In 2010, six Black Louisiana teenagers drowned in a single incident during a family outing. The reason? None of them or the adults around could navigate the waters once the youths were in danger.
The question that weighed heavily on many hearts and minds was “why can’t Black people swim?” Unfortunately, this tragedy wasn’t a unique occurrence.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that accidental drownings among Black children between the ages of 5-14 is three times higher than that of white children. What’s equally as shocking is that nearly 70% of Black kids have stated that they have no or low ability to swim according to findings from a 2017 report.
“It is an epidemic that is almost going unnoticed,” said Sue Anderson, director of program and services at USA Swimming in a statement to BBC.
Paulana Lamonier, however, noticed, and she’s decided to take action against it.
The New York native founded Black People Will Swim, a Long Island-based organization that aims to fight against racist tropes that most African-Americans don’t swim. The program was officially launched in November 2019 after the journalist-turned-swim coach said she grew more incensed by the stereotypes that seemed to plague the swimming community. Lamonier shared that while coaching, one participant’s reason for why she never learned to swim was pivotal to her mission of debunking harmful biases, even among Black people themselves.
“The young girl told me she couldn’t swim because her bones are too dense–and she said it matter of factly, like it was scientifically proven in our community.” Lamonier said at that moment, she realized that the girl was representative of a much larger problem, and like her, people were holding nonsensical stereotypes like that one as truth.
“How many falsehoods about us are out there, and preventing people from saving their lives—from learning this life skill? And then that’s when the summer program ended. And then we started. Black people will swim in November of 2019.
“Starting out with a goal to just teach about 30 people with lesssons, the word spread like wildfire in her local community, and then when announced on Twitter, the brand took on a life of its own.
“The Tweet went viral,” Lamonier shared, stating that she casually posted she was open to providing swim lessons in the NYC area, the statement garnered thousands of responses almost instantly.
“That spoke to the dyer need that has to be filled among our community.”
Coming from a family of swimmers, she’s since enlisted the help of her cousin and sister to help with providing lessons. And now, with the booming success of Black People Will Swim, she looking to expand her team to include more coaches and even a social media manager to help keep up with requests for lessons.
Lamonier said the organization takes a four-pronged approach to help swimmers “F.A.C.E” their fears: Fun, Awareness, Community, and Education. “We need to make this a fun process, because we know plenty of adults that have gone their entire with a fear of water,” she said. “We’re taking steps to reach even more people to spread our mission.”
A part of that growth process includes a $20,000 grant from nutritional snack brand giant Quest this year. As a recipient of the grant, Lamonier said she has been working to secure a permanent pool location for her BPWS community, pursue 501c3 nonprofit organization status, and certify new team members to become American Red Cross certified swim instructors.
“This is so much bigger than me at this point—I’m aiming to not only teach a vital skill but to save lives one lesson at a time.”