Swimming inequity in Evanston perpetuates segregation

Martha Castellini, Staff Writer

From a young age, my parents were eager to ensure I was not just comfortable in the water but also had proficient swimming skills. Swim lessons at the McGaw YMCA were my Saturday morning rituals, and later as I moved up the ranks, swim meets dictated my entire schedule as a middle school age kid. However, it was not until this past summer when I worked as a lifeguard at the Evanston beaches, once again a space filled with confident swimmers, that I truly realized that a huge portion of these swimmers were like myself: white and privileged. Among this group of swimmers, I found there to be a considerable lacking in the representation of other groups besides the white community, especially in regards to people of color and people from low-income households. Slowly, I familiarized myself with a different form of inequity: the limited access in regards to swimming.

Unsurprisingly there is a complicated past responsible for this issue. On the larger level, geographical barriers to bodies of water and a history of infamous Jim Crow laws prevented pool access to people of color. On the local level, the Evanston community is plagued not only with the scarcity of pools in Evanston but haunted by the loss of the Emerson Street Branch YMCA in 1969. After its opening on July 5th, 1914, the Emerson YMCA had far-reaching effects,  empowering not only the black community of Evanston, but also the wider community in the Rogers Park area to participate in YMCA activities and sports they had previously been denied access to at McGaw YMCA and even Evanston Township High School. However, in efforts to desegregate Evanston, it was unsurprisingly this facility, not the facility occupied by the white community, that was decidedly shut down and demolished.Subsequently, this has led to great disparity due to the unaffordability of purchasing memberships at the remaining facilities let alone acquiring swim lessons at them. 

Over time, the ability to swim has become a great privilege when it should actually be the norm. Evanston, in particular, is reaping from the disparity. Bordering the world’s fifth-largest lake, interactions with the water are built into the very fabric of our town, but so are fatalities. According to safekids.org, 43% of fatal childhood drownings occur in open water areas. Nonetheless, some of my best childhood memories include the sun-kissed days spent at the beach or the adventurous action-packed hours spent at the Skokie water parks. While it saddens me that the opportunity to create such memories is not a part of everyone’s reality, I am more shocked as to what the danger of this inability to swim implies. It means that not all of our kids are safe.

But it also means that our community will continue to be segregated. Across the nation, swimming is a sport for the white and the wealthy. In 2014, approximately a mere 1 percent of registered participants for U.S.A. Swimming, the national governing body of competitive swimming identified as African American or black. A similar type of demographic is reflected in our very own swimming team. According to former ETHS swimmer of color, Alex Roman, she first became cognizant of this difference when recognizing that more of her white peers were able to afford memberships from club swim teams such as MYST, costing from $775 to $1045 a season, than her peers of color. Due to this trend, “there is an implicit bias against girls of color in swimming. A lot of motivation comes from having upperclassmen teammates up of color to look up to.” Neha Singh, another former swimmer of color and ex-swim captain indicates.

Despite this glimpse of motivation, the stigmatized bias against swimmers of color is one of the contributing factors to the demographic structures we currently see on the ETHS swim team.

Some diversity is observed on the JV 2 level but practically no representation of swimmers of color is seen on the Varsity level, promoting a mentality where “swimmers of color don’t belong in the space of competitive swimming,” Singh specifies. 

This evidence indicates that it’s not so much that swimming as a sport is not appealing to a wide variety, but more that not enough affordable programs and social awareness exist to accommodate for this growing interest and would ultimately make swimming an atmosphere where all feel they could succeed. 

But not all hope is lost. Attacking the elitist culture of swimming from the grassroots, Evanston Swims! provides many second-graders in District 65 with free swim lessons. All participants with complimentary swimsuits and goggles to ensure that there are no monetary barriers when it comes to taking swim lessons. Effectively, by treating swimming as an essential skill rather than a privilege, the success of this program has skyrocketed. From what once operated at 3 schools and a mere 2 pools, Evanston Swims! has expanded to incorporate a whooping 8 schools and 4 pools. 

But we cannot stop here. Not only is it our city’s duty to restore the legacy of swimming for all that was erased with the destruction of the Emerson Street YMCA branch, but the Evanston community needs to commit to providing everyone access to swim.