What you are about to read is an email that Brooklyn Boulders management sent to parents of the BKBeast Youth Team. These parents were kind enough to sign on to an open letter to the executive team encouraging BKB to put its staff back on furlough and continue to make progress on becoming an anti-racist workplace. BKB replied to their letter with an aggressive email that frequently mischaracterizes and disparages the Collective, attempts to undermine our organizing efforts, and gets many basic facts wrong. In the interest of full transparency, we would like to fact check their email for them.
Keep in mind as you read our fact check that this is the tone the executives of the company have chosen to take to address anti-racist organizing in their workplace. The people they are disrespecting and gaslighting with misinformation are their own employees, who have done countless hours of free labor in an attempt to improve their company culture.
Dear Parents of BKBeasts,
Thank you for reaching out directly and allowing us the opportunity to address your concerns. As an Executive Leadership team, we share a great many of the same concerns and appreciate your insistence on creating a more equitable workplace for our staff and a truly inclusive space to which the NYC climbing community can return. We couldn’t agree more that our children deserve an environment where all climbers feel safe, respected, and valued.
Many of us in executive and leadership positions throughout BKB were equally appalled to hear the stories of discrimination and injustice that had come to light. Going forward we are totally committed to protecting our community from discrimination and to build systems intended to better root out racism and inequity. It was also immediately clear that we needed to dramatically change and upgrade many aspects of the company, including leadership structures, HR policies, recruitment, professional development processes, and more.
FACT CHECK: The executive team characterizes stories of systemic racism in their gym as “coming to light,” but the reason these stories stayed buried was their own creation and perpetuation of a culture of silence and exclusion using tools like NDAs and questionable firings not linked to employee performance.
A week before the Collective made itself known to the world, our Senior Director of People and Culture resigned and our CEO and President co-founders decided to resign as well. Those positions have since been vacant, leaving to the remaining executives the important task of repairing the fabric of our community by finding justice for the past and making good on a promise for a better future. This is no small task, and we do not take it lightly.
FACT CHECK: There is no evidence that the CEO, President, and Senior Director of People and Culture (HR) resigned a week before we announced our petition. We sent our petition to the executive team and board of directors on June 16 and posted it publicly on June 18. An early draft of the Collective’s petition was leaked to HQ on June 12. These resignations were not announced until June 24. The executive team is attempting to portray these resignations as proactive without evidence of that fact.
In your letter, you have asked that we follow in the footsteps of the BKB Collective and make the same commitment to creating a more equitable environment, free from discrimination and abuse. Without reservation, we agree to this commitment, and we have been taking measurable action towards changes to improve our environment. Our goal is to assure that discrimination and inequity do not exist at BKB, and like you, we will not sit idly by. Please read the last two sentences again, and know that our resolve in this respect is earnest and unshakable.
Your letter also states that the Collective has ‘graciously shown you the way’, and on this point, we disagree. Since the first communication we received from the Collective, leaders from across the ranks of BKB including managers, directors, and executives have attempted to engage in dialogue with members of the Collective to little avail.
FACT CHECK: Members of the executive team attempted to reach out to us individually and isolate us in conversations we were uncomfortable with. Our only response to these attempts was that we created the petition together and would like to talk about it together. Our refusal to engage individually was out of deference to group decision making, discomfort with an uneven power dynamic, and recognition that we may face retaliation for our efforts.
Members of the Collective have repeatedly refused offers to converse individually or in small groups about the issues they raised, have refused to participate in company elections, and insisted that large group meetings about their demands exclude stakeholders from other facilities and HQ.
FACT CHECK: We never attempted to exclude any facility level employee from any meetings, and weren’t given any advanced notice, let alone control, of which members of HQ would be attending meetings. We did not “refuse” to participate in company elections, but did want to see more progress made on our petition before doing further unpaid or low paid work for BKB. They bring up their committees throughout this letter and attempt to classify our reluctance and hesitation as outright refusal and obstinance, but could not even tell us how much employees on these committees would be paid until after the first nomination deadline had already passed.
During the first of two large group meetings, it was stated that no further discussion was needed or welcome until, as they said, ‘all demands have been met’.
FACT CHECK: We did not say that “no further discussion was needed” during that first meeting, or ever. The exec team said that they were “there to listen” but could not directly address the items on our petition. We said that we needed to see more progress, especially on some of the demands that would be easier to implement, before our next meeting. We left the first meeting with management with a mutual understanding that we would meet with them again soon, which we did.
A vast majority of our staff in Chicago, Boston, and Denver (as well as many in NYC) disagreed with the Collective’s approach while still believing in the need to address the underlying issues.
FACT CHECK: Executive leadership has no evidence that the majority of employees disagree with our approach. A group of over 50 SV employees created their own petition independently. We know from communicating with employees of other facilities that BKB has attempted to mischaracterize our goals to our own coworkers. BKB has not demonstrated that there is a safe forum in which employees can voice support for the Collective without the possibility of retaliation. Our firing has likely had a silencing effect, and prevented workers at other gyms from speaking up.
Instead of adopting the Collective’s tactic of ‘no discussion until demands are met’, the majority chose to participate in cooperation with BKB leadership staff to forge a bold plan to move forward together. This plan includes, among many other changes, a restructuring of the balance of power and decision making at BKB by creating employee-led committees who will help assess our greatest needs and help shape our policy on items related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and employee representation.
FACT CHECK: “No discussion until demands are met” is a radical misrepresentation of our continual emphasis on negotiation and co-creation of policy. We repeatedly stated in meetings with management that we were willing to collaborate with them long term to realize our goals of an equitable workplace and anti-racist company culture that both satisfied the spirit of our petition and were feasible for BKB to implement.
Their “bold plan” of creating employee-led committees is actually a common tactic for employers to control and minimize employee input and power in decision making processes. This is not an attempt to center employee voices, this is an attempt to marginalize them. Committees like these are often not equipped or empowered to create and implement real structural change.
Even when we asked management directly, they could not tell us who would ultimately make policy decisions or how the committees would factor into the decision making process.
In June we held open elections to allow all employees to select representatives from their peers, and the committees have since held weekly meetings to begin the hard work of incubating real change within our company by reviewing, revising, and reinventing our policies and processes. During the two listening sessions we hosted with the Collective, they stated a blanket refusal to participate in the elections or committees.
FACT CHECK: BKB tried to hold elections before even telling staff how much they would be paid for this “hard work”, and before considering how it would affect the unemployment benefits or recall status of vulnerable employees. When we brought up these issues, they said that we could do the work for free if we wanted to. We asked them to seriously think about how much they were valuing this work if they weren’t willing to offer fair pay, and asked them to consider how to better protect the employees who would be expected to handle all of the DEI related issues within the company.
After pressuring them during our second meeting, we were finally told that the committees would be compensated at $19 per hour. This was after the initial deadline for nominations had already passed. They extended their election deadline to July 2, the day we were all laid off, so we did not end up having the option to nominate any representatives from the NYC facilities.
It is unclear how a weekly meeting by a small group of employees without the access to financial information or legal counsel that executives have could be expected to successfully and efficiently review, revise, and reinvent the many company policies and processes that need to change.
The Collective has repeatedly misrepresented the actions, responses, and intentions of the majority of our staff and leadership, and has publicly attacked BKB in attempts to get members and customers to cancel their patronage if we do not blindly adopt the full list of their ‘demands’. These actions directly harm themselves, their coworkers, and the community of climbers that call BKB home. While we applaud their courage and intention to raise their concerns regarding possible wrongdoing and inequity, their methods are decidedly not ‘gracious’, and are definitely not ‘the way’ to create systemic cultural change.
FACT CHECK: We have not misrepresented “the majority” of BKB’s staff in any way. We never claimed to speak for the majority of the company. But we do have faith that the majority of BKB’s staff is ready and willing to work together, with humility and conviction, to help create an equitable and anti-racist company.
The Collective has asked members not to cancel their memberships and leave BKB. We encouraged them to communicate with BKB leadership and to use their consumer power to urge HQ to deliver change. We have stated, time and time again, that we don’t want to harm BKB, we want to improve it. Canceled memberships are a result of leadership’s resistance to equitable working conditions and reluctance to dismantle systemic racism, not of our petition.
The executive team claims we attempted to pressure them to “blindly” accept our demands as written. We repeatedly told them that we are ready to collaborate and negotiate to create comprehensive and lasting policies.
It should be obvious that making significant and lasting change in a large business with hundreds of employees that operates in 8 different governmental jurisdictions (during a pandemic, no less), is going to take significant time and effort. This cannot be done overnight, and cannot be done in the absence of in-depth discussion, planning, and financial and legal review. Without this critical discussion and mutual education, certain members of the Collective have adopted a great many misconceptions, which they mistake as truth and in turn, have spread as misinformation.
FACT CHECK: It is obvious to the Collective that significant change takes significant effort. We stated many times in our meetings with management that the Collective does not expect BKB to change overnight. We offered to continue working with management for as long as it took to create a work environment that was safe and supportive for Black employees and climbers. In fact, we are still attempting to negotiate with management about our petition, months after its delivery, though they have not responded to us since we were laid off.
In an effort towards transparency and understanding, we would like to address many of those misconceptions here:
● The Collective would like for you to believe that the decision-makers for BKB do not support their call for systemic reform to eliminate possible discrimination and racism. This is FALSE . The Board of Directors, Executives, Directors, Managers and Assistant Managers are, to the last, all in alignment with the commitment to creating a more equitable environment, free from discrimination and abuse.
FACT CHECK: Among the members of the Board are former CEO Jeremy Balboni, who did not respond to our petition in any way or to previous efforts to address the systemic racism and inequity at BKB. During our negotiations with BKB leadership, we only ever spoke with three out of the five members of the executive team. Regardless of whether or not they may be “in alignment,” we have not seen sufficient evidence to support the claim that they are all committed to creating an anti-racist company culture. BKB continues to prioritize construction and development of new gyms, branding themselves as a diverse organization, and vilifying our Collective in emails to members over doing the hard work of dismantling systemic racism.
● The Collective would like for you to believe that we are unwilling to address all of the demands that they made. This is FALSE. Many of the ideas and changes have already been implemented, and several more are actively being assessed and planned. However, there are several demands that are simply not financially, legally, or operationally feasible, while still others do not go far enough to address the root cause of the issues raised.
FACT CHECK: It took the executive team two weeks of inaction and 40 minutes of continuous pressure from the Collective during our second meeting to even agree to discuss, in their next closed meeting, discontinuing the NYPD discount at their gyms. This was one of the most simple, immediate, and broadly popular demands on our petition, and they dragged their feet on discussing it, then attempted to characterize it as exclusionary to the police. Now they would have you believe that they have made significant progress on reforms that are orders of magnitude more complicated and difficult to implement.
Demands that we create HR policy that is different for certain employees based entirely on race are unacceptable and illegal, and demands that would immediately cost millions of dollars in unsustainable benefits, such as automatic raises every 3 months for all full time and part time employees, unspecified reparations, etc., would serve only to bankrupt the company and culture that we are trying to improve. We have publicly posted responses to each and every demand and will be soon meeting with our DEI consultant to review the Collective’s counter-responses so that we can continue to assess the viability of recommendations and remain on the path of making maximum impact.
FACT CHECK: We have never advocated, either in our petition or in meetings, that the company make policy that only addresses employees of one race. This is a ridiculous and ignorant misreading of our call to support Black employees. We have never, ever stated that gym policy should not support workers of all races. As we have pointed out publicly before, “We did not say that ‘only’ Black staff deserve a better workplace. A better company culture and improved workplace protections will benefit everyone who works for BKB. Focusing our demands on how systemic racism within BKB disproportionately affects Black people is not discriminatory.”
● The Collective would like for you to believe that the layoffs were an effort to silence those who would speak out against injustice. This is FALSE. It should be made clear that there has never been any intention to ‘silence’ any of our members or staff.
FACT CHECK: Management has coerced dissenting employees into signing nondisclosure agreements for years. They have fired Black employees who had unimpeachable job performance. After terminating our employment, they refused to respond to our communications. These are silencing tactics.
To the contrary, numerous efforts have been made by individual executives, managers, and teammates to discuss resolutions to issues that have been presented - as well as repeated offers for Collective members to participate in employee representation committees - all of which have continually been rejected by the Collective. Additionally, we have not hidden any of the claims against BKB, but rather made them public by adding them to our Diversity and Belonging Dashboard and public list of DEI work.
As a company focused on doing the right thing, we continue to discuss and address the list of issues the Collective brought to our attention within our action committees, whether or not members of the Collective choose to participate.
FACT CHECK: Again, BKB holds up their committees as proof that they are willing to change, when in fact the creation of committees such as these, with unclear guidelines and power structures, is often a way to marginalize worker initiative. We have attempted to continue negotiations with the executive team, even after we were laid off, because we believe that we still have a chance to make a difference at BKB. We have been met with silence.
The timing of the layoffs was in no way related to the Collective, but rather was a decision based on financial necessity and the desire to give former employees as much advance notice as possible so they could get a head start on job searches. As further evidence that the layoffs were not used to silence the views of the Collective, numerous staff members in NYC, Boston, and Denver who refused to be part of the Collective were laid off at the same time, and several people who are members of the Collective remain employed in our currently operating gyms in Chicago and Boston and, in some cases, are elected representatives within our action committees.
FACT CHECK: Although we have had friendly and supportive conversations with our coworkers in Chicago and Boston, the Collective does not have any members at those facilities. Every member of the Collective was laid off at once, along with the rest of our NYC coworkers. We do not have elected representatives due to the layoffs.
● The Collective would like for you to believe that we care about money and profits more than our employees and community. This is FALSE. As evidence that we are not simply ‘bleeding the business for cash at the expense of our workers’, the investors who have put millions of dollars into BKB over the years have yet to see a penny of gain, dividends, or return. When the shutdowns began, our former CEO refused to receive any further pay checks, and all Executives, Directors, and Managers took between 20-50% pay cuts while all other front-line and mid-level management positions maintained their pre-Covid pay levels.
FACT CHECK: A company that is opaque about its finances has the freedom to pick and choose which facts to share publicly to suit their agenda. How high were executive salaries to begin with? What happened to the millions of dollars in paycheck protection money the company secured during the shutdown? Why did the executives propose, in June, to create an additional executive position to increase diversity, even though this would add to its high level salary expenses?
BKB appears to quote us as saying ‘bleeding the business for cash at the expense of our workers’ but this is not something we’ve ever said.
The DEI consulting company hired by BKB advertises on their website that “Diversity increases profitability,” and claims that, “Diversity leads to a greater return on capital investment.” That’s not why we’re advocating for greater diversity. Can BKB say the same?
● The Collective would like for you to believe that we could easily afford to spend millions of dollars on DEI initiatives and on continuing to pay for their employment and benefits indefinitely. This is FALSE.
FACT CHECK: We never requested that BKB spend millions of dollars on DEI initiatives. Actually, we stated multiple times in our meetings that we understand the financial pressure the company is under, and that all we were looking for was a promise to eventually commit resources to address the items on our petition whenever those resources become available.
There is no question that our staff is the most valuable resource that the company has, and that the coaches who share their passion for climbing with our kids are core to our community. Our entire team has been focused on doing the best we can to support our staff as much as is possible during these past several months of unprecedented uncertainty and disruption.
FACT CHECK: There are plenty of questions. Why did the executive team fire staff impersonally with a copied and pasted form email? Why couldn’t they do the work of creating a recall list before they laid us off? Why did they attempt to convince us to join internal committees before deciding how to pay us for that labor? And the question we’re forced to ask, again and again: if the staff is your most valuable resource then why are your Black employees so consistently marginalized, silenced, and underpaid?
After we were forced to close all our facilities in March, we continued to pay our staff their full wages until we were sure that unemployment insurance, supplemented with extra funds from the CARES Act, would be able to provide them with adequate income while on furlough. Many other climbing gyms, including some in NYC, did not make this commitment and laid off staff right from the beginning. We also felt it was important to remove any burden of health care costs for as long as possible, so we raised the company’s contribution to health insurance premiums from 50% up to 100% and have been paying all health insurance costs for employees for nearly 5 months. Calculating the significant ongoing expense of this support, we hoped that the lockdowns would be lifted by June or July. Unfortunately, the continued loss of revenue due to the pandemic coupled with the recent inability of Governor Cuomo’s office to provide any indication of when we might be able to reopen (NYC gyms have been removed from Phase 4 reopening and must stay closed until further notice) has left us with no other options. The harsh financial reality is that we do not know when, or to what capacity, we will be allowed to reopen our gyms in NYC, and in the meantime, our monthly expenses of insurances, rents, basic utilities, and skeleton operations vastly outweigh the limited income we get from the members who have continued to pay their membership dues during the shutdown. We are exceedingly grateful for this generosity and support from our members, and this cooperation has made it possible for us to support our staff thus far and on through the end of this month. However, with no return to business in sight, this is simply not sustainable. Once we learned of the removal of gyms from the Phase 4 reopening plan, we also realized it was important to make a decision quickly and enact layoffs so that our employees could start to search for other employment opportunities as early as possible before the benefits of the CARES Act expire in a few short weeks at the end of July. The excruciating decision to layoff staff was made in the best interest of all of BKB’s employees, and to protect the future of BKB that we all speak of - in the most literal sense.
FACT CHECK: Rather than taking steps to lead staff gradually towards layoffs, as other employers in our industry have done, BKB did it without warning. BKB never shared their claims about financial struggles with staff. Governor Cuomo announced that gyms were moved past phase 4 on June 24th, but NYC staff was not laid off until July 2. We were fired the day after a meeting where management asked how long the Collective would continue to exist and we answered that we would exist as long as necessary in order to ensure protection for our Black co-workers and the creation of an equitable workplace.
● The collective would like for you to believe that there are only 2 possible courses of action from here: either all of NYC staff and coaches are returned to furlough status and are guaranteed job security, or all BKBeast parents are to demand a refund for all membership dues paid during the closure. This is a FALSE dilemma, as either course of action could leave BKB bankrupt and unable to reopen. We appreciate your request on behalf of our former employees to return them to furlough status, but please realize that no one working at BKB, from Executive Team members to all levels of employees, has a guarantee of job security amidst the ongoing losses due to the pandemic.
FACT CHECK: We think that there are many courses of action that HQ could take that might satisfy its former employees, including returning us to furlough status without our health insurance to save expenses, or creating a prioritized recall list. This false dilemma is management’s creation, not ours.
Management has also attempted to create an equivalence between the job security of executive positions and the job security of low level facility workers. The first employees to be laid off in financially insecure times are never the executives.
Should we be able to survive the shutdown and impacts of coronavirus, our business will forever be changed. In order to survive, we must reassess all of our operations and business models. This includes revising our organizational structure by reworking some or all of the roles, requirements, expectations, and schedule for each and every position in facilities. Due to the financial restrictions facing us, it is clear that we will not be able to rehire 100% of our staff when we reopen, although we hope to bring back as many employees as possible while at the same time ensuring that opportunities are available to an ever increasingly diverse and inclusive range of candidates.
FACT CHECK: Management claims to need to “rework” and “restructure” all of our positions due to COVID-related restrictions, but employee organization at CHI has not been restructured, and that gym has not been faced with any layoffs. CHI was able to open a few weeks earlier than the other facilities, but still has many of the same COVID-related restrictions on the business and limited operating capacity. SV has also started their reopening process by recalling employees instead of hiring a new team. Why is it that just NYC gyms need to completely overhaul their organizational structure? Recalling employees who have the institutional knowledge and necessary skill set to operate a climbing gym would be the best way to effectively reopen the NYC gyms. Why can’t management commit to this?
Please understand that despite the drastic measures that are currently necessary for the survival of the business, we remain committed to continue improving and becoming a genuinely anti-racist company. While no business would ever be able meet all of the demands listed in the petition circulated by the Collective, everyone on the BKB leadership team is, and will continue to be, committed to addressing the essential root problems and goals behind those requests.
FACT CHECK: False. Other companies already exist that treat their employees with dignity and respect, pay them a living wage, give back to the community, and genuinely foster an equitable workplace. We did not make outlandish requests that would bankrupt Brooklyn Boulders. We simply proposed the bare minimum that BKB could do to recognize the full humanity of their Black employees, make amends for past abuse, and better protect them moving forward.
The work required to accomplish this will persist regardless of layoffs, loss of members to our competitors, or continued misrepresentation of our position and actions on social media. We look forward to BKB setting the bar for other gyms in the industry regarding our efforts and commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Like other businesses, we have a long way to go and there is much work to be done, but we are resolved to immediately take more than just broad stroke action. We are excited to be getting ready to launch our Climbing for All initiative, which is an ambitious program designed to effect real and impactful change throughout our organization and communities.
FACT CHECK: BKB leadership has spent its time and effort creating a branded campaign instead of committing to basic anti-racist practices. Would you rather see #ClimbingForAll on Instagram or be a member of a gym that pays its Black facility staff a living wage?
In the meantime, we have created a Diversity and Belonging dashboard where you can track our progress over the next months and years as we strive to improve our own shortcomings and become a model for the industry.
We trust that you will continue to support our effort to weather the storm and reopen our gyms as soon as possible. We invite you to join us in our efforts to create a community of respect, understanding, inclusion and excellence that our kids deserve by participating in communications that we will host as we prepare to reopen our gyms. We look forward to you and your family being able to greet familiar faces in the gym when we can open again. If you ultimately choose not to return to BKB it will be our loss for not regaining your trust. However, we are committed to bringing back as many former employees and coaches as possible when we are able to reopen.
FACT CHECK: BKB has never told us that they are committed to bringing us back. Instead, they told us that our jobs would be posted to their Careers page when they became available.
In the end, we couldn’t agree with you more that climbing is for everyone, and we hope that the diverse and inclusive community of our future will also include you all as well.
BKB Leadership Team
In conclusion, the BKB executive team chose to use its time to write a 2,500 word email disparaging its own former employees rather than investing that time working on anti-racist policies for its workplace. This is how the company chooses to protect its money. Not by investing that money in its employees, who they claim are their “most valuable resource,” but by undermining them in an attempt to keep its members from leaving.
This is the culture we are striving to change. This is why we can’t and won’t quit working to improve BKB. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, we hope you’ll come with us back to a better gym than the one we left.