Melissa Utomo talks about racist routes, inclusive app design and how the outdoor industry is failing people of color.
In December 2019, Boulder, Colorado-based web developer and climber Melissa Utomo approached Seattle’s Recreation Equipment Inc. (REI) with a proposal to change the functionality of its Mountain Project app, a crowdsourced climbing route finder. Utomo read an article about sexist climbing route names, and realized Mountain Project (of the Adventure Projects suite of apps) had been allowing climbers to label routes with racist or violent names without offering an easy way for other users to report them. She felt compelled to create a basic reporting tool REI could easily integrate into its app.
“It’s as simple as a button and a form — it is the two easiest things to code, probably, and it’ll take someone who’s pretty advanced less than an hour to do,” she says.
“I didn’t expect for them to respond or take it too seriously,” Utomo says. “My thought coming into it is like, ‘Well, I’m a nobody.’ And I’ve never done something like this before where I’m reaching out to this big corporation with a specific skill set that aligns with what they are capable of accomplishing.”
But Utomo says three subsequent interactions with app representatives throughout 2020 ultimately left her feeling betrayed and ignored. Utomo says she felt the fixes weren’t a priority, and REI’s invitation to join a diversity coalition felt like a solicitation for unpaid labor in support of company prerogatives outside her proposal.
After more than seven months without movement on her proposal, Utomo woke up to protests against racism and police brutality sweeping the globe. On July 1 she shared her story on Instagram, and Mountain Project implemented a similar technical fix without credit or notice that same day. When Melanin Basecamp shared a detailed chronology of Utomo’s interactions with REI and Mountain Project leadership, many fellow climbers spoke up to share her outrage and offer support.
“It was this kind of immediate shift, of feeling like you’re not seen, to being overseen and exploited in that fashion,” Utomo says. “It was this motion sickness.”
Crosscut talked with Utomo about the importance of accessible and inclusive web design, being an Asian American woman in tech and in the outdoors, and about the power of names in defining the outdoor spaces we all use.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What about the issue of offensive route names really struck a chord with you?
I had a memorable situation climbing at the Slavery Wall section of Ten Sleep Canyon. There were routes like Happiness in Slavery, and the fact that an entire wall was called Slavery Wall stuck with me. A friend of mine who studied history brought to my attention the appropriation and inappropriate use of the term “40 acres and a mule” [for a route]. That actually catapulted my interest into this proposal, and I used direct examples of very overt [route names] that use the R-word, for example, and “slant eyes,” and the N-word.
Another motivation was going to [the climbing diversity festival] Color the Crag. Those spaces and events for affinity groups are really valuable, and I think the more that we protect them and invest in them, the more that we can liberate people who are constantly erased.
At the time, no one was talking about this, at least on a larger scale. And it goes to show how young our climbing community is, as far as talking about really important concepts like class and race and prejudice. In creating this proposal, I wanted something tangible for people to talk about and just even start that discussion.
How did that notion then transform into a tech solution?
I’m passionate about how we can make the web accessible because it is the thing that by its nature should allow people to seek out information without the physical barriers that they typically encounter in real life. But then, whenever you have web developers that are able-bodied and who don’t think about these things and make them intentionally — just like intentionally being anti-racist — then you’re just going to keep reinforcing the norms in a society that keeps people out.
I think a lot of us are pretty overwhelmed by the larger picture of how we make an impact within large movements, and I’m definitely more in the details. I’m the builder. What worked well for me is just to continue to look at the skills that I have, and to focus on one thing that I can do really well.
Classically, first ascensionists get to name routes, summits, etc. How does that influence or underscore power in climbing culture?
I guess the current norm is that whoever develops the route — who has the resources for it and has the ability to do it and the time and the privilege of time to do it — gets to name it whatever they want, with no guidelines, with no code of conduct of any sort. It’s just whatever inspires them at the time.
People who are dominant within climbing culture are often white, male, able-bodied people. The current structure does not encourage change, or other people that are not white, male and might have all these privileges to access these routes. It’s pretty hierarchical.
Solutions like mine disrupt that hierarchy and tradition that is set by basically white supremacy. So a feature like mine questions that norm. Even the phrase on the button that says, you know, “flag for inappropriate content.’ When you read it, you’re like, wait, what about this is inappropriate? What about this is worth flagging?
What inspired you to approach REI?
I give a lot of credit to Brown Girls Climb and to the other affinity groups for signing on. Having their backing on it was really the motivation for me to say, okay, I’ll step up against these big corporations. I’ll put myself out there and be in these uncomfortable meetings, to talk about this one little change when they probably have like a billion other things to think about.
Were you nervous?
I think what I was nervous about at the time — and still am now, to a large degree — is I’m pretty much a nobody to them. I don’t hold any power over them. They can just kind of look at this document and be like, ‘well, thanks for that.’
There can be a lot of harm in appropriating an idea from somebody to fix an inclusion or diversity issue. You’re at risk of creating more damage than actually fixing things. and for me, like, I feel really bad. I feel like I’ve given someone the tools and then that tool is being twisted into a weapon that doesn’t actually serve the people that it’s meant to serve. The more intentionality that you put into [a tool], the less likely that it will be used against the people that are underserved or marginalized.
It’s like looking at a climb. A climb is just a piece of rock. It is neutral in its existence. But once a person [imbues it with a name and] intention or actions, driven by their assumptions or influences or whatever, then it does become opinionated and it does become a tool that you can wield towards someone.
Prioritizing accessibility and inclusive design into a build unfortunately isn’t the common culture within web development, which cares about like, how can you make the sexiest thing? But to whose eyes are you making it the sexiest thing and the coolest thing right? It’s usually able-bodied white people.
This is an issue that is really complex. We’re dealing with oppressive and violent route names and language. And I recognize that it is not a technical issue, it is a social issue, but technology will get us there. So it was important for me to show up with not just a physical tangible solution, but also the information and intention behind it.
You went into your first meeting with REI hopeful about your fix being adopted, but after your second meeting, you say it felt like the conversations had been turned into opportunities for REI to pitch you on their own diversity initiatives rather than entertaining your concerns.
It was just this constant up and down of feeling hopeful that you’re being heard, and then later realizing that you were never part of this actual conversation around change. It’s really, where can they fit you into their puzzle, and into their performative wants?
The irony is, I’m coming in with this proposal with a lot of people signing on to it. The community is saying, ‘Hey, this is a solution that we think will work.’ But then REI is like ‘no, we’re going to go with this solution that we think looks really nice and looks really cool.’ So it’s like, who do you really serve in that situation?
When did you decide to go public?
I was running one day and was like, you know what, I’m so sick and tired of waiting. And I feel like I’ve been keeping this under wraps because I don’t want to be the face of anything and I also want to be respectful to these organizations in the hopes of working with them in the background so they won’t feel like I’m trying to harass them.
So I put together some nice Instagram posts with the intent of showing the community what’s possible. There was a lot of talk about route names and people changing route names, especially inspired by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd. I wanted to give this to the community to show them like, hold yourself to a higher standard — as a professional, I’m saying that this is the bare minimum to strive for.
When that post was trending, one of my friends reached out to me and said, Hey, did you know Nick [Wilder] did this? The same day that he implemented that button was the same day that I decided — with no connection whatsoever — to make my proposal public.
I had to grapple with the weird amount of visibility that I got. Me and the people who signed on, we’re so used to working in the background, and then being pushed aside, being silenced. And then all of a sudden, the only time that this project got visibility, it got appropriated.
REI and Adventure Projects didn’t care, no matter how well composed and how much I showed my professionalism, and the amount of experience that I had. And the only time that organizations cared was when they panicked, and they felt like they needed to just slap something on.
So to me, it’s just really frustrating. It’s like, where can we make change in a way that is not heightened by adrenaline, because we feel like we need to protect ourselves or we feel like we fucked up and we don’t know what else to do? Can we trust the people that have had experience in this and bake them into the process? And just let go of that fear of [losing] control, and just let them lead the way?
How much time and effort have you put into this project?
A lot. I feel like I’m working another part time job for this. But when you love to do something and you feel like that you’re able to make change, it doesn’t feel like work.
A number of people have reached out to me about conceptualizing and putting together a leveled effort for a competitive product against Mountain Project. We met [Tuesday], actually. And it was amazing. It was like 12 people who are designers, developers, technical project managers, there was only one white guy in this call. And it was so fascinating. I’ve never been in a room of developers that was so diverse and so passionate about the social part of web development, the really important, human impacts.
I’ve never been able to connect with the community in the way that I have been able to now. The visibility part is difficult, but at the same time, this is an opportunity for like-minded people to come together and say, ‘wow, I thought I was alone. I totally agree with you;’ or to connect with people who just had trouble thinking of the right words, or needed something tangible to start brainstorming. To me that is the part that really has changed my life.
This article originally appeared in Crosscut, a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/membership to support independent journalism.