“River clean-up and a new mission to attract diversity have won Pittsburgh rowing national acclaim. But opening boat seats to new faces is proving easier than filling them.”
A diversity task force led to the addition of African Americans on the board and the hiring of Robert Chambers III, an African American whose position as Three Rivers’ director of community programs is funded with support from the Endowments.
“That was very important because everyone who walked into the boathouse saw visibly that African Americans were welcome,” says Pittsburgh attorney Steve Irwin, who served as the club’s president for three years and still sits on the board. “It’s those kinds of what may seem to be symbolic gestures that send a signal to the African-American community that rowing is open to everyone.”
Improving board and staff diversity turned out to be the easy part. The daunting chal- lenges began when Chambers tried reaching out to schools, community groups, churches and the business community to find minority students and adults willing to give rowing a try.
He met with coaches. He took rowing machines to lunch rooms. He talked to civic groups. He got a lot of funny looks and a few pointed comments from people, including African Americans, who told him they didn’t think rowing was a sport for black people.
“It was really tough at first, because they’d never been exposed to rowing,” says Chambers, who had not rowed himself before joining the Three Rivers staff. “Finally, I began to develop relationships with people who helped me get in the doors.”
One day he met Katy Samuels, a gym teacher at Westinghouse High who was a Schenley High graduate, knowledgeable about Pittsburgh’s black community and city young people. Best of all, she had rowed in college and wanted to get some of her students
involved in the sport. With support from Westinghouse Principal Marilyn Barnett, Samuels convinced several students, including Adams, to give rowing a try. She ended up coaching the All-City Crew.
Chambers’ efforts also have led to the formation of a rowing program at Imani Christian Academy, a predominantly African- American school in Penn Hills. Just about to start its second year, the men’s four-oared shell crew placed in the middle of the pack during several scholastic regattas this spring.
“At least we didn’t finish dead last, which was really significant for a boat full of guys who hadn’t stepped into a boat of any kind [before joining the crew],” says Carol Wharton, a fifth-grade teacher at Imani who has rowed for three years with the club’s Corporate Crew program. She helped organize the Imani crew, and coaches the team along with support from Chambers and Three Rivers.
The club’s efforts to attract African- American adults has proven even more diffi- cult, in part because boating has not typically been a popular activity in the black com- munity. Some have come to dabble, but few have stayed on.
“It’s not easy to attract people who have no idea what rowing is and who haven’t really been around water that much,” says Mort Stanfield, one of the recent additions to the Three Rivers board.
Stanfield, who is executive director of Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh- Allegheny County, and the program’s state director, says he believes rowing is a valuable addition to the list of options available to inner-city kids. It’s something that can be
learned at any age, and it can lead to academic opportunities through athletic scholarships. But he has never expected diversity to come easily to organized rowing.
“You can’t be looking for quick returns when it’s really something that takes a long time to develop,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy.”
Many at Three Rivers are quick to point out that African-American rowers aren’t entirely without positive role models. Aquil Abdullah of Washington, D.C., was the first black national champion single sculler in 1996.
Abdullah, who has come to Pittsburgh several times to help train rowers of all races, says it’s critically important for organizations
like Three Rivers to continue pushing for diversity in rowing because of the ripple
effect it has in other areas of the larger society. “Most of the jobs I’ve had have been
through connections with rowing,” he says during a break from training with the U.S. National Team in Princeton, N.J. “So the opportunity is there not only for success in the sport but for success in life…. I think that Three Rivers has been an excellent model for trying to bring diversity to the sport of rowing.”
By many measures, the diversity program at Three Rivers has made progress. Programs like the All-City and Imani crews are slowly growing. Young rowers of color like Christal Adams have found new opportunities and new motivation through rowing. But progress has been slower than Three Rivers Rowing and The Heinz Endowments had hoped.
Marge Petruska, director of the Endowments’ Children, Youth & Families Program, says she has learned along with Three Rivers that diversity efforts in an
activity so unfamiliar to the minority community can be filled with obstacles.
“Yes, goals were set specifically for African- American and young women, and the club has fallen short in reaching many of them, but not for lack of significant effort,” she says. “But look at where the bar has been set nationally. We have high expectations, and
I believe we are among the pioneers in this effort. It’s a learning experience for the field that we’re willing to partner with them on…. If, five years from now, you only see white men on the rivers, then they haven’t been success- ful and we’ll have to go back and think about other approaches,” says Petruska. “What is clear is that for many groups that have traditionally been excluded, they have found success in bringing them in and building programs, and they have made real progress.”
Rowing is a sport that teaches valuable lessons, especially to young people who may be more accustomed to negative behavior, Petruska says. “It teaches them about their bodies — about going beyond preconceived limitations and about getting their bodies
in sync with others. It teaches them about team competition, about responsibility, showing up on time, about achieving success through hard work,” she says.
For Westinghouse Principal Barnett, any sign of progress is a good thing. “They love it,” she says of her students in the rowing program. “We just need to keep finding ways to expose more of our students to it. Having Three Rivers and a person like Rob Chambers has made a tremendous difference. It’s a slow process, but it’s going to happen. I know it.”