The Courage to See the Water We Swim In


How do you grow your courage?

You start by getting uncomfortable.

Two young fish were swimming happily along in the ocean doing their thing. As they rounded the corner of a reef, an older and wiser fish swims by and cheerily asks them: “How’s the water today?” One of the young fish looks puzzled, turns to her friend and asks: “What’s water?”

That question is an opening to a whole new world of awareness.

Do you think that for that young fish realizing that there’s something called water that she’s swimming in is painless?

Maybe, but I doubt it.

When I started Girls at Play, in 2004, my passion was whitewater kayaking, and my goal was to empower and inspire women on the water.

In my experience, when women were able to paddle with others who shared a similar lived experience, it helped to increase courage and confidence. Instead of being the only woman paddling in a group of guys which can feel intimidating and frustrating (especially with misogynistic comments and mansplaining). It was freeing and confidence building to  show up as you are and feel supported in a group of women.

What I didn’t have an awareness of is that most of the women I was serving looked very similar to me, and came from a similar background. It was the water that I was swimming in, but didn’t realize I was swimming in – much like the young fish in the story.

In my mind I wasn’t excluding anyone who identified as a woman, but in practice and due to lack of awareness, I was.

I wasn’t actively questioning why the sport was so homogenous, and why there were so few black women or women of color paddling in general. I didn’t consider that perhaps it felt uncomfortable and frustrating to be the only black woman in a group of white women, much like it can feel being the only woman in a group of men.

And, most importantly, I wasn’t asking what I could do to actively welcome women of color into the sport of whitewater kayaking alongside white women who make up the majority of women I was paddling with and serving in my business.

These realizations aren’t easy to acknowledge. It has been uncomfortable and painful to realize that white privilege – meaning that although I’ve experienced setbacks, bullying etc… in my life, the color of my skin hasn’t been the reason for those setbacks – has been the water that I’ve been swimming in.

Having these realizations doesn’t mean that I have to feel guilty about who I am. That isn’t productive for anyone, and certainly not for effecting change.

What I can do is take action to the best of my ability to help support and create a more inclusive culture within paddlesports and outdoor adventure.

Having the courage to face my own shortcomings gives me the the clarity to be able to take positive action toward who I say I want to be in the world.

I want to be someone who supports and elevates black and brown voices and organizations in paddlesports and the outdoor industry.

To that end, I invite you to check out and support the following organizations/resources:

NRS Just Add Water Campaign – amazing episodes about cultivating common ground among diverse communities and making outdoor recreation welcoming and accessible to all.

Diversify Whitewater

Paddlesports Action Committee

Issa Vibe Adventures

Outdoor Afro

Explore Kentucky

Have you taken courageous action toward being who you say you want to be in the world? I’d love to hear about it so please email me and share.

Did something you read in this blog post make you react negatively? I’d also love to hear from you. Email me.