Paulana Lamonier Is Reclaiming the Myth That Black People Can’t Swim
At a friend’s sixth-grade birthday party, I dove off the high board of the community pool and accidentally belly flopped into the water. When I was 15, I jumped off a boat in Lake Tahoe and got caught in the current, causing me to lose my breath and swallow a lot of water. The summer I turned 19, I got minorly taken out by a big wave at the beach and scraped my knee. Even though I’ve been swimming since the age of 6, in each of these circumstances, my South African mother would scold me saying, “The water is alive!” This old Cape Town saying conveys that the water (whether a pool, lagoon, or ocean) can be a dangerous place and shouldn’t be “played” in.
“The reason why it’s Black People Will Swim and not can swim is because it’s not a matter of whether we can or cannot swim, but more so we will swim despite the barriers, despite the obstacles, despite the pricing or age, and mostly, despite our race.”
Like many Black moms out there, mine doesn’t know how to swim. For her, the fear of not knowing how to get my siblings and me out of the water if we were in trouble is consuming – and she’s not alone. Among my POC friends, specifically Black and African, a version of this reprimanding has been a theme in our lives.
According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the fatal drowning rate of African American children aged 5 to 14 is three times that of white children. The reasoning could be a lack of money for swimming lessons, growing up in segregated areas with no pools, fear of drowning, or the belief that our body shape is not built for swimming. Since 2019, Haitian American Paulana Lamonier, founder of Black People Will Swim (BPWS) – a Black-owned organization in Long Island, NY, inspired by debunking the myth that Black people can’t swim – has found it’s a combination of reasons.
Ahead, POPSUGAR sat down with Lamonier to learn about the inspiration behind BPWS, how the swim classes are impacting the community, and how others can get involved.
The Journey of Building Black People Will Swim
Despite the stereotype that Black people can’t swim, Lamonier became an avid swimmer in elementary school, going on to join her college swim team at York College. She eventually started teaching private lessons on the side for extra cash and realized she was a natural-born instructor. As a result, she decided to challenge herself to teach more nonswimmers. “Black People Will Swim started as a short-term goal,” Lamonier says. “I had five to six clients on rotation in 2019 and was really inspired by the progress they were making. So I wrote a tweet sharing what I was doing and how I wanted to teach 30 nonswimmers to see if there was more interest.” The tweet ended up going viral, and Lamonier had so many hopefuls, a waitlist was started. “Pretty soon people were like, ‘Yo, what about Jersey? What about Florida? What about Atlanta?’ There was a real need and interest for swim education,” the entrepreneur adds.
While still working her full-time job, Lamonier hired her cousins to help teach the first 30 people. “We started dividing and conquering when my cousins came on board,” she says. “I had five, they had five. And our challenge was successful – we hit our 30-person mark.” After the first 30 people learned to swim, the demand only grew. “People kept asking if we were going to do more lessons and what was going to happen – they wanted more. And that’s when I thought, I need to start a company.”
How Black People Will Swim Slashes Stereotypes
When she was deciding on the name, it was important to Lamonier for it to be both an affirmation and a call to action. “The reason why it’s Black People Will Swim and not can swim is because it’s not a matter of whether we can or cannot swim, but more so we will swim despite the barriers, despite the obstacles, despite the pricing or age, and mostly, despite our race.”
“I attempted to take swimming lessons in the past but fear and shame held me back,” Dominique Wilkinson, licensed mental health therapist in New York and former student of BPWS, tells POPSUGAR. “I thought I was too old and I never believed I would learn to float, tread water, dive for items, and learn the four major swim strokes.”
In the beginning, Lamonier’s biggest obstacle was securing a pool. After trying many local colleges and universities, she struck gold by renting a private pool for roughly $720 per week and investing $5,000 from her savings to launch the business, create an LLC, and hire a business coach and creative director. From there, the swim expert raised close to $136,000 in grants, including $10,000 from Adidas and $25,000 from American Express, both of which support women founders acting as change agents in sports.
BPWS slashes the stereotype that Black people don’t swim through four foundational pillars, cleverly named FACE: fun, awareness, community, and education. The organization aims to make conquering aquaphobia or acquiring a new life skill fun with step-by-step techniques and by pacing the lesson with the confidence of the swimmer. Next is awareness. They believe people can build a positive relationship with water by offering a safe space for them to overcome fears and insecurities. The community aspect looks to encourage fellowship to help empower all swim journeys. And lastly, before dipping a toe in the water, swimmers are given the right equipment (hair care products, goggles, bathing suits, and swim trunks) to thrive in the water.
In the summer of 2021, the organization partnered with EDEN BodyWorks to provide free hair care products to the communities. “Hair plays a large part in swimming,” Lamonier tells POPSUGAR. “It’s a huge learning curve figuring out how to maintain your hair while in the water. Our swimmers wonder what hairstyles work best and what products won’t damage their hair.”
What Are BPWS Classes Like?
Despite having launched in 2020, the first swim lessons started in July 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the program runs during the summer on weekday evenings and Saturday afternoons and is offered for ages two and up. In comparison to competitors who charge $300 for four group lessons, BPWS charges $160 for six 40-minute classes, and fortunately, if you don’t have the finances, they offer free swim lessons funded by donations. According to the founder, students typically learn to swim after just two 40-minute classes.
What really sets BPWS apart is the community they’ve created and the resources they offer. Classes like “Go Best Friend” allow non-confident swimmers to bring their tribe along for the journey. Wilkinson, a frequent vacationer with an interest in water activities, says she was never able to fully enjoy holidays due to her limited swimming abilities. “I brought my partner along with me and my experience has allowed me to improve my limited skills and make me feel limitless,” she shares.
The Heartening Success of BPWS Swimmers
According to Lamonier, the majority of successful swimmers come back and donate, or bring their families to learn how to swim as well. “One of my clients signed her husband up after she was successful. The following year, both their parents signed up, then her aunt, mom, and other family members,” Lamonier shares.
“I have been taking swimming lessons since I retired in 2019,” says Lonnie Johnson of New York. He says vacations are so much more enjoyable after going through the program. “Black People Will Swim has helped me overcome my fears, and Paulana gives you the confidence needed to learn how to properly swim.”
“Our swimmers are now able to go on trips and be comfortable instead of held back by fear – it’s a whole new world,” Lamonier says. “People tend to forget swimming is a life skill. By learning to swim with us, you get a sense of freedom and can stop vacationing in fear. I’m glad to be a conduit to freedom.”
Because the success rate is so high, for swimmers who graduate from the program and want to become swim instructors, BPWS will certify them free of charge (a $500 value) in exchange for working off those hours. Once the hours are done, BPWS will pay them.
“It’s really important to create that pipeline because there’s a disproportionate number of Black people who aren’t swimming instructors and it needs to change,” Lamonier explains while discussing the importance of representation. Like most industries or areas with barriers to entry, accurate representation can alter the conversation and thought process. The more Black swim instructors, the more encouraged and inspired Black women, men, and children will be to seek the same. It creates a seat at the table and an option that some might not have seen as available before.
How to Get Involved
After sourcing a permanent location for months, Black People Will Swim officially secured a pool at City University New York York College (Lamonier’s alma mater!) and will begin classes in May 2023. They’re currently looking to hire staff and swim coaches to meet the demands of the community.
“We want to expand people’s minds on what is available out there, and get them to realize you can have a career in swimming,” Lamonier tells POPSUGAR. “There are a ton of career opportunities and it’s very lucrative. I need people to know you don’t have to be broke doing something good for the community.” If you’re a licensed swim coach or are interested in becoming a water safety instructor (priced at $500 per certification), you can find a home at BPWS.
Right now the company partners with nonprofit swimming organization TankProof, to host Black Futures, a monthly swim clinic where they usher in a new generation of swimmers. In the future, Lamonier hopes to find more collaborations with industry-leading brands like Gatorade and Nike and to encourage more labels to feature plus-size Black women in campaigns for representation.
“At the end of the day, we need more people helping us save lives,” says Lamonier. “That’s what swimming does – it saves lives and we need more companies on board.”