inner-city kids to the sport, grew up in Brooklyn in the ’80s. He recalls park parties and breakdancing amid the birth of hip-hop. He also recalls a crack epidemic sweeping the streets, leaving bodies in its wake.
“Things got really, really tough, and when you live in that environment, you really don’t know anything else until you leave,” he explains. Snowboarding became that “anything else” for Paupaw, who got hooked while studying at Parsons School of Design in the late ’90s. Back then, there weren’t many people of color on the slopes — and things aren’t that much different today.
Sure, there are some superstars, including out-of-this-world free rider Zeb Powell and two-time Olympic halfpipe gold medalist Chloe Kim. But while they compose 12.4 percent of the US population, people who identified as Black made up just 8.2 percent of all snowboarders in the 2021-2022 winter season, according to Snowsports Industries America (SIA). Hispanics (18.7 percent of the population) represented 16.9 percent, and Asians (6 percent of the population), 11.7 percent.
When Paupaw returned from Washington, the thriving motion graphics designer decided he wanted to inspire change.
“I was just like, wait a minute, reality check: There’s a dead body on the corner of Malcolm X and Jefferson Avenue,” he says. “It’s strange to have success, to have education, to travel and then come home to see the same things happening.”
He made a short film about his trip, dubbed “Hoods to Woods.” When he met Omar Diaz after a public screening, the same-named nonprofit soon followed. The cofounders looked past snowboarding’s inherent barriers — awareness, accessibility and affordability — and envisioned a chance for inner-city youth to step away from the grid and see a better future for themselves among role models who looked like them. While having a blast, of course.
“When I’m riding, nothing else exists other than what I’m doing at that point in time,” Diaz explains. “That next move, that next trick, that next carve. When you get to the bottom, it’s the high five because you just got stoked on something you pulled or saw somebody else pull.”
The pair recruited a few kids popping wheelies around Bed-Stuy and Brownsville in Brooklyn, piled into a Honda Civic and drove to New Jersey’s Mountain Creek resort, where Burton’s Chill Foundation supplied some gear. Word started to spread.
“[It felt like] a historical moment happening,” says Burton Smith, who joined in 2012 at 15 years old. “Having the opportunity to leave Brooklyn and experience the slopes with other kids that never left the city is very eye-opening. It definitely changed my point of view and how I appreciate life.”
These days, Paupaw and Diaz load 30 to 40 kids onto a bus, five Saturdays every winter.
Grants from the Share Winter Foundation and Arc’teryx, plus donations, have made it possible for hundreds of kids of all backgrounds, aged 10 to 18, to experience joy on snow. Many go on to help out themselves.
“I hope snowboarding affects them the way it did me,” says participant-turned-volunteer Serigne Diao, 22. “The program taught me the lesson of not being afraid to get knocked down, especially for new challenges life brings.”
That program is growing. A few months ago, Hoods to Woods conducted its first summer session at North America’s only indoor, year-round snow sports space — Big SNOW American Dream in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
“It allows us to make snowboarding real and consistent for them,” raves Luis Torres, 30, another volunteer. “The more advanced kids have more opportunities to work on presses, ollies and riding the park.”
SNOW Operating, which owns Big SNOW, is similarly pumped. They’ve worked with Hoods to Woods via Mountain Creek for years, but now the season doesn’t end when the snow melts. “[We’re excited] to introduce more new participants by removing all the traditional barriers of entry to the mountains,” says Hugh Reynolds, chief marketing officer. “This happens to align perfectly with the Hoods to Woods mission.”
Paupaw says the facility’s design — featuring a carving trail, a terrain park and an open slope for learning — is a game changer. “Now, when we go to the real mountain in January, a lot of these kids are already going to have that experience,” he points out.
A typical day starts with pickup from two Brooklyn locations. When the participants arrive at Mountain Creek or Big SNOW, they suit up in a dedicated space. Then they are grouped based on skill level and linked up with volunteers for several hours of learning, turning and good vibes. “I see more people of color out on the slopes, and we get a lot of love and support,” Paupaw observes.
"Getting everyone back on the bus at season’s end is a “logistical nightmare,” Diaz says, because no one wants to leave. But they take with them more than new snowboard skills.
“We’re teaching these kids to come out of their shells and do something that, according to society, is not meant for us and, you know, put it into play, use it as a tool of empowerment,” he says. “If you could do this, you could do anything, provided you apply the same principles — get your butt up early in the morning, have a goal and be consistent.”
Diaz is proof. The internal audit manager overcame his share of obstacles moving to the US from the Dominican Republic when he was 11. It was only much later that some skiers he worked with at a hotel mentioned a “skateboard thing” at New York’s Hunter Mountain. The longtime skate rat tried it out and never looked back. He loves passing on the stoke.
“One young lady was the shiest, quietest individual and she now calls herself a snowboarder,” says Diaz, beaming with pride. “She’s very talkative, very outgoing and gets really good grades so she can continue to be part of the program.”
Going forward, Hoods to Woods plans to help even more kids, including those on the spectrum — and in communities beyond Brooklyn.
“As an Afro-Latino, I want to focus on a lot of Latino communities from Washington Heights to Paterson,” Diaz says. “But Hoods to Woods is open to everyone. … When you’re in the hood, you’re in the hood. It doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t discriminate.”
Thanks to Paupaw and Diaz’s work, the woods don’t discriminate so much either.
It can be tough getting started on the slopes. These top recs from Diaz will make a world of difference.
“You will spend lots of time falling on your butt before you learn to carve.”
“Bibs have a higher waistline to keep the snow out, as most beginners spend a lot of time on the snow.”
“Get a board based on your skill level and your weight. Most people think it’s based on height; that’s a misconception.”
MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) Helmet
“Head protection is very important, especially when you’re learning to ride and can catch an edge or lose control.”
“Heat-moldable boots are a must because they conform to your feet.”
Open It Up
Want to be part of making the mountain more inclusive? Check out these organizations, too.
Partner with the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), which hosts an annual summit, youth programs and clubs across the country.
Get involved with this Burton-sponsored program, dedicated to inspiring youth through board sports in 23 cities and nine countries around the world.
Sign on with SHRED, an organization on a mission to provide young people with life and career opportunities through board sports.
Adaptive Sports Foundation
Team up with ASF, which empowers people with physical and cognitive disabilities and chronic illnesses through snow sports.