In his memoir, Sidney Poitier tells the story of how his parents taught him to swim by throwing him in the water again and again until he figured it out. Not very many parents take the job of teaching their children to swim that intensely. In fact, not enough parents regard swimming as an essential skill to teach it at all.

Every day, two children in the U.S. die from drowning. According to the Centers for Disease Control, drowning is a leading cause of death among children ages one to four. The epidemic hits hardest in communities of color: 64% of Black children and 45% of Latino children are unable to swim, compared to 40% of white children.

May is Water Safety Month. This is also the time when public pools and beaches open around the country. For those swimming at beaches on the east coast and gulf coast, it’s a time when rising waters and superstorms increase in frequency and intensity. To improve your chances of surviving these environmental events, you need swim skills and water safety competence. Many people of color do not learn these skills in childhood.

I was a skinny kid from Brooklyn born into a “don’t get my hair wet” lineage of Black women. Years later, I went on to become a tiger mom in the aquatic universe by treating swim lessons for my children like a government mandate. Now, I’m a certified swim instructor and coach. I work with Black, Latino, East Indian, South Pacific, and white learners and triathletes. Using my legal training and experience as a former lobbyist, I spread the gospel of swim.

Recently, Congress approved $1 million to fund the CDC drowning prevention initiative. Since congressional funding for drowning prevention is a rare event, it’s important to make the greatest impact by targeting the most vulnerable communities.

Flagship aquatic agencies like USA Swimming are potential funding recipients. They have been highly criticized for missteps in addressing social injustice and discrimination issues. Social media critics cast doubt on the sincerity of USA Swimming’s stated commitment to diversify. The problem is they have neither the capacity nor the cultural competence to reverse intergenerational fear of water, particularly in the Black community.

Who takes responsibility for helping to reverse the trend of drowning disparities? It starts with parents being willing and able to introduce children to aquatic culture early. In too many homes of color, a child’s environment can become a breeding ground for fear of water. Family members also may need water safety education if they believe cautioning the child to stay away from water is the only way to prevent drowning. That education begins at the community level through targeted messaging and access.

USA Swimming’s launch of a million-dollar grant program to grow aquatic programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities suggests they recognize the need for effective messaging and greater depth in their outreach effort. For example, limiting the strategy to profiling Black elite swimmers is not enough to make swimming a lifestyle choice in Black homes. Affinity groups like HBCUs have the sensitivity needed to help Black people view swimming and water safety competence as a life essential.

Another chorus of criticism comes from advocates who believe the government should be assigned the responsibility of institutionalizing aquatic culture in homes of color. They say it’s the government’s moral obligation. If it took at least 246 years to end legal slavery in the USA, can we afford to wait for a promissory note of moral obligation to kick in on ethnic drowning prevention programs? Absolutely not.

It’s true that the government takes responsibility for eliminating threats to public safety. Federal government agencies demonstrated their wide scope of power and influence when addressing issues like highway safety, poisoning and pollution. It’s time to use these powers to reduce drownings.

Let’s build an aquatic social structure that welcomes inclusion and supports novel partnerships and messaging. The arc of this new structure is long: supported by aquatic agencies with updated recommended curricula, standards and practices for swim instruction. Swim instruction would go beyond teaching children how to float, glide, tread and swim with various strokes. Instructors would know how to address intergenerational fear of water. We would have created a new ecosystem.

In the end, responsibility for drowning prevention is not a them or us proposition. It is a collective effort. And just maybe we can learn a thing or two from the Sidney Poitier parent-method.


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