One of the largest corporate entities here in Burlington, Vt., is Burton Snowboards, which I normally wouldn’t have anything to do with except for this: The company runs a nonprofit program called Chill, which teaches low-income children how to snowboard, at no cost. For the past six years, from four to eight homeless, at-risk and foster youth from my agency, Spectrum Youth and Family Services, have taken part.
Starting in January and for six consecutive Friday nights, we drive these youths to Burton headquarters, where the company outfits them with snowboards, boots, gloves, goggles and anything else they will need for the sport. Burton then drives them and dozens of other low-income youth to a nearby resort for free lessons. By the end of the season, our youths are proficient at the sport and, more importantly, have gained self-esteem and confidence. It is an excellent program.
But a month ago I received an e-mail alerting me to the fact that Burton had recently introduced two snowboarding product lines. The first, titled “Love,” features photographs of Playboy models in various states of undress on each board. This is an excerpt of the product description from Burton’s website:
“Hi. My name is Love and I’m on the market for someone who’s looking to score serious action, no matter where they like to stick it. … Whether you’re hitting it from the front or the back, my mid wide shape, supple flex, and twin tips like it kinky.”
The other product line, “Primo,” consists of five different boards, all of which feature scenes of self-mutilation. Each board features drawings of people at various stages of cutting off their fingers, people attaching explosives to their fingers and then blowing them off, or a dog gnawing on a hand. There is blood galore.
I found both product lines extremely offensive.
We do a great deal of domestic violence prevention work at Spectrum, and to us, the Playboy boards objectify women, and we believe objectification leads to violence. As for the self-mutilation boards, counselors at Spectrum work with thousands of young people struggling with mental health issues; we know all about self-mutilation. There is nothing funny or amusing about it, and it is beyond comprehension that any company would use cutting as a marketing ploy.
I occasionally write opinion pieces in the Burlington Free Press, and I wrote one decrying Burton for producing such boards, and I wrote that Spectrum youth would not participate in Chill this winter unless Burton took the boards off the market.
My column produced quite a reaction. On the positive side, I received scores of letters and e-mails from people all over New England saying I did the right thing. Several Vermont mountain resorts announced they were banning their staff members from using the boards; Vail Resorts, which owns five resorts in Colorado, did the same.
On the other hand, I received letters and e-mails from people stating I was wrong, particularly for depriving Spectrum youth of the opportunity to participate in Chill. Even some of my staffers said the same thing, arguing that I wrongly dragged homeless youth into a political issue and denied our kids a truly positive experience that they enjoy.
This was one of those times that nearly every leader of a youth service agency can relate to. Do you take a stand on something, even if there are possible negative ramifications for your clients and your organization?
I believe I did the right thing. I told our staff this was, in fact, a good opportunity to teach our youth that there are times in life that you stand up for a principle, and sometimes that brings a cost. By taking a stand, you might lose something important to you, but it is still the right thing to do.
The really nice postscript to all this is that dozens of people who read my column have come forth with snowboards, equipment, free passes, clothing and financial donations. So our kids will go snowboarding this winter after all. In fact, we will probably have more kids on the slopes than if we had participated in Chill.
That, too, is a valuable lesson for our youth: Sometimes if you do the right thing, and take an important stand, good people will recognize that and reward you.
Mark Redmond is executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, based in Burlington, Vt. MRedmond@Spectrumvt.org.