Climbing For Change

Climber Kai Lightner works to empower inner-city youth through his program Climbing For Change.


Izaiah Fisher

At  just 7 years old, Kai Lightner looked down from the top of the 50-foot flagpole and felt nothing but pure exhilaration. He climbed up on his own accord and had no regrets while looking over the horizon from his unique perspective. The wind felt as though it was on the brink of pushing him, the birds were almost at eye-level as they soared through the sky. His mother, however, didn’t share the same enthusiasm as she rushed out of work to see her son in a precarious position on top of a pole, clinging to the metal like a magnet. After convincing him to come down, a stranger offered a sticky note, unknowing that the note would change Lightner’s life.

The note was short, containing only an address and “The Climbing Place” in handwritten letters. Lightner’s mother, Connie, begged for her son to be let in the gym. This interaction allowed Lightner to meet his eventual climbing coach, the man who would lead him to climbing three 5.14a and one 5.14c-graded routes in a month, all at the age of 13. Lightner has won competitions and placed highly in even more, but his real passion and his most proud accomplishment has been providing an opportunity to bring diversity to the outdoor community.

There has always been a stigma around people of color being involved. There are many reasons that cause a disconnect between people of color and outdoor communities. Studies show that people of color are three times more likely than white people to live in areas with little to no access to nature. Lightner understood and experienced this, which led him on a path toward change.

Lightner describes himself as a “hyper kid,” looking for a way to tame his energy before starting his time at The Climbing Place. Throughout his childhood, he often found himself unable to find an outlet for this energy. Lightner felt like he was unable to concentrate due to a constant influx of worries and pressures coming from other aspects in life, but felt as if climbing alleviated all the stress. He finally felt “in control” and able to actually focus on the task at hand. While climbing, it’s essential to remain completely focused on one move at a time. Any false move can negate hours of progress. Lightner seemed to inherently understand this, and fell in love with the sport because of the process.

Lightner found The Climbing Place, but he noticed every time he looked around he thought, “there’s no one else who looks like me in these spaces.” By founding Climbing for Change, Lightner hoped to “bring diversity to the outdoors in every sector possible,” but it grew to be so much more. 

As time passed he developed a solution. His program helps youth gain affordable access to climbing gyms in cities where access to climbing would be nearly impossible, providing transportation and funding. He offers the Adventure Outside grant, providing up to $1,000 for travel costs for any outdoor activity, and the Black Diamond Gym to Crag grant, a more specific fund assistance that helps BIPOC move from indoor gym climbing to outdoor mountain climbing with full funding. Lightner feels like moving to Atlanta was the “coolest thing they’ve done” in the Climbing for Change program.

Lightner and his team connected with the mayor of College Park, a major suburb connected to Atlanta, and created a space to help youth living in the projects discover climbing. The program connected people with a local climbing gym and recreation center, providing transportation and access for interested kids, inviting more people into the climbing community. Participants can access the climbing gym, where they helped to “foster the talent for the kids in that program.” 

Their most recent endeavor involves a PBO, a Project Based Opportunity grant. The grant moves beyond just the outdoors, giving applicants the opportunity to work with large, name brand corporations in hopes of bringing more diversity into those spaces. Lightner noticed a pattern while talking to these companies—they wanted more diversity, but they complained of not getting any applicants. 

From an outside view, it looked as if they just weren’t hiring any BIPOC employees, but after investigation Lightner found that it was a mutual misunderstanding. This inspired him to bring diverse applicants to the companies, allowing for more diversity in spaces where people may be in the same situation, a place where Lightner himself was in while beginning his climbing career. Given the chance, Lightner scaled unknown heights and hopes others will do the same.


During spring break, a 13-year-old Lightner found himself exhausted. That week, he climbed four routes with some of the hardest ratings in the world. But once he started climbing all the stress, all the exhaustion disappeared, and he simply climbed. 

As he looked out over the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, he found himself in yet another unique point of view looking over a deep, orange sunset. Above the birds, he saw treetops far below, providing a point of view he’d never had. He felt at peace. Now, at 22, he finds himself in his final year of college, yet another high stress situation to balance while working with Climbing for Change. But, even with the stress, his position in this organization of his creation gives him the same peace he felt on the gorge, and the same perspective as the flagpole all those years ago. His experiences with climbing and working with youth offers a point of view that allows him to spark change and “start a revolution.”