Never seeing herself reflected in outdoor media, Bell created her own role model, Ruby J, to look up to. Now the artist is using her creativity to encourage more diversity within the action sports community.
There’s a fine line between being an invisible person and being a mythical creature. It’s easy to write off both as non-existent, but when we dig deeper into our culture, privileges, and how we choose to view others, we may be surprised to find ourselves surrounded by people we never really see. Brooklyn Bell considers herself one of these people who walks the line between unicorn and invisible but is forging her way into the line of sight of the outdoor community.
Bell is 22. She’s black and petite with a megawatt smile that lights up a room. She has dreadlocks that fall playfully around her face and seem to animate her stories when she talks excitedly about her passion projects. She’s young but speaks with a wisdom seldom found in someone who isn’t even out of college. Her younger sister Jaden is 17 and also her best friend. “She’s way more mature than me. I’m a little kid,” Bell says playfully. Their parents split when they were young, and their mom moved the two kids to Bellingham to be near family. “I always wanted to live in Bellingham,” she says. “From Seattle the drive turns from flat to mountains and you come around this corner and there’s just this town.”
Bell exudes a calm curiosity, which has apparently always been a part of her nature. As a kid she wanted to be a preacher or a teacher. She listened to audiotapes of former Seattle Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus because her parents owned a hot dog business they operated near Mariners games and it was a familiar voice to her. She listened and memorized Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, including his famous “I Have a Dream” monologue. Bell had dreams, too. Only, unlike most people, hers began to manifest through artwork. “I’ve always been really creative and always had a design mind,” she says. She would create characters and name them and assign them personalities. After four years on the yearbook staff in high school, she knew she wanted to pursue art and design.
Bell had dreams, too. Only, unlike most people, hers began to manifest through artwork.
During her time at Western Washington University’s graphic design program, Bell was introduced to mountain biking by a patron at the local bagel shop where she worked. She’d been an avid trail runner but had never tried mountain biking. After one ride she was hooked. “It just felt right. I thought if I kept doing it every single day I’d get good at it,” she says smiling. “I felt the squeals in the calmest way.” Bell saved up for an entire year and in the spring of 2014 bought her first bike, a lime green hardtail she named Sweet Pea. She rode the bike every day and would watch as fellow female riders were jumping and dropping features. She started to follow suit and before long needed to upgrade her bike.
A lot of Bell's inspiration comes from her natural surroundings, like Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker. Brooklyn Bell Art.
She ended up on a Kona Process, a full-suspension bike that was better suited for the local terrain which tends to be steep, rooty, and fairly technical. Bell’s progression happened quickly, and people were starting to take notice, including a major bike brand. They reached out to her about being an ambassador—a pivotal moment for her. She initially said yes, but upon riding the other bike realized it didn’t feel as natural for her. She ended up turning down the offer after a couple of weeks and returned the bike. “One of the most interesting moments was watching my parents watch me turn that down. It wasn’t right for me in the moment and in hindsight, I realize they were proud of me for following my heart. It was too premature for where I was at in my riding.”
Altruism Versus Checking Boxes
This is a conundrum that Bell and other people of color face in the sports industry: altruism versus checking boxes. Which brands are being genuine in their marketing and which are just trying to cover their asses? In 2015 Bell appeared on Ash Bocast’s podcast where she was asked about being a person of color in mountain biking. It wasn’t talked about at the time, and Bell was taken aback at first. “I was like, ‘Wow. Ok.’ I had this duality of being a fairy unicorn which is something I’ve been trying my hardest to step away from. It was either that or I felt completely unseen.” She shared the podcast on a Reddit forum and was heartbroken when people thrashed what she was saying, denying that there was any racism in mountain biking and that there was nothing keeping anyone from riding bikes. “They told me, ‘You’re nothing special. This is not an issue.’” It made her retreat and not want to talk about it. She endured several instances of localized racism in Bellingham and the reality of those experiences made her shift her perspective on silence. “I needed to work through my own insecurities and find support and figure out how to find community in people that were going through the same thing,” she says. Bell decided to take her personal reaction and experiences and turn them into an opportunity to bring diversity and inclusion into the spotlight. Sometimes the hard truth is what needs to be heard.
“They told me, ‘You’re nothing special. This is not an issue.’”
She began speaking at events and channeling her unseen heroes into her artwork. Just like her childhood self she kept creating characters of people that didn’t exist physically, but were very present in her mind. There was Dustin Ackley, the generic white skier guy who was everywhere at her local haunt, Mt. Baker. “He kind of looks like he’s a dickhead, but you have to meet him a couple times. I created him as a kind person,” she says. And then there’s Ruby J, the female character that she drew because that outdoorsy role model didn’t exist. There were no black skiers or mountain bikers in her world, so she created the image and character that she wanted to see on the hills and on the trail. Ruby J is her superhero. “Her superpower is that she isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She’s not afraid to be an advocate for herself. She’s a leader. She has a voice.” It’s fitting that Bell has become Ruby J, personified.
Becoming Ruby J
Bell poses alongside her illustration of Ruby J, which was published in REI's Force of Nature Zine.
Bell has used this voice in ads for Patagonia, REI, Kona, MEC, on stage in New York City for the Atlantic, in Vancouver BC for the North Shore Mountain Bike Association, at the No Man’s Land Film Festival, and at Winter Outdoor Retailer. She’s appeared in the pages and on the cover of Mountain Flyer Magazine, Craft Magazine, online for Backcountry Magazine and The Atlantic and as a brand ambassador for Kona Bikes. She spoke at the annual Sea Otter Classic bike event around diversity and inclusion in the bike industry, something she is passionate about changing in both biking and skiing.
The Kona Supremes, an all-women’s squad of mountain bikers showed her that with a little effort inclusivity is possible. “The Supremes were awesome. They made me feel good and really safe. The amount of progression we made together was incredible,” she says smiling. Amanda Bryan, founder of the Kona Supremes was drawn to Bell’s infectious energy and her perseverance in learning a new sport.
“She was riding this little XC hardtail on our black diamond trails, getting tossed around and having the best time,” Bryan recalls. “She always has tremendous courage to stand out and be different and challenge the norm and now she’s challenging the outdoor industry in the same manner.” Having the support of The Supremes elevated Bell’s confidence to a new level while she was out riding and her progression escalated quickly. “In hindsight, after going out to my first big freeride skiing contest alone this year, I was so lucky to have The Supremes there to back me up on the bike.” She was motivated to create that kind of supportive environment for fellow athletes of color trying to step into what’s historically been a very homogeneous industry.
You can almost always find Bell on her bike—especially when she's back home in Bellingham. Matt Roebke Photo.
Bell says in order to bring more diversity into the fold there are several things that have to happen. Personally, she wants to be present and be a voice. She is a representative of the people and her presence helps change perspectives. “I try to give people opportunity. I try to open doors I’ve been walking through and bring people with me. I send other athletes to companies that want me to be an ambassador,” she says. “There’s not just one thing I do, but there’s a lot of different things we can do together. I can’t do it all myself.”
Beyond her personal work, she tasks people with knowing what their privileges are and to understand them and how they affect people around them, including those that often go unseen. She encourages people to change what the read online, and this can be as simple as updating their news feeds to include more outlets that cover diversity. Her Instagram account is chock full of suggestions on whom to follow and companies that are highlighting people of color in the outdoor industry. She also suggests that people reserve judgment for what the term “outdoors” actually means. “Just because someone doesn’t experience the outdoors the way you do, doesn’t mean they aren’t outdoorsy.” Wise words from a self-described “kid.”
“She always has tremendous courage to stand out and be different and challenge the norm” - Amanda Bryan
But creating inclusion goes way beyond the individual. The latest census projects that by 2045 the United States will no longer be a white majority country. This means as a nation, we have to shift the narrative to include a more diverse and representative population in our marketing, initiatives, stories and more. It requires brands and media outlets willing to step outside of what they know and embrace something that, until recently, has been uncomfortable to discuss. She encourages brands to let athlete’s individuality shine through and don’t try to force them into what you think your brand should look like. Work with athletes that embody your company and that can help elevate the brand culture in an altruistic way. Bell has learned this herself. She’s appeared in ads where she doesn’t look like herself, and she’s now trying to be a better representative of herself and her individuality throughout this process.
When Bell was a kid she always thought her Afro hair looked like the hills covered in pine trees. Inspired by that observation, Bell illustrated this climbing goddess for Brown Girls Climb. Brooklyn Bell Art.
She also hopes to see more brands support The Pledge, an initiative by Diversify Outdoors, that encourages brands to grow the representation of people of color across staff, executive teams, media, marketing and with their athletes. Bell was an integral part of their brand development and it’s a cause she calls on brands to support. She challenges ski and bike companies making movies to use the locals in their films. “When you have a ski film in Japan, have Japanese people skiing! Please,” she says adamantly. This circles back to Bell’s focus on bringing visibility to those people that are often left by the wayside. By skipping the native talent in a region, the media is propagating a mostly white culture in sports, leaving potential role models for people of color out of the picture entirely.
“When you have a ski film in Japan, have Japanese people skiing! Please”
Kids like a young Bell shouldn’t have to create their role models in their minds. They already exist, but as an industry we have to be better at shining a light on their stories and lifting them up. “If we are going to solve these problems, we have to solve them differently than how we started them. Think big,” she says. “We need to be willing to make mistakes, drive conversation, and have a lot of grace for each other.” The challenge has been laid out and it’s up to the outdoor industry, its companies, employees, and athletes to help foster this change and tap into our inner superheroes to make a difference. We may not all be like Ruby J, but we all have the power to make a difference.