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Q&A with Shelma Jun: Founder of Flash Foxy and the Women’s Climbing Festival

Flash Foxy: Shelma Jun by Sasha Turrentine
Shelma Jun by Sasha Turrentine

Shelma Jun, 34, is the director of the Women’s Climbing Festival and founder of Flash Foxy, a multi-platform hub for a national network of women who climb; and “a space created with the intention of promoting conversations that matter.” Jun recently cofounded the Never Not Collective, a new media collective of women engaged with the outdoors. In 2017 Jun was named one of Outdoor Magazine’s 40 most inspiring women.

Jun grew up in California and worked through a BA in business economics and a master’s program in Urban Planning at UCLA before moving to New York City. Now she lives in Brooklyn, though her projects have her bopping around the country these days. About a year and a half ago Jun left the Hester Street Collaborative—an “urban planning, design and development non-profit that works to ensure that neighborhoods are shaped by the people who live in them”—where she spent fives years as the Community Design Manager, as well as a Community Planner at an affordable housing non-profit called Asian Americans for Equality. Jun is a no-bones-about it, hardcore climber—watch her 70 feet above the ground, maneuvering an undercling, finishing on a two-finger pull-up. Or, as in a recent video produced by REI, see her hug a seemingly edgeless boulder while she voice-over commentates the gender divide in climbing, and narrates the history of Flash Floxy. Jun’s eloquence and tactical skills add up to a Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire combination of backwards-and-in-heels activism married to physical ability. Not only does Jun climb, she’s built and raced cars, and is a licensed CPA in California. She’s also a good cook.

I chatted with her briefly to learn a little more about how Flash Foxy, founded in 2014, grew from a small group of women climbing together in Brooklyn (full disclosure, I was a participant) to a nationally recognized organization that fed the climbing festival that hosted 300 women and garnered a waiting list of 800 after tickets sold out in a literal minute.

What is the one-sentence description of Flash Foxy?

Shelma Jun: It’s a national women’s climbing community that brings women together to climb and have conversations that matter.

Where did it start and how did it gain momentum?

Shelma Jun: In April of 2014 it started as an Instagram of us [climbers that Shelma met in and around Brooklyn who trained at the Brooklyn Boulders climbing gym during the winter, and traveled to nearby climbing hot-spots in the summer], but gained more and more people in the first year. About a year in Climbing Magazine called us one of the top 10 climbing Instagrams to follow. That gave us a little bit of a bump. And that June we announced the climbing festival, which got a ton of really good press.

What is the Women’s Climbing Festival?

Shelma Jun: For me, the festival is a vehicle for building a community where women can have honest conversations while getting an opportunity to teach and learn from other women. [And of course, climb together outdoors.] I see the festivals as related to the community organizing work I did. They aren’t just about having a good time––though we do have a great time. It’s really an opportunity to address some of the challenges that women face: objectification of females in media, micro aggressions, imposter syndrome, etc. We’re growing a community together.

There is a huge need. Last year, which was the first, the festival tickets sold out in one minute. I had sort of thought it would just be like 30 women out in the desert climbing, but we ended up with 300 attendees and 800 people on a waiting list. The women who attend range from climbing veterans to brand new climbers; female [climbing] guides and athletes. We’re expanding to a second location, Chattanooga, to better serve women coming from the East Coast.

“The festival crew is all female, all our guides, athletes, facilitators, photographers, and videographers are female. I want to reinforce that women can be the leaders and experts.”

How is the festival staffed, organized, operated and executed?

Shelma Jun: The festival crew is all female, all our guides, athletes, facilitators, photographers, and videographers are female. I want to reinforce that women can be the leaders and experts. We pay everyone a stipend, it’s not what they’re worth but it’s what we can afford and shows that we’re supporting them. That’s really important. We rely on local organizations and communities to supply the festival so that 70 percent of our budget goes back to the town and to the Access Fund, earmarked for projects in Bishop [where the festival was held] where we’re creating impact.

What was it like working on the REI movie?

Shelma Jun: When REI reached out about making the film I was very hesitant. It’s not a classic climbing film where someone is like, ‘I tried to climb this’ and then either does or doesn’t. I was incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of being an expert on women in climbing. So I told REI that I was interested but that it was very important to me to be part of a collaborative process—I wanted to be involved in the storytelling and editing and to see the final product before it was released. They were open and supportive, and I did get to be involved. Of course, the movie wasn’t all I wanted it to be, but the things that I thought were most important were included.

It’s a very introductory piece in that it touches on much broader societal problems and incredibly complex concepts. It’s challenging for me to participate in something like the REI movie because it’s not as radical as I am. I have to remind myself that every platform I speak on doesn’t have to define me or my belief system. The hope for me is that people watch the movie and that it starts conversations among peer groups.

So what’s it feel like to be spontaneously elected as a spokeswoman for female climbers?

Shelma Jun: Nerve-racking. People expect all the answers and I don’t have them. Creating these spaces where change can be made is just the first step—we should find the answers together.

Last summer I administered a survey about how gender affects experiences in the climbing gym. I’m a social scientist, my work is in urban planning, so I created a survey and put it online. And, surprise, I found that yes there is sexism in the climbing gym. I was posting about the survey [on social media] when someone at Outside magazine asked if I’d write about it for them, which I did. The article really just touched the surface of many issues but the response was enormous, which was sort of surprising to me. People still don’t think these issues are real.

Things like this survey and the REI movie can if nothing else be validating for women who need to hear that sexism and racism happen, that others see it, too. It can be empowering and feel like a load is lifted from your chest when you see that, no, you’re not just being sensitive, and it’s not ok for people to roll their eyes when you speak up about your experience. You don’t just have to chill.

“I understand that promoting diversity is not the easiest path. That when you’re looking at a pool of people, most are white men.”

What do you hope to see change in the outdoor industry, in the near future?

Shelma Jun: I would like to see more inclusionary practices. I’d like to see that at the industry level more leadership positions are given to women of color and queer folks.

I want to see outdoor initiatives and companies start to tackle these stats and numbers that suck—the American Mountain Guides Association, for example, showed that female guides (skiing, climbing, and alpine) make up about eight percent of guiding personnel. That’s not the population division. Women alpinists are really rare, route setters at the gym are rare. These are opportunities for change.

I spoke at an Access Fund benefit dinner in 2015 along with Tommy Caldwell [a world-renowned climber and one of the biggest names in the sport], the conversation was about how historically, in the last 25 years, barriers to access have been fences on the ground, but people getting into climbing now see other barriers: lack of funding, lack of representation. I challenged the Access Fund to expand their definition of access in order to help address how a whole new demographic of climbers is experiencing the sport. I’m pretty new in the outdoor industry, and I’m a woman of color. There aren’t that many people of color—look around and you see people who are primarily 30s-to-50s white men, and that’s not representative of my experience.

I understand that promoting diversity is not the easiest path. That when you’re looking at a pool of people, most are white men. I’m reminding companies that though it’s not the easiest way––that it’s more work when you’re already stretched thin; that you’re going to have more failures, more mistakes—you can’t give up just because one initiative didn’t work. You have to be ready to try another new initiative and another.

I think we’re at a really interesting place in the outdoor community and industry. Three years ago nobody was talking about inclusion and representation. At this point, everybody at the industry level admits that there is a problem, which I think is precipitating the next phase: taking action.

What’s next?

Shelma Jun: I have a new project, a media production company called the Never Not Collective that I launched with three other rad women working in outdoor industries. We wanted to tell great stories about awesome, regular people doing cool stuff, and in media, there is just a huge dearth of women, especially in creative roles: production, directing; and filmmakers are predominantly male. When you get women together the things that we notice and highlight resonate differently. It’s exciting. I hope that we can be a space for women to grow and gain mentorship in outdoor media.

Flash Foxy: Shelma Jun by Colette McInerney
Flash Foxy: Shelma Jun by Colette McInerney

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