It is a wonderful gift to live in a time of shared ideas and growth. Modern technology and sensibilities can bring us together, but some demeaning stereotypes live on in unexpected and damaging ways. Black People Will Swim, owned and operated by Paulana Lamonier, works with gusto to modernize the image of black swimmers, and end the silent discrimination happening in our pools and minds. Black People Will Swim is an organization with one goal: To smash the stereotype that black people don’t swim. Through education, community-building exercises, and simply swimming, BPWS is a powerful example of how dedicated advocates can change perception through hard work. The voters in Kapitus’s Building Resilient Businesses Contest also saw the power in Lamonier’s vision and BPWS’s value, voting in quantity enough to win them a 3rd place $20,000 prize.
Winning in the first BRB competition, however, is just the beginning of the new day for Lamonier and BPWS.
Education and Awareness
Stereotypes have a tendency to linger in “unfact-checked” territory. Stereotypes are supremely effective putdowns because they usually inflame an existing insecurity for the person being targeted. As a Black swimmer herself, Lamonier was familiar with the long-standing, hurtful stereotype that Black people can’t swim. And when she and BPWS were first offering lessons, she saw the harmful effect of this stereotype on full display. “This all started back in the summer 2019 when it was a challenge to teach 30 people how to swim. During that time, one of my students told me she couldn’t swim because her ‘bones are too dense.’ At that very moment I thought ‘Where did she get this idea from?’ From there, I started to do my research and realized that there are quite a few stereotypes and barriers that lead to the high number of drownings that take place in our community. I then realized ‘Wow! If she takes this false narrative as her truth, how many other black and brown people, who look like us, may have the same thought process?’”
This is why our program is rooted in education. Dispelling false narratives, but also educating non-POC, who teach people of color the racist history that takes place in aquatics.”
Starting a Business and Building a Community
Running an organization dependent on a pool and skilled instructors has its own unique list of difficulties in normal times; but maintaining those elements during the COVID-19 pandemic required some magical balancing. Lamonier, however, found impressive strength in her community even when pool access was extremely limited. “One of the biggest challenges in taking BPWS from an idea to a business was finding a pool to host our swim program,” Lamonier explains. “When we announced the opening of our program in just a few days, we postponed our start date due to the pandemic. This pushed us to get really creative and explore different ways to foster a community using the power of social media, despite not offering lessons.”
Among those creative concepts is the acronym F.A.C.E. which is a guiding principle for BPWS. “Our acronym F.A.C.E. is essentially our brand ethos. Any and everything we do within our brand must align with our acronym. The letter F is all about having Fun, the letter A is building Awareness, the letter C is creating a sense of Community, and the letter E is all through Education.”
Swimming and Empowerment
When asked if she sees swimming as a type of empowerment, Lamonier said, “Absolutely!”
“What I love about swimming Is that the ability to swim is not based off of height, looks, money, economic background, or anything of that sort. It is really a sport for the people. All people! Most importantly, swimming is the only sport that can save your life. It is a life skill that everyone needs to be equipped with. This is why I urge people to learn how to swim because it provides freedom.”
Swimming, then, has a power much grander than someone may guess at first. Building a community of people is an achievement in itself, but then demonstrating that that community can save lives and change minds is simply the first step in making a better, more understanding world. When asked what advice she has for people who want to be community organizers and activists, Lamonier explains that “I strongly encourage any and everyone who reads this to please remember your ‘why’! There are days when you are exhausted, may not have the funds to continue the mission, or the support either, but you have to remember your ‘why’ and the lives that you are helping and saving. That is what is going to help you continue. Also, it is vital for you to work smarter, not harder. Working hard is great, but working smart will take you further. Find help by assembling a team and delegate some of the tasks. You got this!
Building Resilient Businesses (and Communities)
To all those who followed the BRB voting period and those who put their power behind BPWS, know that your votes will go on to increase the scope and capabilities of Lamonier, her instructors, and all those in the BPWS community. Looking ahead, Lamonier has big plans for the next BPWS season: “At this time we are gearing up for our 2023 swim season. This means, hiring swim instructors, hiring an aquatics director, finding a pool location to host our swim lessons, and so much more. Most importantly, because swimming is a seasonal business, we really want to expand into merch. And with this win from Kapitus, we’re able to do just that.”
Black People Will Swim currently operates in the Brooklyn and Long Island area and offers a wide range of classes. And those who are inspired by Lamonier and BPWS’s message for community strength through swimming, Make the Promise to you and your loved ones that you will learn how to swim.