In his book "Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life", author Eric Klinenberg writes about how shared public spaces that encourage casual social interaction — such as libraries, parks and, yes, even neighborhood gyms — can make a community stronger and more resilient. Memphis Rox, a nonprofit climbing gym located in one of the roughest zip codes in the country, leverages the unique culture of climbing to encourage just this kind of interaction.
Since opening in March 2018, the South Memphis gym has become a haven for the sport and the facility's end-users, exposing climbing to an entirely different demographic — all while helping to bring about positive change in the community.
"I noticed when we were researching climbing that every climbing gym had this camaraderie, this understanding, this mutual respect for each other," says Chris Dean, director of outreach for Memphis Rox. Dean toured climbing gyms throughout the country, and saw how the sport engaged people on a different level. "Everybody was communicating," he says. "People hung out on the mats. They talked to each other. Strangers kind of gave each other beta, and conversations would just naturally start with no agenda."
That sense of community was important in establishing Memphis Rox, and also in differentiating it. The gym is one of the most diverse spaces in the whole city — both in terms of staff and clientele — so breaking down barriers was key.
"Black, white, Asian — so many different backgrounds come to this gym for this sport," says Dean. "We found something that can cross racial and socioeconomic backgrounds."
The gym itself is a 32,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art climbing space. Located within a former grocery store, the facility offers more traditional workout space, yoga rooms and a boxing area, but climbing is the focus. "There's 100 rope lanes, which would be between 100 and 120 rope routes at a time," says director of operations Jon Hawk. "There's about 7,500 square feet of bouldering. It's a lot of climbing."
With Walltopia-manufactured 45-foot walls for rope climbing and 15-foot bouldering walls, the facility is bustling.
"We actually did not expect to be this busy so fast, which has been pretty cool," says Hawk, adding that the facility averages between 500 and 600 check-ins daily and between 800 and 900 paying members per month.
Memphis Rox is unique in that nobody is turned away because of their inability to afford membership. That accessibility contributes to the gym's mission of building community through climbing. "The mission is to expose," Hawk says. "We want people to climb, but also feel that sense of community. When you take away that barrier of having to pay a certain amount of money, it just brings more people in. Especially those who wouldn't be able to afford it at all."
"Some people come in and say, 'I can't pay anything. I don't have anything,' " says Dean, adding that the average income in the area is about $20,000 a year.
"Just because one person in the gym comes from money and maybe they're climbing with someone who has nothing, doesn't mean that they're not both overcoming something," Hawk says. "Everybody has trauma or difficulties. But now two people from completely different backgrounds can work on their problems with each other — and it works."
Memphis Rox is located across the street from a middle school and high school and has a number of other schools within walking distance. As such, the facility represents a safe space for school kids and others, providing educational and recreational activities that steer them off the streets and away from crime. In addition to offering after-school programs and climbing teams, the gym boasts a staff of yoga instructors, boxing coaches and personal trainers.
"Obviously they get exposed to climbing, but also help with their homework, life-skills classes, yoga classes — free to any child who wants to be a part of it," Hawk says. "We're working on some other things on this campus, like a Best Buy Teen Tech Center, so kids can learn how to program and code and do AI and robotics and graphic design, 3D printing."
There are also sound stages and mixing stages, and state-of-the-art facilities for film production, which Memphis Rox will rent out to movie studios. "The only thing we ask for is percentage on the backend," Dean says. "All that money goes into the nonprofit. Back into the community."
When Memphis Rox first opened its doors, Hawk admits that the community was skeptical. "In the beginning there was definitely some hesitation from the neighborhood," he says. "There was definitely some acting out among some of the youths in the beginning. But now, I think people understand that we're truly here to help, and we're going to be here."
Some of that initial suspicion was caused by what Dean calls "turkey people."
"A turkey person is someone who comes around once a year and gives you something, then leaves," Dean explains. "They just really want a pat on the back, like on Thanksgiving. You don't know these people from the man on the moon, and they come and give you a turkey, and they feel good about their lifestyle.
"We came to this community to grow with this community," Dean says. "We understand that we are equal here. We're not turkey people. We're here with you, we're here every day. You change us as much as we change you."
That mindset is paying off for the gym — and its staff.
"Being a white guy not from Memphis, I can go into stores in the neighborhood and when they see my staff shirt, it's like an embrace," Hawk says. "It's felt throughout the neighborhood, and throughout the city."
Adds Dean, "The city loves us."
A broader social mission
Though Memphis Rox is primarily focused on using climbing to affect its own community, the gym is making a broader impact by the way that it operates.
In addition to all of the programs it offers, the gym pays its staff wages of $12 per hour — surpassing the average income in the community.
The gym's juice bar, Juice Almighty, allows community members the option to "pay" for a healthy meal by volunteering — either at the gym or with another accredited nonprofit — and has distributed 17,000 complimentary meals.
"Unfortunately, change costs money," says director of operations Jon Hawk. "And so do free meals and high wages for staff."
The team is looking to the broader community of local fitness gyms for support, hoping to build partnerships that would allow gyms to give their members an option of donating even just a dollar or two a month to help sustain the work being done at Memphis Rox.
"Maybe add $2 onto a normal membership," says Memphis Rox director of outreach Chris Dean, adding that "a dollar or two goes a long way here."
"It's not easy being in one of the worst neighborhoods," Dean says. "And we're here every day. We show up to work every day and we stay late because we care, and we believe we see the incremental inches of change every day. But it wouldn't hurt to have a little bit of embrace from the rest of the world."
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Nonprofit Memphis Rox builds community through climbing." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.