Cultivating Black swimmers

Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Ayanna Rakhu

The MSR is closing out Black History Month by highlighting some of the University of Minnesota’s brightest who are advancing the needs of their communities through their respective areas of study.

This story features U of M UROC researcher Ayanna Rakhu works to give African American parents and children the confidence to swim safely through her study titled “Mother May I Swim?”

“Why are Black children less likely to know how to swim?” This is one of the core questions University of Minnesota doctoral candidate Ayanna Rakhu dives into through her UROC-supported thesis, “Mother May I Swim?” 

Water and swimming have always been a large part of Rakhu’s life, having grown up between Minneapolis and St. Louis. She swam competitively as a child and was a lifeguard as her first job.

“Not only do I love [swimming], but it’s also made me money and given me opportunity to travel and to see things through lifeguarding,” Rakhu told the MSR. “I’ve been an aquatic professional for over 20 years now.” 

In addition to being a kinesiology graduate student at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, Rakhu is also a certified USA Swimming Coach at Lifetime Athletic.

Rakhu says her relationship with water changed the most when she became pregnant. This change inspired the subject of her studies. 

“It just gave me a new view on what water is to us as humans and how it’s important to our feelings,” Rakhu said. “I had already experienced it as important to our occupation, and then as recreation. So with these three things swirling around in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Are we, particularly as Black people and Black mothers, getting the full use out of our relationship with water?’”

Ayanna and daughter

Rakhu talked to 40 African American mothers about their swimming experiences and those of their children. Cultural issues came up in many of the interviews—many mothers cited not feeling comfortable in swim schools as a barrier to teaching their children how to swim. 

Many participants in her study also cited past trauma related to water, such as a friend who drowned, as a reason for avoiding swimming.

Rakhu wants to help develop a curriculum for teaching African American women and their families to swim and eventually create a swim school to address these issues. The school would be focused on creating a culturally comfortable space. Rahku also emphasized that swimming instructors must be aware of water-related traumas that people may have while teaching them to swim.

“It’s not just places, access to YMCAs or other aquatic institutions,” Rakhu said. “It’s also what we’re doing in those places. How the lessons are being run, what’s going on in the atmosphere. That’s what creates those culturally relevant spaces.”

Rakhu wants to encourage people to have conversations about their relationship with water and to share traumas related to it. She said that many people think avoiding the water out of fear is natural.

“That doesn’t have to be your experience,” Rakhu said. “I just want to encourage people to have a conversation about their relationship with water with their friends, their family, their coworkers, and just see where that takes them.”