Boston launches program to give free swimming lessons in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Hyde Park

“We are working to dismantle structural racism, and we are welcoming all people to swim safely in our pools and on our beaches.”

Erin Clark / Boston Globe, File

Boston Mayor Kim Janey on Wednesday launched a new program that aims to improve water safety in the city and address the historic racial and economic barriers to swimming lessons. 

During the announcement at the Roxbury YMCA, Janey said it is predicted that by the end of the year, the number of drowning deaths in Massachusetts will have exceeded the high of 125 seen last year. 

“Our beautiful city gems, such as our pools and our beaches, should be places where people can access those areas safely and with confidence,” she said. “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.”


As part of the Swim Safely Partnership, free swimming lessons will be offered at the Roxbury, Dorchester, and Hyde Park YMCAs. Starting on Nov. 1, the YMCA of Greater Boston will offer 8-week sessions of free swimming lessons at the three locations. 

James Morton, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston, said during the press conference the goal is to provide free swimming lessons for 300 kids through June, before the peak swimming season begins.

Collaborating with Boston Public Schools, the program will also expand the lifeguard workforce, offering free training and certification for up to 60 high school students, and institute a pilot program that offers free swimming lessons to BPS students at some schools as part of the third grade curriculum. 

Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Janey pointed to the racial and economic disparities that exist for drowning risk.  

“Black children ages 10 to 14 are 7.6 percent more likely to drown than white children of the same age,” she said. “Overall, Black children drown at 5.5 times the rate of other children. In 2016, drowning was the second leading cause of unintentional death among Black boys and girls under 18.”

According to a 2017 report from USA Swimming, in families with household annual incomes below $50,000 a year, 79 percent of children had little or no swimming ability. 


The reasons for those risks vary, Janey said. 

“From fear of water due to post-traumatic swimming experiences, false and negative cultural assumptions, and an overall lack of access to swimming facilities or bodies of water and the dearth of swimming caps to properly accommodate Black hair,” she said. “Studies have also linked segregation to the reason why 64 percent of Black children cannot swim today compared to only 40 percent of white children that cannot swim.

“During segregation, Black people and other people of color were barred from entering swimming facilities, contributing to the racial disparity in swimming ability that persists today,” Janey said.

Images of Black civil rights activists being attacked as they participated in “swim-ins” at pools in the ’60s also contributed to a feeling of distrust of shared water spaces for communities of color, the mayor said. 

She stressed that cultural competency and community conversations, which will be led by the Save the Harbor Women of Color Coalition, will also be central to the mission of the safe swimming program. 

“These conversations will serve as an opportunity to come together, address multigenerational fears, emphasize swimming safety, debunk cultural myths, and address unique cultural barriers,  like how to best care for hair and skin,” Janey said. “Black girls are less inclined to swim due to the lack of swimming caps designed to protect their hair from chlorinated water.” 


As a part of this program, the city will provide swim caps  that “work for everyone,” including Soul Caps, which are larger in size and designed to specifically protect thick and curly hair, dreadlocks, hair extensions, and weaves. The caps were in the spotlight this year when they were banned from the Tokyo Olympics

“We are working to dismantle structural racism, and we are welcoming all people to swim safely in our pools and on our beaches,” Janey said. 

For information on the free swimming lessons, interested residents should email [email protected]


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