Despite kayaking’s origins in the Inuit communities of the far north, modern-day whitewater kayaking is a predominantly White sport and has been for a long time. Yes, there are paddlers of color worldwide, but the majority of kayakers out there are White. In the 17 years I have been paddling in Uganda, I have seen black paddlers travel from other African countries to kayak on the Nile once. The vast majority of people coming to paddle on the Nile were White visitors from the US, the UK, and Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Inner City Kids Kayaking - Increasing Diversity in Paddling

19 years ago, 911 inspired me to try to increase diversity in our sport and create access for people that otherwise did not have it. Though 911 impacted everyone’s lives and changed how we looked at life and travel, in NYC, it affected people living near Ground Zero the most. For city kids, especially ones with limited options, without the chance to leave the city and see a different landscape, not one of doomsday destruction, or touch nature in some way, I imagined that the world might look like a scary and unpredictable place over which they had little control. For kids that had no access to the out of doors, the future looked bleak.

Inner City Kids Kayaking - Increasing Diversity in Paddling

If kids could be introduced to kayaking and realize they could do it nearby and access the outdoors and a good dose of fun and adventure, life might look a little more optimistic, a bit more fun. They might even feel like they have a little more control over their futures if they could successfully navigate their kayaks through whitewater. Regardless, they would have fun embracing a different kind of unpredictability: adventure learning.

Inner City Kids Kayaking - Increasing Diversity in Paddling

I started the Inner City Kids Kayaking Camp in NYC in the summer of 2002. I was lucky to find other paddlers (EJ, Kristine, Emily, Dane, Nick) willing to help me out, as well as gear companies willing to donate needed equipment. With a couple of exceptions, I have run the camp every summer since. We have worked with two different organizations in New York over the years, Boys and Girls Harbor (now SCAN-Harbor), and the Graham Windham School. Both work with underserved inner city youth in NYC in differing capacities.

Inner City Kids Kayaking - Increasing Diversity in Paddling

The kayaking camp is a logistical conundrum and a high-wire act that incorporates a multitude of factors to pull off. I am always scrapping and scraping to make it happen, but magically every year, it does, thanks to the combined effort of many people who are willing to give time and energy to share the passion that we all have for kayaking. It is the most rewarding kayaking experience I have during the year, year after year. Most of these camp kids come from situations I cannot imagine and have to overcome challenges daily because of the color of their skin that I will never know. Their options for the future are limited just because of the situation they have been born into – not of their own choosing.

Inner City Kids Kayaking - Increasing Diversity in Paddling

Every summer, I finish the camp and think I want to do more: create a weekly kayaking program to give kids a longer-term option to paddle, to have the potential to join an international community of people who share a common love and connection to something greater than themselves, which also happens to provide fun, adventure, and a connection to mother nature! Kayaking has helped so many people find joy in their lives, why not share it in a bigger way?

Last week, I got an email from the Program Director at Graham Windham. Due to Covid-19, money the school would typically receive from the state of NY has been diverted to the challenges of dealing with coronavirus. After 22 years, she no longer has a job, and the kids’ program is closing. This summer, out of all summers, is the worst summer for this to be happening. Now when kids need nature, the outdoors, and kayaking more than ever, it is being taken away. I am asking myself, what can I do to change this situation? How can I try to create more equity in a truly inequitable world? This is the moment for change; how can I (and we as the kayak community) make truly lasting positive change?

Inner City Kids Kayaking - Increasing Diversity in Paddling

Right now, I am working on plan b, plan c, and plan d to keep the camp going and to see if there are ways to get these kids paddling this summer and beyond. And I can always use help – if anyone reading this has connections to youth and adult groups that would like to learn to kayak, especially in the NYC area, but really anywhere, please contact me! After teaching hundreds of inner city kids, many of whom don’t know how to swim, to whitewater kayak, I have seen how powerful and impactful kayaking is in improving lives. Even if temporary, it’s a glimpse into what’s possible and under your own steam. With this year’s constraints due to corona, working close to one another may be more challenging, but it is still doable.

Each one of us can do something to change the status quo to create more equity, no matter how big or small, each of our actions matter. Collectively working together, this change will happen – it’s long overdue. There are already positive signs of change around, and it is on us to keep it going. Kayaking is a great tool to help this happen. It’s a great equalizer and even greater connector. Maybe together we can change the world through paddling, you never know!