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Diversity Flourishes In Baltimore When Rowing is the Common Thread

by Ed Moran, ed@usrowing.org | Nov 12, 2015
Through much of mid-April, as Baltimore was rocked with racial tension and violent protest resulting from the death of a young African American man in police custody, Baltimore Rowing Club and its athletes, parents and leaders of its inclusion program, Reach High Baltimore, were preparing to host the America Rows Mid-Atlantic Regional Regatta.
reachhigh11Through much of mid-April, as Baltimore was rocked with racial tension and violent protest resulting from the death of a young African American man in police custody, Baltimore Rowing Club and its athletes, parents and leaders of its inclusion program, Reach High Baltimore, were preparing to host the America Rows Mid-Atlantic Regional Regatta.

While neighborhood businesses burned and smoke and the screams of police and fire equipment sirens filled the air, program founder Judd Anderson was faced with the question of canceling the regatta, scheduled for Sunday, May 3rd, the very week of the riots. Most of the city was shut down. Downtown schools, universities and businesses shuttered their doors. Even the Baltimore Orioles postponed their scheduled May 2nd game with the Chicago White Sox.

But when city officials called Anderson to ask if he planned to postpone the regatta, his answer was no. It was not even a consideration. Anderson had helped found Reach High Baltimore as a program designed to bring rowing to underserved youth from all of the neighborhoods of Baltimore – of every ethic origin and economic status – and to cancel or postpone in the face of racial diversion would not serve its purpose.

The parents, particularly those from the African American neighborhoods in the midst of the protests following the death of and funeral of 25-year-old Freddy Gray, whose death was ruled a homicide by the city medical examiner, were adamant – practice and the regatta must not be cancelled.

“All the parents said, ‘Don’t cancel practice,'” Anderson said. “We didn’t miss one day of practice and we held a whole regatta six days after the funeral of Freddy Gray. And that whole week, all the way through our regatta, there was a curfew. We had three or four families who had to go to a hotel for a week. They didn’t miss practice.

Anderson“The city kept calling us. They didn’t want us to cancel because they didn’t want anything to be cancelled because it looked bad for the city. Lots of things got cancelled that week and I said, ‘We’re across the water from the city, we’re a long ways from that neighborhood.'”

There were 17 clubs scheduled to race, and a few cancelled. But the race went on. All the local clubs came and “we had great attendance,” Anderson said.

That successfully-run regatta is a testament to what Reach High Baltimore stands for – diversity, inclusion and the removal of neighborhood barriers that have traditionally divided Baltimore along racial, cultural and economic lines.

Started in 2011 with twelve girls in sixth grade, Reach High Baltimore has been dedicated to making rowing available to urban youth who would not ordinarily have access to the sport because of either economic or cultural barriers. In the four years since its inception, Reach High has grown to include more than 40 athletes, all of whom train and race alongside the non-scholarship athletes of the Baltimore Rowing Club’s junior program.

For all of their efforts and dedication to making rowing in Baltimore one of the most diverse sports club in the city, Reach High Baltimore has been named the recipient of the 2015 USRowing Anita DeFrantz Award, which is given to an individual or organization achieving measurable success in expanding diversity opportunities in rowing.  

“I was incredibly honored,” said Anderson of the award. “Anybody who runs programs like this knows you just put your head down and burrow away in your own little tiny pocket of the world. I would compare us to Row New York and CRI, the behemoth, and Chicago Training Center, all these real huge stars that have huge capacity.

reach3“We’re pretty small. We do have 35-40 inner-city kids every year, but we’re not 1,500 middle school kids like CRI,” he said. “Our quality is really high, but our quantity is really small. It’s great to be recognized. It makes me a little humble. When you’re doing these operations, all you’re thinking is what you haven’t accomplished yet.

And that’s what makes Reach High Baltimore special, Anderson said, the way it blends the scholarship kids with the athletes from the Baltimore Rowing Club’s full pay members. It is a special program, but it operates within the full junior program. And it is all designed to eliminate the social and economic barriers between the athletes.

“Our program is built on what we call our secret weapon, which is nobody knows the difference between any kid in this program,” Anderson said. “Whether you’re on scholarship, part of Reach High and from the city, or you’re full pay and you go to a private school and you come into the city, when the kids come in nobody really knows who is Reach High and who’s not.”

And that made continuing with the plans to hold the American Rows regatta the week of the riots so important, Anderson said.

“The nature of our families is to always express love and hope for the city in spite of everything that happens,” he said. “Families had kids in middle school and in high school and they didn’t just want their kids hanging around. They didn’t want kids to have nothing to do. They wanted to keep their routines going. That and they all said, ‘Hey, we have Mid-Atlantic Regionals in one week. We are not stopping practice right now. The kids didn’t miss a beat. You couldn’t even see a difference and that’s partly because we’re not very different from other, high culture teams.

“Rowing is such an amazing sport,” Anderson said. “Everybody was like, ‘No, get in the boat. We need to row. We need to figure this out. We need to get better. We’ve got a race on Sunday, a home race and we’ve got Mid-Atlantics the next week.' Everybody was really locked in.”

For the athletes who are part of the Baltimore junior and Reach High programs, the idea that the America Rows regatta would be cancelled, or that racial division would have anything to do with the purpose of the athletes, was not a consideration. They were surprised even by the suggestion of it.

ReachHighBaltimoreDuring the upheaval, two of the girls rowing together in a pair – Amaris Hinton and Diana Lowitt – were featured in a newspaper article that they felt focused on their economic and racial differences rather than on the fact that they are just two athletes rowing in the same boat and enjoying success.

The article pointed out that Lowitt, who is now rowing at Georgetown University, came from an expensive private school and Hinton, who is a high school sophomore still rowing in the program, is a Reach High athlete.

“We were kind of confused,” Lowitt said. “When the story came out, it was racially focused, and we were both kind of confused because we never thought about that.

“The only huge difference to us was our age, that was the only thing that would stop us from being best, best friends,” she said. “It wasn’t that we were from different schools or different places or that I was white or she was black. Our friendship, and our companionship, is through rowing and had nothing to do with that. We were pretty caught off guard,” she said.

Hinton agreed.

“Our club is extremely diverse,” she said. “It’s not just a racial thing. It’s different cultures in general. We’ve got different religions and different economic backgrounds. It’s not just the racial aspect of it. I feel like we’re one family and there is no racial division between us and I feel it’s pretty much always been that way."

Of the award, both Lowitt and Hinton felt Anderson and the program is deserving of the recognition.

“I think it’s really great the way Judd has built up the program,” Lowitt said. “What’s really special about the way he runs it at the beginning of every season with the parents and the athletes, he makes it very clear that it doesn’t matter whether you’re paying the full price or you’re on a scholarship, on our team, everyone is treated the same,” she said.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Hinton said of the award. “Coach Judd has done so much for our team, and he’s done more than just coach. He’s a selfless person, committed to BRC and he loves us as individuals. He’s concerned about us in more way than just as athletes.”
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