Editors’ Note: Hannah Lieder is the founder of Minneapolis Swims, a 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to bringing swimming back to Minneapolis. Since starting the organization in 2009, Lieder has worked to secure funding and support from elected officials for renovating and re-opening the Phillips Community Center pool, the only indoor public pool in the City of Minneapolis.
Each day in the U.S., an average of ten people drown. The majority of those who drown (or nearly drown – a significantly higher number) never intended to be in the water. In 2011, there were 19 drowning incidents and 22 near-drowning incidents in Hennepin County alone. Humans have no natural swimming ability; they must be taught to swim. Why, then – in a land of more than 10,000 lakes – can’t Minnesotans mobilize to teach essential water safety skills to inner-city youth?
Is it because public pools are the last frontier of racial segregation?
With water accidents reaching epidemic proportions, the link between swimming and child safety is a critical concern. In recent years, drowning is the leading cause of accident-related death for African-American children in Minnesota. And while we are proud of our water resources in the state, the fact that inner-city children are effectively cut off from swimming instruction is proving to be a fatal proposition.
I have lived in the Phillips neighborhood for 13 years and my husband and I have been active with the kids in the community. We often took them swimming with our YWCA guest passes and to the State Parks camping and they loved it – we kept hearing from the kids and their parents “we want to swim,” so we looked into starting a swimming program.
In 2008, the Phillips Community Center swimming pool closed. The Minneapolis Park Board, facing increasing financial strain, looked to sell the building for storage space. Armed with compelling data about drowning incidents – as well as research tying swimming to better grades and safer neighborhoods – we petitioned the Park Board to keep the pool open. In 2010 the Park Board voted to give Minneapolis Swims two years to raise the money needed for the renovation, operation and programming of the pool. At that time we had $300 to our name.
With Rep. Karen Clark’s help we went straight to the Capitol and wrote a $2.1 million bonding bill to fund the renovation. We talked with legislative leaders in both parties as well as the Governor. The kids from the neighborhood have been involved from the beginning. Last year – after we had been picking up trash in the neighborhood to raise awareness and support for the pool (this was the kids’ idea) – we got a call from Rep. Clark to come to the Capitol. The kids had the opportunity to go onto the House floor while they were in session and told the legislators exactly why they wanted to learn to swim.
While we await the final bonding bill this session, we feel we have accomplished a great deal with little more than our passion and commitment to swimming. We’ve advanced the issue of access and equality to swimming across party lines and across the metro/outstate divide. Next year we hope to write legislation to ensure that every child in Minnesota gets swimming lessons as part of school.
I had never envisioned myself as a leader or a community activist nor did I have political connections, experience lobbying, or knowledge of community organizing. I simply wanted desperately to preserve a critical community facility so the kids in our community – kids with a multitude of needs – can enjoy what millions of suburban kids take for granted. We were given what many people believed to be an impossible task. But we didn’t know that. We just put our heads together and got to work.
Being thrust into this leadership position, I often felt outside my comfort zone. During one dark, lonely period when I was feeling frustrated and hopeless, I sat staring at my computer screen when the words “supporting the courage to lead” jumped out at me. I thought, “Wow, this is exactly what I need.” I contacted Richard Bidmead, who I had met at the InCommons Collabumentary Night gathering, and asked for help. He has been instrumental in connecting me with people to help get our voice heard.
We have a big problem to solve, a problem rooted in the Civil Rights Movement. We still have to raise a tremendous amount of money and we need a lot of help. But we cannot fail. This community pool will make a big splash for thousands of Minneapolis kids who will have the opportunity to learn the lifesaving skill of swimming.
Saving pools saves lives.