DJ turned activist Elliott Alston talks about the challenges of building community
Elliott Alston always has something to say. He’s been a fixture of the snowboarding and music scene in Jackson Hole for years, but in the great reshuffling of life during the pandemic he has turned to something new: activism. Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine was able to catch up with Elliott to get his take on how issues of race, diversity, and cultural identity affect Jackson Hole and snowboarding.
Olaus Linn: What have you been up to since I haven’t seen anyone in six fricken’ months? Elliott Alston: I’ve been working, just trying to figure out how the pandemic is affecting us all. I’ve just been trying to get my head above water. I also helped start a non-profit called African American Latinx Multi-Cultural Association (AALMA).
Linn: Why don’t you tell me about that? Alston: Well, in Teton County I feel like there is a lack of representation as an African American, but also for all minorities. Since I’m not DJ-ing and my profession is gone, I decided to get into some activism and some real stuff.
Linn: What’s the mission of AALMA? Alston: Basically to create awareness about the culture of Jackson and let people know what’s going on here. How some issues are affecting us as minorities, in our own community. As we all know, in Jackson, our working class is getting pushed out further and further, day by day. What are we really doing from the inside of our community to actually strengthen the fabric of it?
Linn: What are the top things Jackson Hole can do to represent everyone and build culture and community? Alston: I talk to a lot of kids that went to high school here. I think in the early 2000s, 20-25% of the public high schools were Latinx. Now it’s up to about 35% and there’s still no real integration. Jackson is an awesome place that still promotes segregation on a certain level.
Linn: I’m sure that’s only getting worse in a pandemic when there is no opportunity to get together in groups or do anything that mixes people together. Alston: It’s a tough scenario. We want AALMA to serve as a place for awareness of culture, and a place to create an open dialogue for people. We’d eventually like to have some sort of brick and mortar resource center to help our community. We want to do things to generate awareness that there is culture in Jackson. It’s not just the one percent community. There are still other people here striving and trying to do the right thing besides tax shelter their money, you know?
Linn: Let’s talk about how snowboarding fits into this a little bit. Obviously, throughout the years there have been some superstar black snowboarders: Kier Dillon was a personal hero of mine. I had his poster up on my wall for years. Alston: Oh ya, that’s my guy!
Linn: But snowboarding is also sort of this lily-white space and has been for a long time. How do you see the moment that we are all in and the things you’re doing relating to that? Alston: I’m gonna push on the idea of minorities and environmentalism. What our environment means to us. We need to be aware of so many things, like how we are living, water supply, in all of our communities, and not just Jackson. I guess I have a broad vision, but more than anything I want to bring kids and get them into these mountains, get them out here doin’ things out of their everyday environment. A bunch of kids out of Casper or Gillette that might not have the access to ski, snowboard, fish, all of these beautiful things that I enjoy. More than wanting to show them those for their own sake, I want to show how important the environment is through those things.
I feel like in my experience in action sports, the industry is only lettin’ a couple brothas in at a time. We are in a predominantly Caucasian sport. We are in a luxury sport. This isn’t a sport to where it’s cheap, right? You can be in an urban area and all you need is a basketball and some tennis shoes and you can get it in—you can do all the training you need to be successful.
That’s why I feel like skateboarding is growing so much for minorities. All you need is a skateboard and some shoes and you have the platform and the environment to be successful. You have the streets. There are skate parks everywhere now. Where we jump into snowboarding and skiing, you need a mountain, you need lift tickets, you need gear… It’s a whole lot more to get into it, you know?
“When something gets too popular, they just buy it and mainstream it and vavoom.”
Linn: Totally. Even just getting to the mountains requires a plane ticket and several flights, and all this stuff. Alston: It’s not that there’s an intentional lack of representation, but the snowboard industry is dominated by a certain culture. But there are organizations within snowboarding that give a lot back to minorities. Some large companies like Burton and their Stoked program—taking minority kids into the mountains and gettin’ them out. Even locally you see what Coombs Outdoors does and how awesome that is for our community. We look at organizations like that locally and we are like YES. Our visions are different but we are all trying to push in the same direction to create awareness.
Linn: The culture question is so interesting with skateboarding and snowboarding cuz both of those sports have borrowed/stolen so much from Black street culture. Ripped the outfits, ripped the music, ripped everything. What do you think these industries and sports owe to that culture, and how do we acknowledge that debt? Alston: I feel like there are phases with culture—it kind of ramps. Hip-hop, rock music, art, sports, and culture are always ingrained and intertwined. Whether it’s snowboarding or basketball—always intertwined. Obviously, we live in America: when something gets too popular, they just buy it and mainstream it and vavoom.
Linn: It’s a Mountain Dew commercial. Alston: It could be a part of Hispanic culture, Black culture, white culture, once that shit gets popular, they just buy your ass. It’s up to us to protect that culture to a certain level more than having it exploited.
Linn: So in terms of snowboarding and the state of snowboarding, you feel like staying true to our roots by focusing on the sport for the love of it is the way forward? Alston: Yes, as little as I might have, I still try to put my money in local directions and into brands that are working to acknowledge my culture of being an African American. If I’m running your product or buying your product, I want to feel good about where I’m spending my money and where it might go in this corporate world… I mean, at least fake it for a brotha. (laughs)
Linn: It’s a good first step—it’s some form of acknowledgment. Alston: Ya, it’s somethin’. It’s some change. It’s like looking at the small victories in the pandemic. Like we got Trump out of office–BOOM–that’s a huge plus for us as minorities and for everyone.
Linn: Well buddy, I could talk all day but someone has to transcribe this… I take little shreds of hope out of this whole thing. So many people had this moment of awakening over the summer where it’s not enough to not be racist myself, I actually have to work to be actively anti-racist. Acknowledging somebody’s culture, talking to someone else, whatever it was, everyone realized they weren’t doing enough. Alston: Even me. As a Black man, I realized I wasn’t doing enough. I’ve had jobs, I’ve done the Jackson thing. Maybe I couldn’t buy a house in Indian Springs, but I could live here, live a happy life, a simple life, in a good community, right? And I wasn’t even doing enough. I look back and think I could have been doing so much more. So, I guess, I ask people in our local community, are you a have, or a have-not? There is still an element in Jackson where you can go out and create change in the community and do good things for people in general.
I understand that I do have some privilege, even being an African American male, even in today’s society and how it views us. Like if I’m doing the right thing here, and people see it, and we are making the right moves, people will see that. That’s about all I can do, man. Put my best foot forward and use my privilege because I haven’t had it as good as some other people, but I haven’t had it as bad as other people, and I know I’m doing alright. So with my little alright, I’m gonna use it to push forward.
Olaus Linnis the publisher and creative director for JHSM.
He hasn’t had a haircut since March. @olaus