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Achieving a Diverse Boathouse Through Thoughtful Action

BY LUKE REYNOLDS
PHOTO PROVIDED BY PHILADELPHIA CITY ROWING

The rowing community in the United States and abroad is experiencing a reckoning.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement surged in May and June, the rowing community has begun to take seriously the need to address the lack of diversity within its ranks.

“There’s been an awakening,” Amanda Kraus, founder and CEO of Row New York, said. “People are hungry for information.”

The information rowing clubs are hungry for has largely been inaccessible, vague, or outright nonexistent. Despite the lack of resources, however, several clubs have found success in creating environments that reflect the communities they serve.

In a 2017 New York Times article titled “Rowing Toward Hope in a Troubled World,” Richard Butler, former inclusion manager at USRowing, explained his experience talking to athletes at various clubs throughout the United States.

“The kids I speak to in the inner cities tell me that rowing is a white sport,” Butler said. “But we need to recruit in the cities if we want to expand our talent pool.”

Will recruiting alone make rowing more representative? It helps, says Kraus, but it’s not the only way a club can better reflect its community. The first step: listening.

“There’s so much value in giving people space to talk and listening to them,” Kraus said. “People undervalue that. It doesn’t mean you’re going to solve racism, but you’re going to say, ‘I’m here, and I hear your pain. I can’t fix it, but I’m here and I care.”

The next step is finding a group of people within the local rowing community to champion the effort.

“Form a committee. Make sure the head of the boathouse is on the committee. Get four or five people who want to help, who want to champion this and be your allies. Sit down, and ask the following questions: Where do we get kids from? How do we make our boathouse inviting? How do we raise some money?

 “Recruitment and retention are the keywords. How do you get kids who don’t normally think of themselves as rowers to join your program? And then, once they’ve set foot in the boathouse, how do you get them to stay?

“Part one in recruiting kids of color is to have not just white people doing it. In the beginning, that’s all we had–me, a 6-foot-1 white woman. I would tell these kids, ‘I know I’m this big white woman telling you to come row,’ and kids would laugh about it. Teenagers are my all-time favorite age because they will just laugh and be like, ‘OK, let’s try this.’

“Ideally, if you have someone of color doing the recruiting, that helps. ‘We can’t be what we can’t see,’ as they say.”

In addition to diversifying the recruiting team, pay attention to the informational material you bring to a recruiting event. That, along with anticipating questions, helps make athletes feel more comfortable trying something new.

“In the printed material and videos you use for recruiting, make sure kids can see people who look like them,” Kraus said.

Recruiting isn’t the end-all, however. Without partnerships and support from outside groups and agencies, increasing diversity–or having a club at all–can be impossible.

“You might have a kid say, ‘Well, I can’t swim,’ so you have to be there to say, ‘That’s OK. We actually do swim lessons all the time,’” Kraus said. “Or what if they say, ‘I’m going to get so hungry there,’ we are big believers in feeding everyone.

“Part two is saying, ‘OK, we have this person in the boathouse now. How do I make them feel as comfortable as possible so they stay?’” 

Row New York has employed the city’s infrastructure to support its mission, along with partnering with various entities across the city to ensure its success.

“The biggest agency we work with is the parks department,” Kraus said. “They’ve been pretty amazing partners over the years. Our on-water sites are on parks property, so everyone, all the way up to the commissioner of the parks department, knows about Row New York and is a fan.

“We’ve put a lot of time and work into engaging with people in the community and getting their buy-in. We run programs for kids with disabilities during the school day, so we partner with the department of education. I wouldn’t say New York has been easy to navigate, but they have been great partners.”

In collaboration with Philadelphia City Rowing, Row New York published a widely shared Instagram post about “Eight Ways to Make Your Boathouse More Inclusive.” In June, the club also created a comprehensive resource library on its website to serve the larger rowing community.

“We were hoping that we could put something out that would help clubs make their organizations stronger and more inclusive,” said Caitlin Mance, executive director of Philadelphia City Rowing.

“We recognize that while the work that our organizations are doing is fantastic and very important, in order for there to be some systemic change in rowing, we need everybody else to do work, too.

“We need other boathouses to be more inclusive, so that when our kids leave our programs they have places to go where they feel comfortable when they’re at regattas and they’re not hearing racist comments.”

In addition to creating inclusive recruiting material and partnering with other organizations, including local government, Row New York trains coaches to help them better understand minority athletes and their particular circumstances.

“We have a ton of great, great coaches,” Kraus said. “Whether they’re white or people of color, they are at Row New York because they’re interested in not just coaching rowing. I always say to people ‘If you just want to make fast boats, that’s awesome, but this isn’t the place for you.’ You should care about fast boats and also youth development.”

Row New York uses a handbook that spells out the entire process, from the moment athletes try out for the team till they make the team. It includes informing athletes via telephone when they’ve made the team and telling them what to expect next. Also important: being able to communicate with the parents of athletes who do not speak English.

“Let’s say you make the team and you’re a part of my cohort of ninth graders. I’m going to call you that night, and if your parents don’t speak English, I also speak Spanish, and I’m going to get you on the phone and say, ‘Congratulations! We’re going to see you on Monday. Do you know what to wear?’ And then on the first day you come in, I’m going to introduce myself, say congratulations again, and make sure you feel comfortable here by establishing an emotional connection.”

What works for Row New York or Philadelphia City Rowing may not work for other clubs in America, Kraus concedes. Nevertheless, it can be done.

 “It takes money. It takes fundraising. But the only one who can stop you is yourself in terms of leadership. You have to want to do it. Not everyone has to become a $5-million program. You begin with, ‘How do we get a few kids of color in the program? Then, how do we double that next year?’ Make a three-year plan.

“Yes, it’s hard, but a lot of it is that people don’t want to do it enough. Maybe now they will.”

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