Angelica Lee always knew she didn’t fit anyone’s IG-fueled image of the typical fitness instructor. She isn’t white, or a size zero, or on Lululemon’s influencer payroll. But in an industry where hustle is everything—instructors at your typical fitness studio need to attract enough of a fan base to fill up their classes to be in line for bonuses, get plum spots on the schedule, or secure promotions—she couldn’t figure out what was holding her back at the spin cycle studio where she was working in Portland prepandemic.
“Starting off, I had some growth in clientele, but my other coworkers were doing really well,” says Lee, who was born in Hawaii and is of Filipino descent, and came to Oregon via Los Angeles. “I was working my butt off. As a person of color, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was because I am a brown person? I wanted to know it was OK to share those feelings and express that.”
So in 2019, she started trying to network with other fitness trainers of color, an outreach effort that became Fitness Professionals of Color of the PNW, which this month formally incorporated as a nonprofit. Their mission: to support and uplift personal trainers, yoga instructors, and fitness professionals of color in an already pretty white profession, in one of the country’s whitest corners.
At first, meet-ups drew a small, though motivated, crowd, says Lee (who has since moved to Bend, where she works as a personal trainer). She’d reach out via Instagram to people she didn’t know, inviting them to participate. Then came the summer of 2020, and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Portland and elsewhere, and suddenly there was an avalanche of interest from studios and offers of support from big-deal donors, including Nike.
That’s when Lee says she knew that it was time to seek status as a nonprofit, to sustain momentum and keep focus on the importance of representation in the wellness and fitness industry.
“We needed a network—we’re in Portland, there isn’t that community created for us,” says Rachel Brown, who owns Seeking Space Yoga in Southwest Portland, perhaps the city’s only only Black-owned brick-and-mortar yoga studio.
The group now functions as a resource for members looking to connect and commiserate with each other and highlights BIPOC professionals and studio owners; they’ve also become a go-to for studios looking to hire the next generation of instructors and be more equitable, inclusive, diverse workplaces. (Lee offers this PSA to studio owners who hope her group will be a pipeline for BIPOC instructors: be prepared to be transparent about salary and benefits in your job postings.)
For example, Lee says she has offered guidance about the awareness of in-studio playlists: “There are white instructors that still use songs with explicit or derogatory language, and maybe don’t realize that their clientele will feel uncomfortable,” or unwelcome, she says. The group’s latest mission: to offer meaningful financial support to aspiring fitness trainers, coaches, and instructors who are people of color. So far, Lee says, they’ve given out two partial and one full scholarship, and want to scale up.
The community helped inspire Brown to start her own scholarship program to help defray the costs of studio membership and instructor training at Seeking Space for people of color as well as people in the sex worker industry. She’d been “stewing,” she says, over how to hold herself accountable, knowing that, “if you open a yoga studio in Portland, Oregon, it will be predominately white—that’s where we are. So how are we connecting with our community? How can we be accessible to everyone? We need to spread our wealth within the community.”