This resource guide was compiled in partnership with Diversity in Aquatics, a non-profit that works to educate, promote and support swimming, water safety and healthy aquatics activities for vulnerable populations. We encourage you to learn more about Diversity in Aquatics’ mission, donate, and get involved!
The next time you’re at the pool, look around you. How many Black people do you see? There likely are not many. Why?
The lack of diversity on the pool deck can be traced back to systemic racism and institutional decisions that kept Black people and people of lower socioeconomic status out of the water. As our society works to dismantle systemic racism and build a world that provides everyone equal opportunities, we must do the same for our swim teams and pool environments.
We partnered with Diversity in Aquatics to help swimmers, parents, coaches and pool staff take action and create a more inclusive aquatic environment.
First, a History Lesson
Long before the rise of the transatlantic slave trade, West Africans were adept swimmers, divers, canoe makers and canoeists. Many communities were located near large bodies of water. Water was an integral part of the economy and played a major role in West Africans’ spiritual understanding of the world (Dawson, 2018).
The Rise of Public Pools
Now let’s jump ahead a few hundred years. After World War I, pools became leisure destinations in North America, complete with sand and chairs for sunbathing. From the 1920s to the 1950s, municipal pools served as centers of community life (Wiltse, 2007).
Related: Where are All the Black Swimmers?
Private charity organizations and city governments opened the nation’s first public pools to provide the working class with accessible and suitable places to bathe. The belief was that pools would provide 2 key benefits to society:
- Improve both the health and morality of the city’s poor (Wiltse, 2007)
- Bring pleasure to working class children and improve their health and fitness (Wiltse, 2007)
The Pool’s Role in the Civil Rights Movement
With the passing of desegregation laws in the United States, gender and social conflicts at pools were replaced with racial discrimination.
In the case of swimming pools, many municipal pools decided to close rather than desegregate, and the facilities that did stay open were often the scene of harassment or violence when African Americans attempted to access facilities in white neighborhoods (Wiltse, 2014).
These clashes fueled the construction of tens of thousands of new private pools and swim clubs in the 1950’s and 60’s; however, African Americans were typically denied access (Wiltse, 2014).
One famous instance of racism at a pool occurred in 1964 at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida. Protestors jumped into the hotel’s segregated pool after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his guests were barred from entering the hotel restaurant. The hotel manager dumped acid into the pool to force protestors out.
While numerous protestors were arrested as a result of this incident, the protest garnered international attention and caused President Lyndon B. Johnson to demand that Congress pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Swimming as a Life Skill
As the years progressed, it became clear that a lack of pool access had a detrimental effect on the Black community. Many African Americans were unable to swim and were at a high risk for drowning.
Basic swimming ability is an essential life skill for people of all ages and races. According to the World Health Organization (2020), drowning is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury-related deaths.
The WHO also reports that racial or ethnic minorities, people with lower economic status and people with a lack of higher education are at greater risk for drowning. In fact, African American children ages 5-19 drowned in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than white children of the same ages. (Ito, 2014)
In the U.S., drowning is currently considered a Consumer Products Commission Initiative rather than a public health issue along the lines of substance abuse or cancer. Ongoing research and community education are helping change this distinction and increase access to aquatics and water safety programs for people of all backgrounds.
How You Can Improve Diversity in Your Community
Whether you’re a swimmer, a parent, a coach or a member of pool staff, there are 6 key ways you can make an impact and work to improve diversity in your swimming community.
1. Strengthen Individual Knowledge and Skills
What it Means: Empower people to learn to swim!
How You Can Help:
- Swimmers: Teach swimming lessons in an underserved community in your area. Volunteer at a local pool, find a part-time job, or help a friend or neighbor.
- Parents: Ask your city or pool manager if you can sponsor fees for swimming lessons for Black swimmers. Ask the city what sort of educational resources are provided to residents to encourage water safety.
- Coaches/Pool Managers: Create a scholarship fund to provide lessons or team dues to underserved and/orBlack swimmers. Encourage community members to donate. Organize events for your swimmers to volunteer to give free swim lessons – make it a fun annual event that gets people excited, and promotes your team or pool!
2. Promote Community Education
What it Means: Work to increase water safety education in your community
How You Can Help:
- Swimmers: Ask your school or local organizations about current water safety curriculum and volunteer to work on improvements with administration.
- Parents: Ask your child’s school and/or your local pool how they plan to educate people about water safety. Will water safety courses be included in school curriculum? What type of programming is available at the pool currently? Make it known that you expect high quality water safety education for your community!
- Coaches/Pool Managers: Spread information and resources that educate people about drowning prevention, the benefits of swimming, and ways to get involved. Share links to local charities on your Facebook page, invite an elite swimmer to speak with swimmers or at a fundraising event, print posters in a locker room, or host camps or clinics to encourage people to learn to swim.
3. Educate Providers
What it Means: Providing swim instructors, lifeguards, teachers, gym managers, camp directors and other leaders with the resources they need to educate the community and teach people to swim.
How You Can Help:
- Parents: Organize a fundraiser or find corporate sponsors to cover training costs for new swim instructors. Hold swim coaches and pool staff accountable to provide documentation of diversity initiatives. Invite them to attend webinars hosted by Diversity in Aquatics. Share YouTube videos or website links to your network via email or social media. Help your local pool promote swimming by marketing and making relationships with people from different neighborhoods.
- Coaches/Pool Managers: Include diversity training in certification courses for swim instructors and coaches. Provide resources for swimmers to get the support they need if they have experienced water-related trauma.
4. Foster Coalitions & Networks
What it Means: Bring together relevant groups and individuals to make a broader collective impact.
How You Can Help:
- Swimmers: Gather a group of teammates to raise awareness or funds for diversity initiatives in your community. Most pools offer a few options for free swim lessons – spread the word by inviting your friends, sharing it on social media, or volunteering to help. Ask your community to donate swimsuits, equipment, goggles or towels to a local pool or team.
- Parents: Form a Diversity & Inclusion committee or advisory board for your child’s swim team made up of fellow parents, coaches and pool staff.
- Coaches/Pool Managers: Host regular meetings with fellow coaches and industry peers to discuss diversity and strategies to improve. Work together on initiatives to promote your team to a broader audience, form stronger relationships within the team, improve communication, and ensure that every swimmer and parent has fun and receives the support they need.
5. Change Organizational Practices
What it Means: Adopting new policies and creating new norms that prioritize diversity.
How You Can Help:
- Swimmers: Ask your head coach how they plan to address the diversity of your team and coaching staff. Offer to provide suggestions or help with new initiatives.
- Parents: Hold your swim team, your child’s swim team, or the pool accountable for making systemic change related to diversity and inclusion.
- Coaches/Pool Managers:
- Audit team recruiting policies 1-2 times per year and identify changes that can improve diversity and inclusion of your staff, swimmers and pool patrons.
- Provide emotional support for swimmers and families who have experienced water-related trauma.
- Create a culture and pool setup that empowers physically disabled swimmers to be safe and have fun.
- Give swimmers the option to wear XL swim caps for team uniforms – these caps are designed for long hair, locs, braids, afros, and more.
- Share stories of black swimmers on your social media and website.
- Build stronger relationships with team families who have a strong fear of water, or have parents who do not know how to swim.
6. Influence Policy & Legislation
What it Means: Working to change laws and policies to influence positive outcomes related to diversity in swimming.
How You Can Help:
- Swimmers: If you’re 18 or older, do your research and vote for candidates who will prioritize inclusion. Regardless of your age, contact your local representatives to discuss the importance of increased access to aquatic facilities, funding and water safety education.
- Parents: Contact your local representatives to discuss the importance of increased access to aquatic facilities, funding and water safety education. Vote for candidates who will prioritize inclusion.
- Coaches/Pool Managers: Contact your city government and discuss funding options for new pool facilities, along with anti-discrimination laws and policies for the pool environment. Vote for candidates who will prioritize inclusion.
No matter your age or swimming ability, you can personally make an impact on your local and national swimming community. The ideas that we shared here are just the beginning — there is so much work to be done to improve access to aquatics and prevent drownings around the world.
We are proud to present this guide in collaboration with Diversity in Aquatics and encourage you to put these resources to work. Join us for World Swim Day and invite your community to swim on October 24, 2020!
Did we miss something? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and share your resources or knowledge to help us make our sport more diverse.
References & Additional Resources:
- Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America by Jeff Wiltse, 2007
- Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora by Kevin Dawson, 2018
- The Black-White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination, Jeff Wiltse, 2014
- Barriers to Swimming and Water Safety Education for African Americans, Ito, 2014
- World Health Organization, 2020
- A Cause to Action: Learning to Develop a Culturally Responsive/Relevant Approach to 21st Century Water Safety Messaging through Collaborative Partnerships, Beale, et.al, 2018
- Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity, Baciu, Negussie, Geller, et al., 2017