The Reformation of Whitewater Paddlesports — SERIES: Part I of V

Sadat Kawawa--First international competition. Freestyle kayaking world championship, Ontario, Canada. Credit: Emily Ward

As the world responds to protesters calling for increased diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), the whitewater paddlesports community took action.

This five-part series will look at whitewater paddlesports. Kayaking, canoeing, rafting, stand up paddling and river surfing. And we examine the paddlesports community’s reaction to the movement to promote DEI for people of color in the aftermath of Western colonialism.

Sadat Kawawa at his first international competition freestyle kayaking world championship in Ontario, Canada
Professional Kayaker — Sadat Kawawa — First international competition —Freestyle kayaking world championship, Ontario, Canada. Credit: Emily Ward

First, the paddlesports community came together in ways that no one could have predicted.

During the worst pandemic since 1918 — amid the threat of COVID-19, the most profound global economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1930, and according to the Denver Post newspaper, it was also during the “largest wildfire in Colorado, [United States] history.”

Ash from the Cameron Peak wildfire began falling like snowflakes during a Diversify Whitewater event where Black, Indigenous, People of Color learned paddlesports skills for free. Yet, people came from as far away as Oregon to volunteer. And as long as a four-hour drive to participate in the non-profit’s free paddlesports training.

There was support from global citizens, U.S. military veterans, international and local adventure sports industry leaders, and paddlesports enthusiasts, professionals, and competitors.

Disclosure: The article’s author is a co-founder of Diversify Whitewater.

Why DEI in whitewater paddlesports matters

This series is essential outside the world of adventure sports. The model used by the whitewater paddling community to quickly implement ways to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion is transferable to other industries.

The impactful reformation in paddlesports was the result of:

  1. BIPOC community leadership
  2. Removing or mitigating systemic and cultural baggage and limiting beliefs
  3. Collaboration and mentorship
  4. Commitment and financial support from industry leaders, private foundations, and grassroots donations

2.8 Million whitewater kayakers worldwide

A British Journal of Sports Medicine’s report estimates between 1.4 and 2.8 million whitewater kayakers worldwide. There is a nearly 15% annual increase in participation in recreation and competition kayaking.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association of Boulder, Colorado, USA, 7.1 Million Americans participated in whitewater kayaking, rafting, and stand up paddling in 2018.

Savage Wilderness, a Kenyan adventure tourism company with a non-profit component, reports 70% of its clients are expatriates. It is working hard to change that by attracting more black African clients and employees among the country’s growing middle-class.

Adventure sports data

Recreational kayaking appears to be replacing canoeing in the U.S. Stand up paddling still lags canoeing and kayaking. But the sport gained 1.5 million participants between 2013 and 2018 as stated in the Outdoor Industry Association’s “2019 Special Report on Paddlesports & Safety.”

“Although the vast majority of paddlers [in the U.S.] are Caucasian, there is an opportunity to engage minority groups, which are largely underrepresented in paddlesports.” — The The Outdoor Industry Association. They went on to say that white female participation remained unchanged since 2015. And their “Outdoor Participation Report” indicated a 9.10% decrease in white American participants in all outdoor recreational sports combined in 2019.

The multicultural face of adventure sports

Although 53% of all American paddlesports participants are male, male participation is declining at a rate of 1% per year. The 2020 U.S. Census reported 49.5% of American infants were minorities. And 23% of the U.S. population is a person of color or multiracial. While Hispanic participation in paddlesports increased by 773,000 new participants in the past six years, African-American participation in paddlesports increased by only 1% during the same period.

The Outdoor Industry Association’s “2019 Special Report on Paddlesports & Safety” did not include Asian and Indigenous American participation.

People of color represented in whitewater paddlesports

However, although BIPOC participation in outdoor recreation, in general, is increasing in a way that is somewhat comparable to population changes, BIPOC in adventure sports remain visibly underrepresented. For example, the U.S. Hispanic population increased by 18% during the 2020 census. Hispanic, “moderate outdoor recreation participation” increased by 10%.

Yet, Asian-American, former competitive kayaker and co-founder of Diversify Whitewater, Lily Durkee rarely saw people of color in paddlesports.

“Throughout my 15 years kayaking, I have almost always been the only BIPOC and definitely the only WOC (Woman of Color) in my paddling group.”

Lily Durkee — Co-founder Diversify Whitewater
Diversify Whitewater co-founder — Lily Durkee kayaking the Upper Green River in North Carolina, U.S.A. Credit: Chad Blotner
Diversify Whitewater Co-founder — Lily Durkee kayaking the Green River, North Carolina, USA. Credit: Chad Blotner

Population and participation on par — representation still lagging in adventure sports

In this series on diversity, equity, and inclusion in whitewater sports, we talk with BIPOC competitive and recreational kayakers, cultural experts, and industry leaders. We discuss the barriers to diversity in paddlesports. And offer solutions to increase BIPOC participation in adventure sports in general and in whitewater paddlesports specifically.

Part 2 Destination Uganda Africa

Our series begins in Uganda, Africa, with Third Culture Adult (TCA), world-traveler, competitive kayaker, and raft guide — Sadat Kawaka. Kawawa is featured in a Red Bull documentary — The way of the Wildcard: against the odds achievements.

Professional Whitewater Kayaker--Sadat Kawawa Hiking Mout Jinja, Uganda. Credit: Sadat Kawawa
Professional Kayaker — Sadat Kawawa Hiking Mount Jinja, Uganda. Credit: Sadat Kawawa

Part 3 Destination – Chilean Patagonia

Professional Whitewater Kayaker--Immersion Research Brand Ambassador--Jaime Lancaster
Professional Kayaker — Immersion Research Brand Ambassador — Jaime Lancaster in Chile.
Credit: Jaime Lancaster

It is then on to Chilean Patagonia to visit, Third Culture Adult (TCA), “Kayakista Profesional Chileno” Translation: Chilean, Professional kayaker — Jaime Enrique Lancaster Rial — Also known as Jaime Lancaster. This world-traveling, professional whitewater kayaker and competitive slalom kayaker is also a raft guide.

Part 4 Destination – Colorado USA

Our final destination is in Colorado, USA, to hear from Asian-American, Adult Cross-Cultural Kid (ACCK), kayaker, and co-founder Diversify Whitewater — Lily Durkee. Durkee is a PhD student at Colorado State University (CSU) in the Graduate Degree Program for Ecology (GDPE).

CSU PhD Student--Lily Durkee holding flour beetles for research purposes
CSU PhD Student — Lily Durkee holding flour beetles for research purposes. Credit: Kirsten Hein

“I am using the flour beetle to study how to best rescue small populations from extinction that are declining due to exposure to environmental stress.”

Lily Durkee. 

In Durkee’s philanthropic work at Diversify Whitewater, she and fellow co-founder — Antoinette Lee Toscano are helping diversify paddlesports through free, regional community paddle and paddling skills day events for BIPOC participants throughout the United States.

Part 5 marketing and DEI experts on whitewater paddlesports

Finally, we wrap up the series with a panel discussion on diversity in paddlesports. The panel includes industry and cultural leaders and advertising and diversity experts including:

James Edward Mills — A freelance journalist and contributing writer for outdoor-focused print and online publications such as “National Geographic Adventure,” “Rock and Ice magazine,” “Alpinist magazine,” “Standup Paddle Magazine,” “Elevation Outdoors magazine,” and others.

Mills is a 2016 recipient of the “Paul K. Petzoldt Award For Environmental Education.” Mills is the author of the new book “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors” and the co-writer/co-producer of the documentary film “An American Ascent.” In 2020 The Adventure Gap was named by Outside Magazine as one of the 10 “Outdoor Books that Shaped the Last Decade.”

In recognition for his work in sharing the important history and legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers and their efforts in creating the National Park Service, Mills was named a “Yosemite National Park Centennial Ambassador” in 2016.

And he is currently a faculty assistant at the University of Wisconsin Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Mills teaches a summer course for undergraduate students on DEI in outdoor recreation and public land management.

The marketing perspective in adventure sports

Cossette, Inc. — Rukmini Halliwell — Sr. Advertising Project Manager at one of Canada’s largest advertising agencies. Halliwell’s experience draws from several advertising, marketing, and communications agencies. She has a long list of high-profile national and international clients in dining, entertainment, corporate, and non-profit sectors.

Disclosure: Rukmini Halliwell appeared in a panel discussion on diversity, equity, and inclusion with the article’s author.

The DEI perspective in paddlesports

eROOT Consulting, LLC — Patrice M. Palmer, MASJ, FRSA — Director, Social and Cultural Inclusion for the College of Business at Colorado State University. This position is jointly held with New Belgium Brewing Company as their DEI Specialist.

Palmer was recognized in 2020 by “Hop Culture Magazine” as one of the “Most Important Voices in Craft Beer” for their contribution to diversity, equity, and inclusion within the craft beer industry.

Palmer is also the CEO and Principal Consultant at eROOT Consulting, LLC. This internationally recognized consulting firm works with small and midsize businesses to craft, implement, and maintain inclusive DEI strategies.

Disclosure: The CEO of eRoot Consulting appeared in a panel discussion on DEI with the author of this article.

The paddlesports industry on DEI

Kokatat, Inc. — Jeff Turner — Director of Sales for Kokatat, Inc., A paddlesports gear and apparel manufacturer in Calif., USA

Disclosure: The article’s author is a brand ambassador for Kokatat.

Immersion Research, Inc. — Max Blackburn — Sales Manager for Immersion Research, Inc., a designer and manufacturer of paddling gear in Pennsylvania, USA.

Disclosure: The article’s author has received sponsorship on behalf of a non-profit organization — Diversify Whitewater, co-founded by the author. And for a channel on the XOTV.me platform — WhitewaterTV, produced by the author.

Liquidlogic Kayaks, LLC — Shane Benedict — Co-founder of Liquidlogic Kayaks LLC, a manufacturer of performance kayaks and apparel with worldwide distribution and headquartered in North Carolina, USA. 

Disclosure: The article’s author received sponsorship on behalf of a non-profit organization — Diversify Whitewater, co-founded by the author

On the record about DEI in whitewater Paddlesports

Familiarity is not why our panelists are participating in this article. However, they are the courageous few willing to discuss one of the most important topics of 2020-21 — Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI). For this series, we contacted the following organizations for an interview or panel participation:

  1. The International Olympic Committee to talk about the inclusion of canoe sprint and canoe slalom at the Olympics. And to report on diversity within the sport. They offered no response to our requests for an interview.
  2. The Outdoor Industry Association to summarize its “2019 Outdoor Participation Report.” And “2019 Special Report on Paddlesports & Safety.” They too offered no response to our requests for an interview.
  3. British Canoeing — British Canoeing is the national governing body for paddlesports in the UK. They responded but declined to interview.
  4. And we contacted four additional DEI experts in the US and UK. All declined to interview.

This frank discussion tackles various subjects. From the underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, People of Color in adventure sports, what this means for the adventure sports industry’s survival, barriers created by systemic racism outside of the sport, to the limiting beliefs that stifle some BIPOC from participation.

And we reveal how the obstacles to entering the sport, participating recreationally, and competing in whitewater paddlesports are being removed for broader inclusion.

Part two of our five-part series on diversity, equity, and inclusion in paddlesports takes us to destination Uganda with Professional Kayaker —Sadat Kawawa.


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