row2k Features
row2k Interview: Denise Aquino and Patricia Destine of Rowing in Color; Pt 2
June 15, 2020
Ed Hewitt,

Rowing in Color is a new-ish podcast from Denise Aquino and Patricia Destine; since they started their podcast in early March, they have posted 14 interviews with rowing people of color, and have another two dozen interviews completed and in the pipeline.

row2k wrote to Rowing in Color after their first podcast posted in early March, but life and work became a little bit complicated in the interim to say the least, and we finally connected last week. In the course of a 65' discussion we touched on a lot of subjects, and following is Part 2 of a lightly edited transcript of the conversation; read Part 1 here.

Update: Rowing in Color has created a Checklist for Change, a free resource for people to take next steps forward; click to download the checklist.

row2k: Over the years at row2k, being behind the camera since the 1990s, as Patricia said, there would be the one or two photos with a person of color. More recently, and this is not at every race, when we come home with a few thousand photos taken over 10-12 hours and dive in to get them ready to go online, we remember thinking on a few occasions "This actually looks like America. There were a lot of every type person I've ever met in my life in that 10-12 hours."

But then there are days where that is not the case, and as Patricia said, she has to take it on her shoulders to say "Okay, I'm the only person of color in this room, or on this team. I have to carry myself a certain way so that the other one or two people see me, and then a bigger group and a lot bigger group and a bigger group sees me, then we see each other, then we actually are able to have a little bit of momentum, and then we can start to feel like ourselves in this larger community."

So for people out there in that spot, I wonder if you might offer some thoughts where might they look to get the same strength that you're finding to feel included?

Then going back to when we first spoke in early March, the idea was just to get voices out there, people out there for others to see with their own eyes, and you were starting that work. Now there are others thinking along these same lines and trying to figure out what to do, maybe in programs that are held together by a few enthusiastic parents and a few rolls of duct tape. Since you have spoken to a large number of people now, I wonder if there's any low fruit that you might offer to folks who want to do something but feel like, "Oh, where do I start?"

That might be three questions, I'm not sure! So maybe the short version is, how do we get everybody to see each other? And then, have you found any low fruit in your conversations for people who are thinking, "I get it now, for sure. What should I do now?"

Denise Aquino: Mm hmm, that's a triple-tiered question. I was going to make a joke about never underestimate the power of duct tape.

row2k: It feels like we're still using the duct tape approach to fix all the problems, even these problems.

Denise: Duct tape is amazing. To answer your question, in terms of low hanging fruit, I think listening, especially listening to the people of color in your sport. We've interviewed at least 30 people by now, with a waiting list of over 50 people and growing, and story after story, people have been speaking up. People of color have been speaking up, and definitely not easily, not lightly. No one wants to play the race card. I don't want to speak for everyone, but at least from my experience and from these conversations, no one wants to play the race card. No one wants to be that person, and if it takes a person getting to speak about their race to a trusted white teammate or to a trusted white coach or to a trusted white mentor, parent, whoever, that person means what they're saying.

I think people are talking and not enough people are listening. That is one of the secondary reasons we chose podcasting as a platform, as that way it's not visual. That way people don't just say, "Oh, it's their skin color." We want people to really hear how people say their stories and the depth and meaning behind it. When you hear someone talk, there's something very intimate about the way they say things, when they take their pauses and why they're taking their pauses. When you're with them in that conversation and in that story, you can almost hear what they're thinking between thoughts, between sentences. With that, we hope that low hanging fruit is to listen.

This is part of what we are trying to offer with the podcast, and you can hear these stories. We're not slowing down. Next week, we're publishing two episodes per week in honor of pride month. We've been very purposeful not just interviewing people who are Olympians or people who are national team rowers who happen to be black. We went the other way around. We interviewed black people who happened to then reveal this great success of theirs that we didn't know about. Shout out to Daphne Marchenko, first person of color to row the Boat Race. We didn't know about the successes, and that's a problem that we didn't hear about that. These successes were attached to the people of color. So the low hanging fruit is to listen.

Photo by Claudia Loeber
Photo by Claudia Loeber

Another tangible item, which has to happen after listening, because I know people want to get the to do list. We want to check the boxes, we want to say we tried, we want to say we've done it, would be to acknowledge it with your team, your program, etc. After the 2016 election, we asked our middle schoolers, "Hey, here's the practice plan that we have for today, but if you want to sit around and just talk about what happened, give the thumbs up, thumbs medium, thumbs down." Some students opted and, you know, the students gave the thumbs up, medium, down and some students opted to work out. They just wanted to work out. That's fine. A group went to work out. Some students wanted to sit around and talk about it. Great. So, we sat around and talked about it and some students just wanted to stay quiet and not talk about it at all.

We tried to make everyone feel safe in what they wanted to do, because if you don't feel safe in the boathouse around your teammates, then you're not going to feel safe in a boat and it'll be an unproductive practice taking that boat on the water.

“So, I'd say first, listen. Second, acknowledge it and remember no one's asking you for a solution, no one's asking for a to-do. Just do those two things, and you might not have answers to give after that conversation, but you'll have the questions. And you will also have the validation that you have listened to your participants, you have listened to your participants of all backgrounds.”
Denise Aquino

So, I'd say first, listen. Second, acknowledge it and remember no one's asking you for a solution, no one's asking for a to-do. Just do those two things, and you might not have answers to give after that conversation, but you'll have the questions. And you will also have the validation that you have listened to your participants, you have listened to your participants of all backgrounds.

Patricia Destine: It's about listening and then about listening some more. It's definitely a process. It's not something that you can wake up one day and just be like, bam, boom, I solved it, especially when there are so many people who have felt oppressed or they felt a certain way about a situation for so long. They all have different views of how to go about it, and so you need to just sit down and you need to listen and then you need to let them talk it out, because only talking it out will get you to a place where everyone can agree on how they need to move on as a group. The middle schoolers were kids who were 12 to 14, and however they needed to vocalize their feelings, they vocalized it and, I think from that moment, they felt a lot more comfortable coming to us with more serious conversations.

Adults may be much harder to work with than kids, truth be told, because adults, we overthink everything and how everyone is going to feel and think about it. Kids don't care, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. In that moment, if they're frustrated, and they will express that frustration and, if they feel like you're wrong, they will share how you are wrong. As long as you set clear guidelines about how the conversation will take place, that can work.

You can have a talking stick, and as long as you have that talking stick and you pass it on, if you don't have it you don't talk. Or use a ball, because for younger kids throwing a ball around is sometimes fun. Or something squishy that they can just play around with like one of those slime gushy balls. Having that in your hands, if you're able to squeeze that in that moment when you're saying how you're feeling, it comes out, because that anxiety that you are feeling internally will then be put somewhere else. It's getting transferred into the item that's in your hand and it helps to get that conversation going because not everyone is so open. And then making sure whatever is said in that moment is not going to be taken out of context later on. You can't bash someone for how they felt in that moment. You can't bash them for their opinions.

Denise: Even in that conversation, we had a student who was very, very pro Trump, and he was able to speak. We're not here to promote our political opinions on anyone. We want people to feel safe. And we, as adults, we just don't give students and youth enough credit for setting their own boundaries for that.

It turned out that our retention for that year was between 70% and 80% which, given the population and getting around New York City, just transportation to practice, that was very high for us. So, if anyone who is listening or reading about this wants to know, are we setting a political agenda? No, everyone is allowed to say what they feel, there is freedom of speech. You're allowed to say what's on your mind. And then, how does it affect retention? It affects it positively, it affects it greatly, and I'll happily go through all my data and prove it.

row2k: We often hear people talking about under-resourced kids and the things that they can try to do, like finding transportation, or offering meals. You are doing this work with your coaching; what have you found?

Patricia: Even when I was a participant of the team, I do remember our coaches, especially if you're in a big city or your students or your participants are travelling early in the morning to attend practice, it can help to be able to give them something. If you're working with inner-city kids where there might not be food or breakfast at home, or there just might not be an adult even at home to cook them the food that might be in the fridge. It can be something as simple as a granola bar that you can give to your participants or fruit. We did fruit every Saturday and once a month we would do a smoothie day. The kids loved it because they would tell us what fruits they wanted to eat and, on that Saturday, after a really hard practice, someone would be making smoothies for them, and they enjoyed it.

Denise: It was Smoothie Saturday, and they even brought the frozen fruit, which was which was the best part.

Patricia: They would contribute themselves. They were like, "Well, I'm going to bring this" and they loved it. Sometimes it's not even saying, "Hey, we offer lunch," because I know so many programs say "We offer you dinner, we offer you this," and that is great, but you have to remember that not every student has a lack of food at home. Sometimes it's just there's not an adult to cook all the time, but you have to figure out for your own program.

We had kids who ate fine but they needed help with homework and that, right there, is a big deal, because like if you're a great athlete, you have that going for you, but then you can't really understand your math homework. So, we tried to provide the academic help, support in any way. Even as coaching staff, we were always trying to like, "Hey, if you ever need help, let us know." If you're failing a class then you're not going to be in a boat, but we can find someone at the boat house to sit down with you and help you do that homework. Every location has its own issues.

But it can be a lot simpler than that. I said this in our in other recordings of our podcast - there are people of color, they don't know rowing. It's not something they're told or taught about for multiple reasons, something as small as "I don't live near a body of water." New York City does not technically have a real body of water that people can just jump into a shell and row. Then, learning how to swim is such a big thing. Every year we had a new group of kids show up and take six or eight weeks of a swim lessons, and every year, a lot walked away. They took the swimming lessons and they quit after that. But later we would see them at the local pools in the summer, and they're swimming around. They said "Oh, yeah, I know how to swim now because, you know, you guys taught us how to swim."

row2k: Even without the rowing, that's a big job done.

Patricia: Yeah. That right there is my job. I didn't get you to row in a boat but I've given you a skill that you didn't have that can make you a better human being later on, because now you get to teach your kids how to swim. Maybe one day you will come back to rowing or maybe one day you'll bring your kids into rowing even though you didn't finish that process. So, it's just finding out what the needs of your location is.

I know there's surveys and conversations that ask, "Well, what can we do?" Do we need to put rap music on?" For us, it is like "Why would you ask that?" but I've heard coaches say "Well, maybe they just need that. We need to play music of their culture."

“It's finding out the true nitty-gritty reasons why you're lacking rowers of color, and that could simply just be of inviting people from the community to come to your boat house and then ask them, "Why don't you guys join rowing? Why is that something that you are fearful of?" ”
Patricia Destine

What does that mean? I'm black and I like country music. What does that even mean? It's finding out the true nitty-gritty reasons why you're lacking rowers of color, and that could simply just be of inviting people from the community to come to your boat house and then ask them, "Why don't you guys join rowing? Why is that something that you are fearful of?"

Because it's a fear. There's something that's stopping them and it could be something of, "Well, I don't have enough money and I don't think I fit this mold." We say, "Well, these are the steps that we could help you with in." Nothing ever fits anyone's mold until they do it and then it's like, "Oh, wow. This is actually something that works for us," and we continue in that direction.

row2k: So it's not always really capital O outreach. It's just outreach. "Hey, you want to try this sport? And how do we get you there to see if you like it?"

Denise: Yeah.

Patricia: Yeah.

row2k: We have been talking for almost an hour, but I wanted to ask you how you started rowing.

Patricia: I started rowing because Row New York showed up to my school in the summer. I did Summer Bridge. I lived in Brooklyn and went to Summer Bridge in The Heights, which is the very northern tip of Manhattan going into the Bronx, and I knew no one. I don't really know why I chose to do it. I was a Big Adventure Patricia, you know, and I wanted to try new things. Three coaches came to the school and played a video "Why We Row," and it was all these women of color, because Row New York originally began as an all-girls program and it was full of all these young women who looked like me, who looked different, who had all different backgrounds, and they're just talking about why they row. "I love it, just the sport of it."

I had a girl who sat right next to me at Summer Bridge who had tried rowing, and she spent the whole day telling me about the program. I said "I need to try it." So, I went to the boat house. I sat in a barge. I thought "This is not for me, I hate barges," but I still showed up to tryouts for some reason and still thought, "I'm going to give it a shot." It was one of those, "I did this new thing. I came all the way to Manhattan even though I go to school in the middle of Brooklyn. I might as well try more new things that freshman year." So, it was a lot of just trying a new thing and I just stuck to it.

row2k: Got it; and again, it's just 'get it in front of somebody, somehow, and they might be interested.'

Patricia: Yeah.

Denise: For me, I grew up in Yonkers, which is right above the Bronx, and I went to high school in Manhattan, commuted an hour and a half every day, which teaches you a lot about the 1 line; it's an adventure. It was like a field trip every day except not.

I took it from 242nd street to 66th Street, a long ride every day in a Catholic school girl's uniform, and then I took a bus from there to Yonkers. In my class, there were two girls who rowed at Row New York. They were part of the very first year of the program, and they were showing everyone in the class photos of them. Once I saw the photos, I had always been attracted to boats and water although I didn't really grow up around them, and I thought, that's the boating thing that deep down, I had that feeling like that's what I want.

For college I went to Binghamton University in upstate New York and I walked on. It was a club so everyone was a walk on. I started out as a rower - not as a joke! - but then became a coxswain and then laughed at the joke. I wanted to quit like after the first month but, if it wasn't for my novice coach, Karen Murphy, it would've been a very different experience. I'm so grateful to her for that and I haven't left the sport in over almost 15 years now. So, it's been a wild ride. It's taken me to Alaska. It's taken me Harlem River and …

row2k: Did both of you see rowing on the Harlem River when you were uptown?

Denise: The very few times I felt like splurging on Metro North, you could actually see the Peter J. Sharp Boat House for just a glimpse if you're like focusing just hard enough. I remember seeing those really long boats and I thought, "Why is that there? What is that? It looks like a toothpick." I remember seeing it but I didn't connect the dots because I didn't see people on the water, I just saw the boat house and the boat.

Patricia: My high school was literally on the very top part of Manhattan, so if I looked out the window I could see the river and I could always see Columbia's rowing team early in the morning. It looked like a speck going by, but it was always so interesting because I was like, "Oh, my God, guys, I do that. I do that." They would say "That's cool that you do that." Actually, it was the only way I could explain to people what I did, because everyone assumed I did kayaking.

row2k: We first spoke right after your first podcast, and now, weeks later, you are carrying a real flag for folks. You don't seem to be too beat up by the task, unless I'm wrong.

Denise: We're happy we made a mission statement. Making that mission statement and solidifying why we're doing this really helps to ground us every time that we sit in front of a microphone or sit in front of a Zoom to interview people. For the last 15 years, I clicked on row2k just about every single day, and now I get to talk to people that just, you know, I can be star struck by, but understanding what the priority is and making sure that I understand this platform and know not to abuse it; just trying to stay grounded. Even though our age difference is 10 years, Patricia's really good at telling me to take a break. "Maybe you should just take a self-care day, you know?" So, it just speaks to our relationship. I'm so grateful.

row2k: Patricia, you are 23 and in the same spot and seem to be holding up fine. I hope that's the case?

Patricia: I think I'm fine. I'm 23, and I still get shocked by seeing a new Instagram follower, like, "Oh, my God!" (laughs) But that means another person has heard this message and has heard these stories, which means another person is going to feel supported and cared for and understood in a way that they probably didn't feel yesterday or this morning when they woke up or whenever they see this." I've had people who message at 2:00 a.m. to say "Thank you so much." I have to reply. I know it's 2:00 a.m.. but I have to reply because, this is amazing, and yeah, we're here for you. We're doing the job. Don't worry, our next generation will fix this, and diversity will be a thing. I don't want to look at another USRowing or anything rowing magazine and just not see a face of color anymore. I want front page cover. Let's have someone there. You know?

row2k: Yeah. That's awesome. So, is there anything else you guys want to know? Because it seems like a good spot to end on your last two comments.

Denise: We're so grateful for the attention that we've been getting, although we understand that, unfortunately, because of the events that are happening in our country and going viral - these things have been happening for years, they're just now being videoed - the fact that it takes catching people's eye in order for us to garner this attention - like Patricia said, this should've been done years ago.

We're grateful for the attention but also we want to acknowledge and recognize that we're behind. It's a we - not just Rowing in Color, not just people of color - but it's a We responsibility, and we are like a team, just like rowing. Together everyone achieves more. We need to do it because you're only as strong as your weakest rower. There's no star in the boat. The boat either moves together or it doesn't. It's a collective responsibility and we're grateful for the attention and the platform, but we want to make sure that everyone understands it's a collective responsibility.

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