Why Don't More Black Children Swim?

For many African-Americans, swimming is economically and culturally out of reach. A recent survey commissioned by USA Swimming found that 60 percent of black children don't know how to swim. Hampton University assistant professor and Director of Aquatics Jodi Jensen wants to reverse the trend. Jensen, who is white, talks about her efforts, as featured recently in the Washington Post Magazine.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we turn to the pages of the Washington Post Magazine, where we look just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, a story about breaking down yet another racial barrier. Now don't feel bad if you have heard or even internalized this old saw about how black folks don't swim. Yes it is a stereotype, but it is rooted in some truth. A 2008 survey commissioned by USA Swimming found that 58 percent of black children cannot swim. That's almost twice the rate for white children.

The rate for Latino children was almost as high, 56 percent. But for some reason almost twice as many Latino children as black children swim competitively. We're going to talk about why this disparity persists. And even more importantly, we're going to talk about a program at Hampton University that is trying to change that. Joining me now is Hampton University assistant professor and Director of Aquatics Jodi Jensen. Welcome. Thanks for talking to us.

Assistant Professor JODI JENSEN (Hampton University and Director of Aquatics): Thank you so much. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Professor, what drew you to the pool?

Prof. JENSEN: Well from a very early age, I had access to a swimming pool as young as four or five years old. There's a swimming pool in my neighborhood and I was fascinated by the water and fascinated by the lifeguards and always maintained that love for the water.

MARTIN: Did you know when you took this job at Hampton that there was such a racial disparity in swimming ability? Or, not ability, but knowledge of how to swim?

Prof. JENSEN: To a small degree, not to the degree through my position at Hampton and doing further research and from my students, I found out that the stereotypes and that there really was such a big issue with the lack of representation and the lack of abilities for African-Americans in swimming.

MARTIN: Well wait, just hold on, what do you mean by that? You're saying that what are, the kids are telling you, number one, that they actually had internalized this myth that black folks can't swim?

Prof. JENSEN: Oh, absolutely. On my first day of class each semester, I have students that tell me, well I'm comfortable in the water, but I don't float. And so we, we break down those stereotypes and we talk about those things. I do a lot of water safety education in my classes. So part of that water safety education, we spend a class period talking about water safety as well as talking about what their barriers to learning how to swim and what their experiences have been and what they feel are stereotypes.

MARTIN: And is it that a lot of their parents didn't have access to a pool, or they didn't access to a pool growing up. So it just wasn't a part of their lives or?

Prof. JENSEN: Absolutely both. Both from the perspective of their parents didn't have access, or their parents didn't learn how to swim and so then they passed down those fears, and they passed down their stereotypes to their children. And so when these students were growing up, and we're talking students from all over the United States, that learning how to swim just was not a priority.

And they were told not to go near the water. And I've had students that had negative experiences when they were young and never went swimming again until they came to Hampton University and had the opportunity to take a beginning swimming class.

MARTIN: And speaking of negative experiences, last summer, during the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing, Cullen Jones, an African-American, won a gold medal in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, along with of course Michael Phelps, the huge swimming star. I just want to play a short clip where he describes an experience that he had as a child. Do we have that? I'd like to play it. Here it is.

Mr. CULLEN JONES (Olympic swimmer): I was five years old and we were at Donnie Park(ph) in Pennsylvania. And there was a huge inner tube ride. And at the bottom of the ride was a pool water and I ended up flipping upside down and passed out and the lifeguard and my dad had to come in and save me and give me a resuscitation. But when I woke up, I was like, yeah, all right, what's the next ride we're getting on? My mom still kind of cringes when I tell the story.

MARTIN: And he goes on to say that his mother enrolled him in swimming classes the very next week. But I wanted to ask, is that a common experience? Or if maybe a kid has one bad experience and that's it.

Prof. JENSEN: Exactly. And Cullen's story is definitely a very unique story, because usually it's quite the opposite. They have that negative experience and instead of turning that negative experience into a positive experience, it becomes a barrier, it becomes an anchor for them not to learn how to swim and stay far away from the pool.

MARTIN: One of the things that we noticed and one of the reasons the story was interesting to us is that apparently Hampton is believed to be the only HBCU to offer this kind of aquatics concentration. A lot of black colleges used to offer swimming, but it seemed to have fallen by the wayside for whatever reason. Why did Hampton want to offer this program?

Prof. JENSEN: Well, being an aquatics professional - I've been involved in aquatics for over 20 years - and for my coming up through the ranks, aquatics is a very certification-based field that it's uncommon to have somebody that has post-secondary degrees, as well as certifications. And so for me, going through my undergraduate and my graduate program, I made aquatics my focus as far as my papers, my projects, etcetera.

And so later in my career, when I guess you could say I found my calling as far as being a professor, that I said whatever academic environment I end up in, it's my vision to have an academic program that focuses on aquatic management so that students have the opportunity to get the certifications, as well as the academic experience, so that they're a well-rounded individual when they leave college. So right now it's a minor, but it's my hope that it turns into a four-year degree.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly peek into the pages of the Washington Post magazine. And this week, we're talking about a story about teaching African-American kids to swim.

We're talking with Jodi Jensen. She's a professor at Hampton and director of the aquatics program at Hampton. And Professor Jensen, I want to talk about you for a minute and your journey. I understand that you are a little bit of a fish out of water yourself at Hampton.

You are not African-American. Were you at all hesitant about the unusual experience that some white folks have of being a minority in a majority-black environment?

Prof. JENSEN: Well, I tell you, I don't think it was so much hesitancy in the sense of that I was afraid. It was hesitant of how would I be accepted.

I'm pretty committed to my values and committed to a very safe aquatic environment, and really, quite honestly, just didn't know how it would be being at a predominately black college. And I can tell you that it's been a wonderful experience and has certainly enlightened me and expanded my understanding of diversity and understanding the differences. But also along with understanding those differences is a huge level of acceptance. I feel that my students accept me, and vice versa.

MARTIN: But one of the diversity challenges I believe you had to overcome was girls and their hair?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. JENSEN: Yes, I sure did.

MARTIN: Tell me about that.

Prof. JENSEN: Well, the experience that comes to mind is one of my first semesters at Hampton was in 2004. It was the spring semester, and I had a young lady who got into to the pool, got dressed for class and got into the pool and refused to go underwater.

And so I went over to her to find out, was she afraid? Why was she not putting her head under water? And she explained to me that she just got her hair done and that it cost a lot of money to get her hair done, and she had a special event she was going to that weekend. So she was not going to get her hair wet. And so without further ado, I said okay. Do what you can today.

So that was when I first started really learning about, if you will, black girls' hair.

MARTIN: So what was the solution? Because you can't swim without putting your head underwater. I mean, you can't, to my way of thinking, you can't really learn, right?

Prof. JENSEN: Absolutely. Well, last semester, last fall semester - because I used to tell my students, my female students, buy a cap and, you know, put your hair in a cap, and you'll be fine. And I had students say well, my hair still gets wet even with a cap on.

So last semester, I had some female students that came up with the bright idea of taking Saran Wrap and wrapping Saran Wrap around their hair and then putting the swim cap over top of the Saran Wrap, and apparently it didn't get their hair wet. So it was a great hit. So I think these young ladies were innovators.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Good to know. A tip to take forward. But I sense a product development in the offing, if we - maybe the next swimming innovation will come out of Hampton, right? The next swimming product innovation for keeping your hair really dry, if you've got to get your do - keep your do straight.

Well, what about you? What else do you think that you all have learned from each other?

Prof. JENSEN: Well, that's a great question. I guess - again, I guess more so for me, just learning that there are differences and that recognizing what those differences are and having a respect. And that's really breaking down the barriers between that swimming is not a white person's sport, that it's just a matter of having a greater representation from a participation standpoint, a competition standpoint, as well as from a professional standpoint.

MARTIN: Do you think that it will make a difference if more kids see students like your students at Hampton in the water, enjoying the water? I mean, obviously, you know, top-ranked competitive swimmers like Cullen Jones, but do you think it'll make a difference if your kids, I don't know, fan out, as it were, across the country and kind of spread the swimming gospel?

Prof. JENSEN: Oh absolutely. I think, again, I think it's matter of identifying with somebody, and I tell my lifeguards at Hampton University, the student lifeguards, I tell them, I said: You never know who's watching you, whether it be your fellow college students, whether it be from the swim team rentals that practice in the pool or just spectators in the stands, that you're making an impression.

And again, when I have lectured about water safety and I say to my students name a black football player or name a black basketball player, easily done. But when you say name a black swimmer, you know, yes again, Cullen Jones has just - has made a wonderful breakthrough. But until there's greater representation, I think it's a great thing that other black kids see lifeguards and swim instructors and representation in aquatics. I think it will help to overcome these barriers and break down these numbers.

MARTIN: No pressure or anything, but do you see any future Olympians in your program?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. JENSEN: I hope so. I hope so. If not, definitely some very well-trained future aquatic professionals.

MARTIN: And finally, what's your goal? What's your - when you walk away from this, at whatever point that is, how will you know you can say to yourself, Jodi, job well done?

Prof. JENSEN: I think through the - not only the quantity of the students, but also the quality of the students. So as long as those numbers continue to increase as far as the people that are aquatic-management minors, but also the quality of them, that they go off and they do great things.

MARTIN: Jodi Jensen is an associate professor and director of aquatics at Hampton University. Her program was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine. The article is entitled "Taking the Plunge." It was written by Malcolm Venable.

Professor Jensen was kind enough to join us from the studios of WHRO in Norfolk, Virginia. Professor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. JENSEN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: To read that Washington Post piece in its entirety, you can go to our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

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