Ten years from now, 30,000 more Rhode Islanders, most of them black, will know how to swim, according to Ray Rickman, president and founder of Swim Empowerment, a new effort to teach African Americans across the state to swim beginning next year.
Studies show that 70 percent of blacks can’t swim. “This is unbelievable in this century that this should be going on,” Rickman said, noting that around 80 percent of white Americans can swim.
The reasons behind this disparity are investigated in a recent report authored by Rickman and Swim Empowerment Project Director Dylan Molho. The root of the problem reaches back to slavery, when African Americans were forbidden to swim for fear that they would escape from their plantations, Rickman said.
For centuries, black people didn’t swim, creating a culture in which swimming is feared, he said. These fears were compounded by myths about the heavier bone density of blacks that made them unable to swim. Today access to pools is an issue. The report, which can be requested by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, explores in detail the myriad barriers that face black people in learning how to swim.
“We’re going to change the culture in the African American community,” Rickman said. Just as Tiger Woods’ success encouraged Black people to play golf, he said, Swim Empowerment will provide examples of Black swimmers who will help teach others how to swim.
Training of swim instructors and lifeguards will begin this winter and lessons will begin next summer. The goal is to teach 3,000 Rhode Islanders to swim each year for 10 years. But before they can start, Swim Empowerment needs to raise $100,000. The organization also looking for partners to provide pool time. More information is available on its website, swimempowerment.org, where donations can also be made.
“This is a problem we think can be solved. And we’re going to do it,” Rickman said.