UArizona’s African American Museum of Southern Arizona (AAMSAZ), which opened its doors in January, has received a $5,000 Community Impact grant from OneAZ Community Foundation to fund swim lessons by certified instructors at the UArizona Recreation Center.
The AAMSAZ, housed in the UArizona Student Union Memorial Center, highlights the significance of African American and Black history across Southern Arizona, with a continually growing collection of stories, images, and artifacts. The museum also is committed to meaningfully engaging the community and advancing social justice.
In the United States, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death among children ages five to 14. In Arizona, children drown at twice the national rate. Within this data is a stark and important racial disparity: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children ages 10 to 14 drown in swimming pools at rates 7.6 times higher than white children.
Beverley Elliott, AAMSAZ’s founder and executive director, said, “All it takes is two seconds at a pool party for something to go horribly wrong.”
Kimberlee Avant, AAMSAZ advisory board member who contributed to the grant proposal alongside Elliott, said, “The goal of these lessons is to get as many Black and Brown children comfortable in the water. The focus is survival, teaching them how to flip over, float, and wait for help.”
“Eventually, it would be great to see these kids not just survive, but enjoy themselves in the pool,” said Avant. “I want to see these kids become future UArizona swimmers.”
In addition to lessons, the grant will fund swim essentials such as towels, goggles, swimsuits, flip flops, and a swim bag for Black children in the Tucson community.
During the era of segregation in the United States, Black people were denied both entry into public swimming pools and swimming education programs. These historical barriers continue to have a lasting impact, as many Black families may not have generationally passed down the skill of swimming.
Historically, swimming was a requirement to graduate from the University of Arizona; this was a means to further segregate education.
Elgie Mike Batteau was the first Black woman to obtain a master’s degree from the University of Arizona. According to an interview done by AAMSAZ with Batteau’s daughter, Flavia Batteau Walton, Batteau was also the first person to integrate the swimming pool at UArizona.
Despite the rules and regulations making it much more difficult for her to receive swimming lessons in comparison to her white classmates, Batteau learned to swim and passed the swimming exam required to graduate and obtain her master’s degree in education.
The swim lessons provided by AAMSAZ and Campus Recreation are aimed squarely at addressing the generational setbacks that Black and Brown people, including Batteau at UArizona, have historically faced at swimming pools.
Drake Belt, associate director of facility and safety operations at UArizona Campus Recreation, is working with Elliott and Avant to offer these swim lessons at the recreation center. Belt said, “Changing the culture around the pool is an important shift toward equity.”
Belt wants to see not just Black and Brown swimmers arise from this program, but also “the first Black management staff in aquatics” at the University of Arizona.
“This is a great opportunity that has largely been unexplored until now,” said Daniel Hepfer, assistant director of aquatic operations at Campus Recreation. Hepfer will be responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations for the new program, working closely with children and their parents.
The demand for lessons is great.
Jeffrey Sawyer in the Tucson Unified School District’s African American Student Services Department said that he already has roughly 40 students planning to receive lessons through the program.
The first swim lessons funded by the OneAZ Community Foundation grant will take place in November.
The foundation awarded Community Impact grants to 66 organizations across the state for a total of $330,000 in 2023.
“This grant is significant and has allowed AAMSAZ and UArizona to address a need within the community that is often overlooked, especially among people of color. With support from OneAZ, we’re able to raise awareness and inspire the community to support programs aimed at teaching children to swim,” said Elliott.