The boy floats on his back, his small body bobbing in the water as an instructor holds him near the surface.
“You’ve got to flap!” Lamar Warren shouts over the chaos of 40 children screaming and splashing in the shallow end of the Blaisdell YMCA indoor pool in Minneapolis. “You’ve got to use your arms.”
The child scrunches his face, puffs out his cheeks and begins flailing his arms and legs in uncoordinated motions.
While the lesson looks like a typical swim class, its goal is serious: Warren is teaching the boy basic lifesaving techniques to address a national health concern.
Drowning is a leading cause of accidental death for all children, but children of color are particularly at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Minnesota, with its abundance of lakes and pools, 160 people younger than 20 drowned between 2002 and 2016. Minority children in some age groups drowned at rates seven times higher than their white counterparts, according to a Star Tribune analysis.
There are many reasons for the skills discrepancy, including few pools in their neighborhoods, parents who can’t swim, and little money for lessons, which keep many kids of color out of the water, officials said. Of all the obstacles, a parent’s swimming ability is the most telling. Children of good swimmers are 4.3 times more likely to follow suit, according to one study.
In the past decade, parents, activists and organizations throughout the Twin Cities have taken aim at the problem with solutions that range from hiring more lifeguards of color to building pools in neighborhoods where these children live.
But that’s still not enough, said Matt Kjorstad, executive director of the Harold Mezile North Community YMCA Youth & Teen Enrichment Center. His YMCA turned its lap pool into a shallow teaching area, and offers free swim lessons and swim gear, but many parents still hesitate to bring in their children.
“We can remove barriers,” Kjorstad said, “ … but we simply can’t remove fear.”
A critical need
Hannah Lieder started to see racial disparities in swimming ability when she moved to the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis in 1999. She got to know the children there and learned that, not only could many not swim, but some knew children who had died in the water. One girl was named after her brother who drowned.
“To me, it was a glaring issue,” she said.
After years of struggling to start local swimming programs, Lieder founded Minneapolis Swims in 2009, with the goal of reopening the city’s only public indoor pool in Phillips. After nearly a decade of scrapping together funds, the Phillips Aquatics Center opened in April.
Activists like Lieder have given new life to the Twin Cities movement.
Another is Katey Taylor who, with her husband, Scott Taylor, started Abbey’s Hope Charitable Foundation, to lobby for pool safety after their daughter, Abbey, died in 2008 from injuries she received in a pool drain accident.
In 2010, they partnered with a YMCA program that funds free swimming lessons for children in low-income families; national data shows nearly 60 percent of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch have no or low swimming ability.
Through the Taylor’s donations, which total $290,000, and dollars from Hawkins Inc., Delta Air Lines and USA Swimming, the Y has helped 30,000 children in the past 11 years, said Shannon Kinstler, the Y’s aquatic products manager. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board provides scholarships for classes, reducing a $55 eight-lesson program to only $5.
Both the Park Board and Y also partner with community organizations, taking their instruction to school and apartment pools. Programs also provide donated swim gear to low-income families and to those who need special accommodations like burkinis — a religiously sensitive swimsuit for women.
They also strive to hire representative lifeguard staff to foster a sense of community.
“It’s so critical,” said Sarah Chillo, aquatics coordinator with the Park Board. “Like anything else, when you look at modeling behavior, if someone looks like you or you already know them from hanging out in the park and the rec center, and by extension the pool, you feel like you’re at home.”
Samuel Myers, a University of Minnesota professor who studies racial disparities in drowning, found communities with more black lifeguards had fewer black children drown. His solution to upping lifeguard diversity? Get minority children on swim teams.
“It does seem a little bit odd, because you think, ‘Do you people really need to be competitive swimmers to not drown?’ ” said Marina Gorsuch, an assistant professor at St. Catherine University, who researches the issue with Myers. In fact, competitive swimmers possess strong swimming skills, spend daily hours in the pool and are more likely to seek lifeguard jobs.
The benefits are apparent in such states as Florida. Through strong tradition and institutional programs created by homegrown Olympic swimmers, the Sunshine State has effectively eliminated its racial gap, Gorsuch said.
In contrast, Minnesota’s competitive swimming diversity ranked in the bottom third nationally in 2016. Fewer than one percent of Minnesota swimmers were black, 28 people in total. Nearly 85 percent, or more than 3,500 children, were white. While the numbers could improve, they’ve made progress, Kinstler said.
“It used to be all white males, white females, and now we’re finally seeing the face evolve,” she said. “That comes with society’s movement to make sure there’s access for all, so that all have an opportunity to achieve those things.”
A hard model to sell
The hardest challenge in promoting pool safety, said Katey Taylor of Abbey’s Hope, is that it doesn’t carry urgency like other health concerns. “I can’t say [that] last year, I cured 10,000 people’s cancer,” Taylor said. “I can’t. It’s a really hard model to sell people on.”
Lieder experienced similar struggles in raising money for the Phillips Aquatic Center. People agreed that it was an issue, but didn’t have dollars to spare.
Kjorstad said that too little attention, outside of a small band of motivated individuals, limits increases in funding and programming. What is needed, he said, is for activists and partners to step up the pressure on potential funders and lawmakers.
“I think ultimately that’s what needs to happen to drive this,” he said.
But he acknowledged that building trust and buy-in takes decades, not days. While intimidating, he said, it’s no reason to quit.
“I don’t want to settle,” Taylor said in agreement. “I don’t want to settle for the, ‘No one cares unless someone has been injured or, sadly, dies.’ It’s hard. But the more that we stand up and say, ‘This happens and it can happen to you,’ maybe people will start to listen.”