It’s been a long time since I’ve used this space. The past four years have been incredibly challenging for me, and I have retreated from much of the online presence I have maintained for a lot of my career. In the past I have been able to use my writing and the depth of the rowing community to work through difficult times. These last four years have been different. Some of what I have been processing has been too dark; and I have felt so let down by members of this community at times that writing to or about them didn’t seem like the answer. I have been hurting, for a long time, but haven’t felt like I could find my way back to the place where writing about what hurts and why, could help.
There will always be time to go back and recount how things have gone sideways since 2017, but there isn’t any more time to waste to address the current state of affairs in the world; in our country; in our communities; in our sport. Things have gone far enough and I can’t keep sitting out and hiding from all the conversations I have needed to have. I feel that I have been stranded in a place of uncertainty up until now because it feels like no matter how I have lived my life to this point, no response to the immense social unrest in the United States is correct enough.
Silence is violence.
Saying something too quickly might mean I will say the wrong thing and won’t be able to take it back.
Waiting too long means I’m too privileged for my voice to be credible.
I’m not allowed to talk to my black or brown friends about this because that’s such a cliche, annoying, helpless white person thing to do.
Performing social media action with a smattering of temporary reposts of books to read or orgs to donate to doesn’t actually help because my primarily liberal, progressive, white, upper middle class audience aren’t actually the ones who need to be reminded that being a racist isn’t cool and I’m probably using the wrong hashtags.
When it seems like every possible option, including humbly admitting, “this is hard to figure out how to do right, and I don’t want to let anyone down” is going to expose me to the venom and hatred of the entire internet and seemingly the entire world, the result seems to be an overwhelmingly impotent stalemate. Until I just decide to try.
The fear and uncertainty of responding incorrectly and having my good intentions rejected, refused or corrected are real. But that is not an excuse not to try. No matter what I do, for the rest of my life I will never be able to fully understand the experiences of POC in our world because of who I am. I can’t fully know what it means or what it feels like to live in a world that is systemically adverse, let alone fatal, to my success or my freedom because of who I am–because of a thing or things I can’t change about myself. We have all inherited histories and pasts that we can’t change; things that were done, said and upheld by others long before we arrived. None of it is fair. But the universe does have a way of maintaining a long term system of checks and balances, and for the centuries of imbalance where POC have been burdened with oppression and exploitation, it is a start for white people to admit that it is our turn to actively and willingly transfer that burden to ourselves. We are going to have to have the humility to accept that we are going to be uncomfortable; we are going to be made to feel guilt and shame; we are going to have to admit that we have been and are doing things wrong; and that all of those things are never going to be equal to the suffering of POC in our world. Facing rejection or refusal, and being forced to learn how to be better is the least we can do. And I really mean that. It’s the absolute least thing you can to do to risk having your feelings hurt for being called out for saying the wrong thing–even if you mean well–and learning from it in order to move forward. No matter how liberal, how educated, how progressive we think we are, we have to have the self-awareness to admit that it will never be enough. We have to try to grasp that working toward positive change, continuously educating ourselves, listening and diverting the resources of our privilege toward the strengthening of black and minority communities in our country for the rest of our lives will still be inadequate. It’s not fair that this is the legacy that we have all inherited, and that all of us now have to work together to do the hard work that comes with forcing real change. We can’t change the mistakes of past generations that put us here. But we can wake the fuck up and accept like grownups that it’s not a choice that we are being given. It’s just how it fucking is. It’s not about whether it’s fair, it’s about what’s right. We have to do the work. End of story. Just being humble and open and accepting the work we have to do will not guarantee that all of us are able to say and do the right things all the time. But it will be a start. These are risks we have to take. We can try. And we will have to rely on each other to hold ourselves accountable to keep trying.
This is particularly true in my tiny, privileged bubble that is one of the whitest, most stereotypically elitist, inaccessible sports in the world. While I think the issues of systemic, institutionalized racism and police misconduct greatly supersede the issues of athletic inclusivity, sport is, perhaps, the one tiny niche of this enormous issue on which I am at all qualified to speak with any authority whatsoever. And I say that very cautiously, because during my career I have had very few black or POC teammates, despite rowing at a huge public university set in a large diverse urban area. On the National Team, I’ve had none.
I was a product of the walk-on system at the University of Washington, and while I don’t remember much about walk-on try outs, I do remember wondering why there weren’t any black athletes trying out the year I did. The campus was diverse–one of the things I valued most and which heavily influenced my decision to attend UW–so why did all the other walk ons look exactly like me?
I have spent a lot of my time as a rowing athlete working hard in survival mode–first as a collegian trying to balance rowing with school, and then as an Olympic hopeful just trying to make ends meet while training forty hours or more per week. I have never felt like I have had the time or the energy to push these questions further, or to seek solutions to problems I wasn’t really aware of. Naively, as a collegian, I thought that walk-on tryouts were an opportunity that was equally available to everyone on campus, so if certain populations weren’t represented or present, it wasn’t a race issue. It was just because they weren’t interested in rowing.
As I have spent more time in the sport, and have failed to see any real change in diversity or inclusivity at the elite level, I have come to realize there are massive and complex barriers to POC entering our sport on almost every level. Accessibility to rowing for anyone is dictated primarily by two factors, or a combination of the two: geography and money. Rowing is largely dependent on having safe, rowable bodies of water plus real estate for a boathouse and docks, which may or may not exist in urban areas accessible to minority communities. Rowing is also largely dependent on having safe, rowable equipment, most of which is outrageously expensive to purchase, store and maintain because of the materials, the manufacturers, and its size–you need a huge building to support and sustain a rowing program of any size. There are innumerable other expenses and considerations that prevent rowing from being more accessible to more people, but those are the big two: recreational access to water and wealth.
When you compare the opportunity to row with other sports and activities that don’t require expensive equipment that is funded by exorbitant membership dues; doesn’t require commuting to/from a school to a lake or a river; and which kids are likely to have grown up exposed to at a very young age (any sport that requires only a gym, a track, a field, or even a pool), the challenges of engaging with minority communities become very real. And the limited number of programs that do exist for urban outreach struggle to compete with youth programs that draw from wealthy urban/suburban communities where members have more resources of every kind.
None of this is news. These are issues that the rowing community has been faced with…forever? I don’t have a historical citation for that. But it does seem that as a sport we have failed to keep up with the changing social landscape of our world, and we certainly aren’t bearing the standards for diversity and inclusivity in sport. Given the depth and breadth of the resources held by the members of the rowing community, we do have an obligation and, unquestionably, the ability, to do better. We have, for a long time, but I think the time has run out for us to pretend that there isn’t more that all of can be doing to overcome these obstacles and find more points of entry for more kinds of people in our sport.
I don’t have an assignment for every rower out there. I don’t have a checklist of things that you can do today, and clear your conscience of the obligation you have to help bring positive change in to our sport. This isn’t a Instagram story type of thing, where if you post something while it’s trending that will suffice and you can go back to ignoring this until another black person is murdered for jogging, or you have the extra time on your hands due to an annoying pandemic. It’s also not a throw-money-at-it kind of problem–at least not in the sense that if you donate $25 today to an organization you’ve never heard of before that you are absolved of being a complacent white athlete. Like any complex problem, it is going to take thoughtful, long term commitment from a lot of people, and yes–a lot of money and resources over a long period of time–to start to solve it.
As a National Team athlete based in Princeton, I am proximal to two phenomenal organizations that are successfully engaged in outreach to underserved communities in Philadelphia and New York. Philadelphia City Rowing and Row New York are groups that facilitate rowing participation and academic support for kids who need it most, many of whom represent minority communities. They are both groups that the National Team has worked with in the past, but never with a lasting or formal relationship. It is my hope that in the coming weeks and months we can work together to find ways to better integrate the resources we have as Olympic Hopefuls with the goals of these programs and/or others like them. Objectively USRowing has failed to initiate routes for us as National Team athletes to participate in outreach opportunities, and at this point there is no reason for us not to take that initiative ourselves.
Please consider learning more about these organizations and donating to them or others like them–feel free to add in the comments below if you have a local outreach club that could use the greater rowing community’s support–through volunteerism, financial donation, or some other contribution.
There are always going to be choices to make about how, when and where we contribute our individual efforts to combating inequality in our world. We can’t do everything, and we can’t be everywhere. In sport, inside the community we all love and depend on so much, is one way that we can enact meaningful, purposeful change that can improve and strengthen our communities from the ground up. You’re probably here because you are or have been involved in the rowing community on some level for some time. In which case I don’t need to tell you how the values we all learn by participating in our sport carry over to every aspect of our lives outside of athletics. Being a specialist here, in this way, is not doing nothing. It is actively participating in the solution. It is demonstrating care and love for the development and advancement of your community and the people in it, plus the people who could be.
Please continue to be humble, open, and kind to one another. We have never needed each other more.