Inaugural Paddlesports Leadership Academy


A few weeks ago I had the privilege of supporting an amazing new program in Knoxville, TN. I’m sharing the formal press release and fun photos for this important work:

KNOXVILLE, TN – June 27, 2022 – The Tennessee RiverLine, Gerry Seavo James with Explore Kentucky, and Anna Levesque with Mind Body Paddle hosted the inaugural Paddlesports Leadership Academy June 22-26, 2022, a program aimed to foster and position new leaders in the world of paddlesports. This program was made possible through the support of Tennessee RiverLine principal partners, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The leadership academy is an initiative created to train, develop and mentor people typically underserved by outdoor recreation as leaders on the water to transform their local communities and provide representation in paddlesports. By fostering inclusive engagement with the Tennessee River landscape, the hope is to enable diverse participation in river experiences and establish pride and ownership of river spaces

Gerry Seavo James, the Founder of Explore Kentucky, developed the Paddlesports Leadership Academy as a concept to help overcome barriers to access paddle education, and establish outdoor recreation as an inclusive and welcoming space for all.  Through Gerry’s collaboration with the American Canoe Association (ACA), a new certification curriculum was created to accompany the program as a more approachable step to formal paddling education. Gerry, Anna Levesque, chair of the ACA Safety, Education & Instruction Council (SEIC) and owner of Mind Body Paddle, and Lizzy Gardner, Program Manager of the Tennessee RiverLine were the first ACA educators to take on instruction through this new multi paddlecraft curriculum. Core components of the academy included the incubation of group culture that helps participants learn, play and grow their technical and leadership skills in a supportive environment as they work to create inclusive space in the outdoors that addresses exclusion, barriers to access and historical erasure. 

“As a black person in the outdoor community, my presence is often viewed as an anomaly, despite the rich history of our involvement within this space. A range of barriers exist to entry in paddlesports due to outdoor spaces not historically being welcoming or safe for all people, compounded by a range of socio-economic, cultural, historical, social and physical factors.” said Gerry James. “Programs like the paddlesports leadership academy empower communities to grow leadership from within, moving the needle to create more diverse representation, leadership and participation in river experiences, and we’re all excited to be part of and support this kind of work.”

Gerry is the Together Outdoors Lead at the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, where he facilitates a cross-sector coalition of over 100 organizations, individuals, business leaders, federal agencies, activists, manufacturers and service providers who share a commitment to building an inclusive outdoor recreation community. His work within the outdoor industry largely focuses on fostering inclusive, diverse and equitable spaces, and the Leadership Academy is a direct result of that.

The Paddlesports Leadership Academy was a vision that came after an interview on NPR’s podcast Strange Fruit in 2017, where Gerry discussed barriers to engagement in paddlesports within communities that are vastly underrepresented in the outdoor industry. Gerry began envisioning concepts that equipped underserved communities including people of color and other intersecting marginalized groups with paddlesport leadership skills, environmental literacy, and historical knowledge of the origins of these sports to empower new and diverse leaders on the water. In 2020 Gerry joined and developed a working group within the ACA to broaden the organization’s involvement with inclusion and equity initiatives, and the goal of bringing the Paddlesports Leadership Academy to life became paramount. In 2022, a partnership was formed with the Tennessee RiverLine to host, sponsor and help facilitate the inaugural academy, and all of the pieces aligned to make this program a reality.

The course curriculum focuses on the development of leadership skills on the water including instruction around group management, safety and rescue, paddling technique, trip planning, and communication. The first cohort included 8 participants from around the region including individuals from Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Texas with representation from organizations including  Outdoor Afro, Black Kids Adventures, Hiking Healing and Outdoors, Black Women Who Kayak, Knoxville Parks and Recreation and the Office of Multicultural Student Life at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

“The ACA Community Paddlesports Leadership Academy is absolutely one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. To learn, grow and simply be amongst like-minded individuals in a safe space is something I did not expect, but will forever be grateful for. I’m looking forward to the journey ahead and empowering my community just as Gerry James, Anna Levesque and Lizzy Gardner empowered us.” said Shawanna Kendrick, Paddlesports Leadership Academy graduate and founder of The H20 Life.

Explore Kentucky, the Tennessee RiverLine and Mind Body Paddle look forward to witnessing the impact that graduates of the Paddlesports Leadership Academy will have. Together, we will work to transform communities with the knowledge and experience they’ve gained. With the generous support of our principal partners, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Tennessee Valley Authority, we are committed to continuing this program in the future. It nurtures our shared vision of promoting equitable access to river experiences and establishing the Tennessee RiverLine and other outdoor spaces as inclusive and welcoming places for all. Follow the Tennessee RiverLine, Explore Kentucky, and Anna Levesque on social media for ongoing updates!

About the Explore Kentucky Initiative

Explore Kentucky is a Black-owned and led outdoor-oriented social enterprise working to expand outdoor accessibility, build environmental literacy, and improve quality of life for folks in Kentucky.  Through  Explore Kentucky and other endeavors, Gerry has created and stewarded several outdoor events and guided programs, led development of the Beaver Creek Blueway Trail, created the Waterman Series (a paddlesports racing league), served as a founding steering member of Kentucky Rural – Urban Exchange, and founding member of the ACA’s DEI Working Group. Gerry is an American Canoe Association (ACA) certified instructor in various paddling disciplines. He was awarded the ACA’s Joe Pina Leadership Award in 2018.

About the Tennessee RiverLine

The Tennessee RiverLine is North America’s next great regional trail system, a historic multi-generational initiative that offers economic development, public health, resource stewardship and equitable access benefits to 2.4 million people in diverse Tennessee River communities in four states. The Tennessee RiverLine is led by the UT School of Landscape Architecture, which is a partnership of the UT College of Architecture and Design and the Herbert College of Agriculture, and principal partners, UT Knoxville and TVA, in collaboration with the Tennessee RiverLine Partnership, a diverse consortium of organizations committed to realizing the vision for the Tennessee RiverLine.

About Mind Body Paddle

Mind Body Paddle is a woman-owned business created to inspire women worldwide to thrive through mind, body and paddle coaching. Owner, Anna Levesque, is the leading expert in mental agility coaching for women in whitewater kayaking, a stand up paddle boarding instructor, yoga teacher and ayurvedic health coach.  Her years of passion and experience in paddling and holistic health grew to develop a business with a mission to empower women, share knowledge, and curate experiences for her clients that lead to self-discovery, skill development and personal freedom.

About the American Canoe Association

The American Canoe Association was founded in 1880 and is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that serves the broader paddling public by providing educational programs, supporting stewardship initiatives that affect paddlers, and offering competition opportunities to athletes of all abilities. The ACA has over 15,000 members and 300 paddling clubs and affiliated organizations. The ACA provides insurance to hundreds of events and races every year. The ACA education program has an estimated reach of over 800,000 people per year. ACA members reside in all 50 states and over 35 countries worldwide.