scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Boston will offer free swim lessons in communities of color to combat drownings

DJ Williams (left) and Abraham Fairchild (right) prepare to swim with their kick boards during a swim lesson at the YMCA.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In the wake of a tragic surge in drownings across the state this spring and summer, Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s administration announced Wednesday an initiative that will fund free swim lessons in the city’s Black community.

The Swim Safely Partnership aims to provide swimming lessons for 300 children and adults at YMCAs in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Hyde Park before the height of the next swimming season in June 2022.

“Our beautiful city gems such as our pools and our beaches should be places where people can access those areas safely and with confidence,” Janey said, speaking at a news conference at the Roxbury YMCA. “But the number of drowning deaths this year has now become a public health crisis. The crisis calls for increased swimming safety and swimming awareness.”


Janey said she also hopes to add swimming lessons to the Boston Public Schools third-grade curriculum and recruit and train 60 lifeguards before next summer.

“Swimming is a life skill,” Janey said. “This is something that we need to normalize and make sure that every individual across our city, across our Commonwealth, and in our country can learn to do.”

A total of $90,000 in contributions from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and the city’s “Joy Agenda” will fund the initiative, according to a spokesperson for Janey.

“The city is also in talks with additional funding partners to expand the program,” the spokesperson said.

Other partners in the initiative include the Boston Triathlon and the Boston Harbor Women of Color Coalition. Janey also vowed to provide Black female swim lesson participants with “soul caps,” which are specifically designed for thicker hair textures.

In centering efforts in the Black community, Janey said she hopes to target a crisis that has plagued Black adults and children disproportionately.

Black children, she said, drown at a far higher rate than other children. The disparity is well-documented by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says the drowning death rate for Black people is 1.5 times higher than the rate for white people. Among Black children, the rate is about three times higher.


The reasons for that difference are myriad, Janey said, including cultural assumptions related to swimming and segregation-era rules that banned Black people from swimming facilities. She also noted socioeconomic barriers that have historically limited Black residents’ access to swimming lessons.

That disparity played out in Massachusetts over the first half of 2021, the Globe found, when people of color comprised nearly 60 percent of drownings and near-fatalities across the state.

The new effort from the Janey administration plays into a larger effort to address the disturbing increase in drownings in Massachusetts. In May alone, 18 people drowned. Now, Janey said Wednesday, the state is on pace to break the 125 drownings that were recorded last year.

In August, the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs announced $475,000 in available grants for private swim facilities to offer free swim lessons. The office also vowed to increase multilingual signage around state waterfronts.

The first swim lessons under the Swim Safely Partnership will begin on Nov. 1, according to James Morton, President and CEO of the Greater Boston YMCA.

“We’re all talking about different aspects of making sure that there’s equity in the water, so that our children can have access to ... 47 miles of shoreline for the City of Boston that we should have access to,” he said at the news conference.


Andrew Brinker can be reached at Follow him @andrewnbrinker.