Brick City Rowing and community partners at a Riverfront Cleanup on May 8th, 2021
Craig White has been putting in the work of bringing rowing to places and kids who would not typically even be exposed to rowing, let alone excel; in our feature St. Benedict's Prep Rowing: A Crew Grows in Newark, we talked with Craig about his return after rowing in college to his high school alma mater to teach math, how an student eager to row asked White to start a program and would not take no for an answer, and how St. Benedict's rowing program has grown to boat multiple eights every weekend.
As rowing has struggled to be more inclusive over the past year, White has appeared on numerous Zoom presentations, did webinars and outreach, and talked to many organizations and individuals looking for ideas and help on what they could do to attract and encourage underserved youths.
Small and sometimes promising progress was made by the folks who sought White's counsel, but as time went on, White started to feel like he needed to do something himself - and meanwhile, his team could not practice at all.
"What pushed me over the edge was Covid - we spent the entire pandemic without access to the water because we did not have a dock to go out and practice," White recalls. "It was soul-crushing and frustrating to watch other teams literally a couple miles away who had dock access go out and practice their sport." (St. Benedict's rows out of the Kearny High School boathouse, which was closed to all teams - Kearny, Nutley, and Belleville - for most of the last year.)
"Marry that with the Black Lives Matter movement and what happened to George Floyd last year, and it made me wonder why doesn't this piss off others as much as it does me, and what are we going to do to fix it?," White continued.
"The only answer was to put our community in a position where we don't have to ask and are not beholden to anyone to do and love this sport, to create an organization dedicated to making sure our kids and families have access no matter what."
Thus was born the non-profit Brick City Rowing, through which White hopes to bring the sport to the city of Newark - with the first and primary goal being to get a dock in the water on the city's waterfront.
White began to pursue a similar idea back in 2015, but his experience in recent months and growing support for the mission created a sense of urgency, as well as agency.
"I go to monthly DEI meetings, and we talk about a lot of things, but even now people are still struggling to introduce the sport to young people of color. It's still a pressing issue, and it became one of those things where you get tired of sitting on the sidelines what do to and finding the right words to explain how to do the work. It is very difficult to teach people how to engage a community, especially if you don't live there, and for me it's much easier to show people by starting with my own home. Which means maybe you have to dedicate your life to it to make it real."
White already founded and coaches the rowing program at St. Benedict's where he also teaches math. The program is one of the largest teams at the school by numbers, but White began to think even that was not enough.
"Long term it does not make sense for us to work with just the 60 kids on our team, and even if we doubled our team, it's not enough," he said. "Newark is the biggest city in New Jersey, and for our school of 1000 kids in a city of 300,000 people to be the only ones with access to rowing is insane.
"I started to feel that, if you have the knowledge and the ability to facilitate access, you have to do it. Because then you are talking about meaningful change not just for the kids and families I have the pleasure of working for at St. Benedict's, but really being able to get kids and parents in the city involved and out on the water."
St. Benedict's at the 2021 Stotesbury Cup Regatta
When we spoke in January, White and his staff noted the lack of options for St. Benedict's graduates who did not want or could not afford to leave the area to go to a rowing school.
"We could get more high school kids and even college kids out on the water," he notes. "If there is space and a dock, Brick City Rowing could also put NJIT or Seton Hall or Rutgers Newark in a position to have a program," he said. "Then if our kids want to stay home for college for whatever reason, to be close to family or they can't afford to leave the state, they can still have access to the sport.
"Then could walk down to the riverfront and get in a boat, and get what tons of other communities have access to."
Brick City Rowing is currently in discussions with municipal leaders from the City of Newark, the Ironbound Community Corporation, the Riverfront Steering Committee, and others to identify a potential site. But For 2021, White's "Phase One" goal is clear and arguably modest, which is the installation of a dock in the city. "When that happens, my feeling is that it's open season," he says. "We can complete basic capital improvements to the site. We can put up trees, we can have boats there, and we can purchase the necessary equipment to get people from our community on the water and excited about having the sport in their lives.
"Having that dock in is the one thing that will let us run a meaningful program, even to host a regatta. Having that dock in is it. Then after that there is a bigger story."
The dock, which White hopes to be 300 feet long, is estimated to cost in the $300-400,000 range, and White wants it to be something the community can be proud of and attracted to.
"I want our community to be engaged. I want the community to have pride in their involvement. I want the mayor and our municipal leadership to be proud of the work we are doing for the city. It's about rowing, but it is also about facilitating access to the riverfront for our community organizations, families, and others. I want Brick City Rowing to give meaningful support to everyone we meet."
Newark got the name Brick City in the 70s when a number of tall, mostly brick housing projects were built. White wants to reclaim the name for the better.
"The name of our non-profit is a form of reclamation for me," he said. "Whenever I travel, people often have bad things to say about my home, about Newark, and to link that phrase to something incredibly positive, so that when people Google Brick City they see pictures of our kids being successful and going to college and opening doors for themselves, and a community coming together and doing positive things on the riverfront, that is what we want. To help reclaim the name for all the beautiful and positive things about Newark."
Find Brick City Rowing at:
- Brick City Rowing website
St. Benedict's training with BLJ Community Rowing in September 2020