Q&A: Snowboarder & Writer Emilé Zynobia on Finding Her Voice in the Outdoors
We talk with Jackson Hole ambassador and Yale grad student @curlsinthewild about studying the environment in a crisis, learning to claim, and more
These are strange times. And while most days, I feel stuck in a never ending loop of crises and catastrophes, I’d like to think that 2020 is the year we desperately needed. The world is changing, and change is usually painful. Maybe we’re just feeling the tremors of waking giants—a new generation emerging to create what’s next.
Growing up, Emilé moved around a lot. At the age of 13, she moved in with her grandparents and Jackson, Wyoming became her home. She learned to snowboard the same year and fell in love the first time she strapped in. Now, she’s an ambassador for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and pursuing a masters degree at Yale School of the Environment, where she also serves as co-director of the Yale Environmental Film Festival. Best of all, she can talk for hours about her thoughts on mountain communities (trust me, we did).
For Emilé, going into the mountains has never been about representation. It’s about accessing what belongs to her, and reclaiming her power. In my conversation with Emilé—key moments of which are shared below—we talked about what this weird, chaotic year means for her trajectory. And one thing is clear: Emilé is a waking giant.
In the midst of yet another madness-filled news week, I hope what you read next reminds that the outdoors–however you define it–can be the recharge we all need right now.
How would you describe what you do?
That’s the hardest question to answer! I’ve worked in outdoor education, research, and as a yoga teacher. Now I'm in graduate school and just starting to feel comfortable saying that I'm a writer. I've been a snowboarder for quite a long time, but I've never felt comfortable claiming it until recently, either.
I took a look at all the women of color snowboarders and realized I’m one of a few, so I’ve started to tell myself it’s ok to own ‘snowboarder’ as part of my identity and be confident about what I bring to the table.
"I’ve started to own ‘snowboarder’ as part of my identity and be confident about what I bring to the table."
That feels familiar to my experience as a BIPOC woman. I struggle with claiming those outdoor labels. What do you think makes that decision so hard?
There are so many intersections. First and foremost I think being a woman of color in a space where there's not a lot of people like us makes you feel like you can’t rightfully claim the space all the time. There were a lot of years where I was under the radar because I never felt good enough—like you somehow have to be at this expert level. I definitely feel that living in Jackson. I think there's also an ego element to it.
You’ve been writing about your experiences outdoors recently, what inspired that move to be more vocal?
I was silent for a lot of years. I heard people say horrendous things in this community, and have had those things said to me, but I just didn't want to kick up dust. But I realized when you turn the other cheek it makes you complicit. I don’t give people passes anymore. And personally, I just got out of a serious relationship and I’ve started to step into my body in a more confident way.
The combination of really great friends and an external push in the industry for more diversity has come together for me at the right time and right place for me.
"When you turn the other cheek it makes you complicit. I don’t give people passes anymore."
Totally—growing up in mostly white outdoors spaces, I felt like my number one concern was fitting in, so I didn’t want to challenge anyone. It’s something I’ve been working on. What’s changing for you, personally?
I am only now learning language for what I've lived my whole life–how to explain and communicate something I know in my head, and in history, but I can’t always communicate in conversation. And getting better at knowing I’m not going to change every mind or win every conversation, but I want to keep inspiring the people who are ready to listen.
You recently posted about “toxic positivity” in your mountain town, what made you want to talk about it?
What I’ve seen in mountain communities is that we don’t know how to hold each other in difficult moments. We usually just say, “no bad days” or “don’t bring your negative vibes to the party.” That tacit culture, where we’re expected to be happy all the time, doesn’t only affect BIPOC people.
Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the the nation right now. And if you look at the top 10 highest suicide rates, a lot of them are in the Mountain West. Historically we’ve existed as an escape or retreat for people, I think it’s time mountain communities face the world and ourselves. We need to get better at uncomfortable conversations, for our own survival.
"It’s time mountain communities face the world and ourselves. We need to get better at uncomfortable conversations, for our own survival."
When you ride and write, what do you want to communicate to people?
I want to defy that BIPOC people have been sort of used as instruments and marketing. This isn't about you having your diversity piece, this isn't about you being able to pat yourself on the back. Ultimately, this is about me having access to my birthright as a human being, to enjoy these spaces and feel liberated and empowered through the utilization and time spent in them.
I didn't get to have much of a childhood, I'm really grateful that my grandparents decided to raise me at 13. But prior to that, I'd had a rough sort of inner city upbringing and moved around a lot. Now as an adult, so much of my life is being able to access that inner-joy, inner-play, inner-child as a form of healing. Brown women, Black women, Indigenous women—we carry a lot of pain. And I cannot speak enough about how healing it is to be outside. There’s a generative power that comes with being in these spaces that we all need to access right now.
"Ultimately, this is about me having access to my birthright as a human being, to enjoy these spaces and feel liberated and empowered through the utilization and time spent in them."
Studying the environment in the middle of a climate crisis seems stressful. What are you learning that keeps you motivated?
When you study the environment, it's sort of this double edged sword where you realize how much harm we've caused. But you also realize the beauty of it all. What are the odds that we're even here? How is it that we're even here moving and breathing?
There have been a lot of nature writers that have helped me get to that point, like, Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry. Everything is working for us most days. Everything in nature is meant to support the existence of life. That’s so cool!
Who are the outdoors writers, friends, and communities that you’re most inspired by right now?
I am particularly inspired by Angel Kyodo Williams right now. She is the co-author of the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, Liberation. It's wonderful and I highly recommend it. I've been replaying her conversation with Krista Tippett of the podcast On Being. A great podcast and community.
For fiction, I'm inspired by the writer Zadie Smith, who's written many books, but currently, I am working on White Teeth. As well as the book The Overstory by Richard Powers—I've never read so many beautifully structured sentences line after line.
I would say the communities I'm greatly inspired by right now, are the Intersectional environmentalist communities that are arising. When it comes to addressing matters of the environment it is high time we recognize that the well-being of the planet is deeply intertwined with the well-being and justice afforded to the most marginalized and vulnerable among us.
And of course, I'm deeply inspired by my network friends who do the tedious work with effortless grace every day.