Rosenblum: Latest drowning a sad reminder of pool inequities

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 1, 2014 - 1:25 AM
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Abdullahi Charif, 12, drowned at St. Louis Park Middle School.

Photo: Provided by the Charif family,

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Hannah Lieder’s dream nearly evaporated in July 2011, when funding for a desperately needed swimming pool in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood was cut from a bonding bill at the 11th hour.

Her disappointment turned quickly to grief when, the very next day, a 17-year-old African-American boy drowned in Theodore Wirth Lake. He and friends had gone there to cool off, but he couldn’t swim.

So it felt doubly cruel that Lieder, buoyant last Friday as she was feted by community leaders for four years of sweat on the Phillips Aquatic Center, got more bad news.

Just hours after Mayor Betsy Hodges and School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson joined a room filled with supporters of the $8 million project, 16-year-old Benedict Richardson drowned in the swimming pool of a Plymouth apartment building.

He, too, was a young man of color. His death came two months after 12-year-old Abdullahi Charif drowned during a swimming class at St. Louis Park Middle School.

Most people aren’t connecting the dots but Lieder is, and has, for years. A Phillips resident, she knows that African-American, Indian and Hispanic children drown at alarmingly high rates.

Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger also connects the dots. “The death of Benedict,” he said after the gathering, “reinforced what all of us were trying to say at the Phillips event.

“This is a crisis.”

To avert another, Lieder has to work fast. “We’re in a challenging situation now,” said Lieder, founder of Minneapolis Swims, which organized in 2010 to save the Phillips pool from being cemented over.

After a slowdown in funding in 2011, Minneapolis Swims successfully raised more than $2.2 million in public and private funding the following year.

“We have two months to raise the remaining $6.3 million,” she said.

And, in classic Lieder form, she added, “This is a great project for corporations, Fortune 500s and 100s, to step up and support.”

Nothing felt dire on April 25, when about 200 supporters filled the Phillips Community Center, nibbled on finger sandwiches and Brie, and studied blueprints hanging on the walls featuring an expanded eight-lane pool, a new deep-water pool, a shallow, warm-water teaching pool, locker rooms, offices, 1- and 3-meter diving boards and meeting rooms.

Swimmers from the U swim team worked the room, talking about the benefits of their sport, as did members of Augsburg College’s women’s swim team, which plans to train there.

The YWCA also will use the Phillips Community Center for swimming meets.

Attendee Raho Warsame, from Somalia, rallied at the State Capitol with Lieder in support of the project. She and her 22-year-old daughter are eager to learn how to swim there. “It’s going to be popular,” she said.

Aside from public safety, community pools offer added boosts. Swimmers are tops in graduation rates and GPAs. A community pool cuts down on crime by giving kids a healthy gathering place. It creates jobs.

But Minneapolis currently has one pool for 131,000 residents, compared to St. Paul, which has one pool for every 28,000 residents. Those who can are leaving the city to swim and train in the suburbs.

At greatest risk of being shut out are communities of color, which may not have transportation to available pools, or which may lack money to pay for swimming lessons. Seventy percent of African-Americans and 58 percent of Latinos cannot swim, Lieder said.

Phillips, home to 20,000 people, is one of the poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods of Minneapolis.

“This pool will save all the children in Minneapolis,” Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame said Friday, “but it is special to me because it is located in my community.”

Superintendent Johnson recalled growing up in the segregated South where, every year, someone in her class drowned. She didn’t learn how to swim until she was in high school.

In a related effort, a bill introduced by State Rep. Karen Clark and State Sen. Jeff Hayden, longtime supporters of the Phillips renovation, got its first hearing April 22. The bill would require all public schools in Minnesota to offer swimming lessons or basic water-safety principles.

The recent drownings have, surprisingly, made her work more challenging, she said. Panicked parents in communities of color are growing even more fearful of the water and are less likely to seek out swimming lessons for their children, particularly at cold, mucky lakes.

“We need that shallow, warm-water pool, because it is a clean and safe place to learn to swim,” she said. “When you have generational fears building up, you need to do everything you can to eliminate all the barriers you can. “This cycle needs to end.”

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350 • @grosenblum

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