Breaking Down Barriers One Climb at a Time: An Interview with Theresa Silveyra
With all of her outdoor feats you would think that Theresa would have grown up with an ice axe in hand. Surprisingly, it was the exact opposite. While Theresa grew up in Washington and Southern California, she didn’t venture into the outdoors until she was much older. “My family didn’t really prioritize getting outside, we didn’t really do any of the stereotypical “outdoorsy” things. Nothing that really pushed me into the stuff that I do now.” These days, Theresa is a music teacher and mountaineer and has emerged as a champion for promoting and creating opportunities for BIPOC representation in the outdoors. Whether she’s squeezing in a summit of Wy’east (Mt. Hood) before work, or organizing gear scholarships for women of color, Theresa passionately commits her time and resources to breaking down barriers for WoC in the outdoors.
What was your 30 Before 30 project and what changed from when you originally started the project to when you completed it?
Before, the 30 Before 30 was just a silly project for myself to celebrate my birthday. When all of the discussions around systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement started happening, I realized that I could use my project to bring more awareness to how these issues also impact mountaineering and climbing. Before that I didn’t really share that much about my feelings on the mountaineering and climbing community and how the lack of diversity is really unsafe and unwelcoming for a lot of people of color. I kept a lot of that stuff to myself for a long time because it never felt like it would be okay to share and if I talked about it too much I would lose friends or lose climbing partners because most of them are white.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
The most difficult part was using it as a fundraising effort and having it be a platform that I used to talk about things I was scared of sharing. Really opening up about my thoughts on the climbing community and being really nervous about the backlash because I didn’t know how people would react was hard. It was this all encompassing, “hey, I don’t feel safe in this community because there are so many white people who deny that racism exists in mountaineering.” It turned into a very vulnerable project for me.
“Really opening up about my thoughts on the climbing community and being really nervous about the backlash because I didn’t know how people would react was hard.”
What do you think are some barriers for women of color who are trying to get more involved in the outdoors?
Although it's consistently downplayed or viewed as a non-issue by many people, lack of representation is important to highlight here. If you’re aware that you might be the only person of color showing up to an event that can be a barrier. Even without the aspect of how I look, entering spaces that are mostly dominated by men is also an intimidating experience just as a woman. So throwing being a woman of color on top is an added layer. The reason I know there are a lot of women of color doing really awesome things outside is because I’ve made an effort to fill my social media feed with that so I know that we’re out there and any time I open Instagram it’s a reminder that I’m not alone in these spaces. Even so, it’s still difficult because it’s over a screen that I’m seeing all of it but not really outside.
How has the lack of community for women of color in the outdoors impacted your personal outdoor experiences?"
To this day, I still don’t have a lot of women of color hiking, climbing or any outdoor activity related companions. I didn’t notice it for the first couple of years but when I look back on it I can clearly picture in my head that most of the groups I went out with were primarily white women and I would sometimes be the only woman of color. I think for a long time I desensitized myself to seeing that lack of diversity because I grew up in Chehalis, which is predominantly white. I think I got used to it because thinking about it too much or dwelling on it is disheartening and reminds you that you don’t fit in so trying not to see it was a way of coping. It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I realized that strategy doesn’t work.
Aside from the fundraising, what else came out of your 30 Before 30 challenge?
One thing that came from the 30 Before 30 project was starting to make connections with more women of color and meeting women of color who want to get into mountaineering and have come across the same barriers that I came across of not feeling welcomed into the space or seeing myself represented. It’s been really nice to be that person that can offer up advice or answer questions or just be a safe space they can come to. My main goal for this year has been making more time to be a mentor even in the smallest sense.
Since this interview, Theresa is now an official instructor with Climbers of Color (yay!). For an opportunity to have Theresa as a guide, apply for our 4-day Intro to Mountaineering Course, or check out some of the other courses offered by CoC.
You can also have Theresa as a mentor. She’s signed up as one of our Trail Mixed Mentors! You can find her profile on our Mentor Search feature! You can also follow along on Theresa’s latest summits and initiatives through her Instagram @theresasilveyra!