Erica Depina watches a group of swimmers stroll in caps and goggles at the Roxbury YMCA pool, eyes focused, tilted slightly into the position of a seasoned lifeguard. The Dorchester resident, 20, who oversees aqua aerobics classes and teaches swimming to preschoolers at the Y, learned to swim just three years ago.
“Where I grew up in Cape Verde there are a lot of people who can’t swim and are afraid of water,” Depina told GBH News, adding that if there hadn’t been a program through Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury, she may never have learned. “Few schools in black communities have programs for students to learn to swim.”
Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey on Wednesday kicked off a program designed to make more people in Roxbury, Dorchester, Hyde Park and surrounding communities comfortable with swimming, as part of an effort to reduce swimming accidents and reduce racial and economic barriers to courses.
The Swim Safely partnership, funded by investors from the town hall Agenda of joy program and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, will offer free swimming lessons at YMCA sites in Roxbury, Dorchester and Hyde Park.
“We are working to dismantle structural racism,” Janey announced at the YMCA press conference on Martin Luther King Blvd., “and we invite all people to swim safely in our pools and on our beaches.”
The initiative comes five years after the death of Kzyr Willis, a seven-year-old boy from Dorchester who drowned at a South Boston day camp in 2016.
“Meeting the need for swimming lessons will not only increase safety,” Janey said, “but also provide additional opportunities and benefits, such as health benefits for children and adults. “
The program will provide free swimming lessons to 300 children and lifeguard training to 60 high school students. The first lessons begin Nov. 1 and more will be added in monthly phases, according to James Morton, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston.
“We’re all talking about different aspects to make sure there is fairness in the water,” Morton told reporters, “so our kids can have access to the waterfront, 47 miles from shore for the city of Boston that we should have access to. ”
Last year, a swim cap preferred by black athletes was banned from the Tokyo Olympics after FINA, the governing body of swimming, announced that the Soul Caps, a larger swim cap designed for women people with “long and voluminous hair”, did not meet his requirements. for competition.
After facing public criticism, FINA said in a declaration in july that the use of caps is under study. “FINA expects its review of ‘Soul Cap’ and similar products to be part of broader initiatives to ensure there are no barriers to participation in swimming,” says the press release, “which is both a sport and a vital skill”.
As part of the initiative in Boston, Janey said her administration would provide “swim caps that work for everyone,” including Soul Caps.
“Black girls are less inclined to swim due to the lack of swim caps designed to protect their hair from chlorinated water,” Janey said. Quoting author Heather McGhee, Janey pointed to the story of racial segregation in swimming pools across America.
“’In the 1950s and 1960s, white officials and communities across the country chose to empty public swimming pools rather than integrate them,” Janey said. “Generations later, America still hasn’t recognized that racism comes at a cost to everyone, but our future may be different. “
Cultural considerations have been an important factor in discussions about the implementation of the program, according to Roxbury YMCA Executive Director Kathryn Saunders.
“I see some of the kids who, you can tell, have been told not to get in the water because it’s dangerous, which can be,” Saunders told GBH News. “But how do you approach it and how do you see water safety in a different way? These things are passed on for sure.
Saunders says educational programs and community discussions will also factor into the program.
“Some of these cultural issues are the hair, the skin,” Saunders said. “It’s thinking ahead and asking some of these questions, not just ‘oh some people of color don’t swim’ but what are some of the barriers and what can we do before that to have these conversations?”
Across the hall, under Depina’s watchful eye, Kimberly Battle finished her water aerobics class, floating on her back in the same pool where she taught her son to swim 35 years ago.
“Back then, I didn’t think a lot of people were sending their kids to swimming pools for fear of the water,” Battle, 68, told GBH News. “I think a lot of people are afraid of water. I know a lot of people from the islands who have always been told to stay away from the water. They are here now, they have this opportunity, but they are afraid.
This includes Beatriz Lites, a 66-year-old Roxbury resident who has been taking the Y water aerobics class for about 25 years – but still can’t swim and wears a flotation belt every class.
“In Honduras, my parents were afraid of the water and they never let me go in the sea,” Lites told GBH News. “I’m still afraid of water, but not so much.
Lites took classes at the Y to overcome her fear, but quit during the pandemic.
“I haven’t taken any classes since then,” Lites said. “But now maybe I will.”