In 2010, six black teenagers from Louisiana drowned in a single incident during a family outing. The reason? None of them or the adults around could navigate the waters once the young were in danger.
The question that hung heavily on many hearts and minds was “why can’t black people swim?” Unfortunately, this tragedy was not a one-time event.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that accidental drownings in black children aged 5 to 14 are three times higher than in white children. Equally shocking is that nearly 70% of black children said they had little or no ability to swim according to findings from a 2017 report.
“It’s an epidemic that goes almost unnoticed,” said Sue Anderson, director of programs and services at USA Swimming in a statement to the BBC.
Paulana Lamonier however noticed it and she decided to act against it.
The New York native founded Blacks will swim, a Long Island-based organization that aims to combat racist tropes that most African Americans can’t swim. The program was officially launched in November 2019 after the journalist-turned-swimming coach said she was growing increasingly frustrated with the stereotypes that seemed to plague the swimming community. Lamonier shared that while she was coaching, the reason one participant never learned to swim was central to her mission to demystify harmful biases, even among black people themselves.
“The young girl told me she couldn’t swim because her bones were too dense – and she said it factually, as if it had been scientifically proven in our community.” Lamonier said at that time she realized the girl was representative of a much larger issue and that, like her, people saw absurd stereotypes like that as the truth.
“How many lies about us exist that keep people from saving their lives – from learning this life skill? And then that’s where the summer program ended. And then we started. Blacks will swim in November 2019.
“Starting with a goal to teach around 30 people with lessons, the word spread like wildfire in his local community, then when it was announced on Twitter, the brand took on a life of its own.
“The Tweet went viral,” Lamonier shared, stating that she had casually posted that she was open to teaching swimming lessons in the New York area, the statement garnering thousands of responses almost instantly.
“It spoke to the need for a dyer that needs to be filled within our community.”
Coming from a family of swimmers, she has since enlisted the help of her cousin and sister to help her with lessons. And now, with the resounding success of Black People Will Swim, she’s looking to expand her team to include more coaches and even a social media manager to help with class requests.
Lamonier said the organization takes a four-pronged approach to helping swimmers “FACE” their fears: fun, awareness, community and education. “We have to make it a fun process because we know a lot of adults who have done it all with a fear of water,” she said. “We are taking steps to reach even more people to spread our mission.”
Part of that growth process includes a $20,000 grant from the nutritional snack brand giant Quest This year. As a grant recipient, Lamonier said she is working to secure a permanent pool location for her BPWS community, achieve 501c3 nonprofit status, and certify new members of the team to become certified American Red Cross swim instructors.
“It’s so much bigger than me at this point – I’m aiming to not only teach a lifesaving skill, but save lives one lesson at a time.”