Black History Month: The Chuck Wielgus Blog on The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion

Black History Month: The Chuck Wielgus Blog on The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion

 | Thursday, May 21, 2015

Consider this: In 10 years, the largest Spanish speaking nation in the world will be the United States; and in that same time period, the largest English speaking nation in the world will be China.  

Think hard about that… by the year 2025, the United States will be the largest Spanish speaking country in the world!  This is an eye-opening statement that should stop you in your tracks.

It was 10 years ago that the Board of Directors of the USA Swimming Foundation identified diversity as an important subject for us to address.  Since then, we have talked a lot about how to find ways to bring greater better diversity to the membership of our sport.  For its part, the Foundation has sought to help children learn-to-swim, with a special emphasis on reaching those children who might otherwise never have the opportunity to take swimming lessons.

It’s a logical starting point… teaching kids to swim. Much like hockey, where a child can’t join a hockey team until he or she knows how to skate. However, an important distinction for swimming is the issue of water safety. Drowning statistics are frightening, and especially so for African-American and Hispanic/Latino children.

The stated goal has always been to ultimately have USA Swimming’s membership better align with the changing demographics of the country. Over the years we have tried many tactics, including pilot programs, partnerships, public service campaigns and research projects. Clearly, our most impactful effort has been through the Make a Splash initiative, in which more than 300,000 children ages 5-14 have received scholarships to take swimming lessons.  But the impact to our membership has been minimal. Yes, we’re making progress, but just not fast enough.  

Recently, we’ve formed an internal Diversity & Inclusion Working Group. Representatives from our varying business units have come together to establish a more coordinated, strategic and sustainable approach. We are developing a “D&I Strategic Plan” that can be fully integrated into the greater USA Swimming Business Plan.  This sounds simple enough, but the words are hollow unless there is complete buy-in from staff, board members and most especially from coaches and volunteer leaders where the interactions actually take place.  

Nancy Lee, vice president of people operations at Google, leads the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. “We want all Googlers to care about diversity, not just the leadership or the diverse population,” says Lee.  Boy does that sentence nail it … the tipping point comes when everybody buys into the importance of changing the culture.  We can point to USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program as the perfect example for how behavior and critical thinking can change within an organization.

We must ask ourselves how we can do a better job of providing access to all groups: race, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and even income-level. Realistically, USA Swimming can’t be all things to all groups in equal amounts and at the same time. Our strategic plan will account for this and there be some sort of phased approach.

Partnerships can help accelerate growth. USA Swimming has been working the last few years with the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority in a groundbreaking Swim1922 initiative that seeks to increase swim participation, educate members of swimming’s long list of benefits and decrease drowning rates in African-American communities. 

Another partnership, recently established, is with the New York City Parks & Recreation Department. Together with Metro Swimming, this program has registered more than 600 new athlete members, 75% of whom are African-American, Asian, Hispanic or Pacific Islanders.  Additionally, 54 new coaches have been registered through this partnership.

I have made the comment on numerous occasions that when it comes to D&I, we cannot judge our successes and failures in short periods of time.  Real change will be generational in nature, and our scorecard of progress must be measured over longer periods of time.  

We must all work to embrace the importance of diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion require intentional acts.  We must continue to try pilot programs, build partnerships, customize our messaging, and challenge each other to carry through with our commitment. Perhaps our greatest challenge is finding sustainable ways for lower income families to gain access to facilities and to programming.  

The progress we have made from 2005 until today is significant, but there is still a very long way to go before our membership demographics better reflect the overall population. I challenge everyone in our USA Swimming community to commit to improving our “family” by engaging new populations to grow our membership across the board.  

Just a week ago, 48 athletes from diverse backgrounds and 30 personal coaches were here at the Olympic Training Center for USA Swimming’s annual National Diversity Select Camp. All it takes is one look at this enthusiastic and talented group of athletes and coaches to realize the possibilities of what the future can hold.  

You can also look at the picture of Simone Manuel, Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds, the three Black swimmers who stood atop the podium after sweeping the 100-yard freestyle at the Women’s NCAA Championships. This is the progress we imagined a decade ago and hope to grow even further in the next 10 years. 
 

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