An Interview with Tanya Walker of BWWK+

8-minute read

Tanya Walker is the founder of Black Women Who Kayak+ (BWWK+), an organization dedicated to getting women of color where they’re not typically seen—in outdoor spaces and connected to nature and each other.

Tanya Walker in her kayak, founder of BWWK+

Tanya Walker, founder of Black Women Who Kayak+

Like most African Americans, this Texas native didn’t grow up doing outdoor activities like kayaking and hiking. Today, though, she’s inspiring women of color and their kids to move past cultural barriers to explore and embrace the wonderful world of outdoor recreation, including paddle sports.

We spent some time with Tanya to hear her story and learn her vision for BWWK+…

Aqua Bound: What barriers do black women experience that prevent them from getting on the water in a kayak?

Tanya: A main barrier is the fear of big bodies of water. A lot of our members don’t know how to swim, which is true for African American culture in general. The percentage of those who don’t swim is very high, including among our kids, where statistics show that accidental drowning is higher than the American average.

Even for those who do swim, having water go over their heads is a big fear—not being in control of the situation. This is true even when wearing a life jacket.

Another known barrier for many people of color is looking like we don’t know what we’re doing. That’s also cultural—some people of color don’t want to be embarrassed.

These are stopping a lot of African American women from embracing what the water has to offer.

Aqua Bound: How does BWWK+ help women of color overcome these barriers?

Tanya: We had to take a hard look at those barriers and how we can use the BWWK+ platform to help women overcome these fears. We focus on everyone putting on that life jacket and having confidence in it, getting them in the water, facing their fears.

We’ve partnered with British Swim School for discounted swimming lessons for moms and kids. We know when the mother is feeling confident, she feels the space is safe. The mom will get her kids and additional family members involved. It’s been a rewarding experience—when I go to one of the swimming lessons to see the ladies learn how to swim for the very first time…when they first learn how to float or do a forward stroke…and when they’re then doing it with their kiddos.

four women in a swimming pool

Swim lessons give members confidence for paddle sports, too

My mom instilled in me at a very young age not to go in the deep end of the pool. She couldn’t swim and knew she wouldn’t be able to save me. I had a fear of not being able to touch the bottom. It’s instilled in our culture to stay where it’s safe. I thought I knew how to swim, but when you must save someone that’s a whole different ball game. There are levels of learning how to swim.

Once the ladies learned how to swim, it allowed them to feel more confident and let their guard down in order to participate in more water events. More ladies are participating in our kayak events, and they’re not as afraid of flipping because they understand what they need to do to keep afloat. Many of them have even joined a local competitive rowing club as we’ve partnered with Texas Rowing Center in Austin. The son of one of the moms participated in his first Regatta Rowing Race and competed well.

We’re collectively working to debunk the myth of what people of color will and won’t do, given the opportunity.

Aqua Bound: On your About page you say, “…typically, in our culture, people of color didn't have the exposure to those type of activities.” Can you expound on that to our primarily white audience to help us understand this better?

Tanya: In African American culture we’re taught to stay in the safe zone. Because of not feeling welcome or safe in all spaces, our parents created safety for us, but it limited most of us to where we’re afraid to pass that safety zone.

My mom’s main priority was to make sure we were safe, were educated, had food and a roof over our head. I lived in a community where we were literally in this box. I understood at a young age, “This is where we swim, hang out, eat, etc.”

We didn’t see ourselves doing these things like kayaking or hiking because we didn’t see people of color doing them. You had to be outside of that circle if you were exposed to it.

Land and water conservation is not something people of color overlook. These resources are available. We know they exist. If the space isn’t welcoming or created for all races to enjoy, we didn’t expose ourselves to it or educate ourselves about it. Our thinking was, “This is not for us.” But it is. There's no space that should be created as a one race space.

A group of women in rowing boats

BWWK+ has exposed many of its members to the sport of rowing

Aqua Bound: How did this all change for you?

Tanya: It was the summer before my 12th grade year that a white Christian youth leader, Christy, plucked me out of that bubble and exposed me to everything we’re doing now. That’s why I tell people that it’s because of her that BWWK+ was birthed.

In the African American culture, we typically see what we call The Great White Hope. We see Caucasian people go into inner city communities and pluck the kiddos of color out of that environment and expose them to the things you don’t typically see people of color doing.

It was The Great White Hope that saved me. I wouldn’t change that at all. But Christy wasn’t able to relate to me in what my situation and environment was, and in why some people of color don’t do those things she exposed me to.

So I’m hoping to bring a shift in that dynamic to where more African American people are going into those inner city communities. To show them we do kayak, we do hike, we do explore caves. They see that and hopefully will feel more empowered to do it on their own.

What we do is plant a seed of curiosity. Hopefully what will happen is that seed will take root and grow inside them. That’s what our game plan is!

Aqua Bound: What’s your vision for Black Women Who Kayak+?

Tanya: Our current chapters in the US are: Texas (Austin, Houston, Dallas), Kansas, Washington DC, Colorado, Arkansas, Kentucky and Ohio. My goal for all of these chapters is to continue the movement. What we’re doing is not just a community need, it’s a global need. I want to be able to have BWWK+ in every state that allows it, and even every country.

The goal is to target as many people as we can and expose them to the things you don’t typically see people of color doing. We have over 3,000 people collectively and are growing.

A group with a BWWK+ kayak event

BWWK+ sponsors local kayak events, along with other activities

Aqua Bound: Tell us more about the Scholarship Fund you've developed.

Tanya: What makes Black Women Who Kayak+ different from any other group is that we want our events to not be just a one-time event. We want our members to continually hold space where you typically don’t see black and brown faces so that no one is asking, “Do you belong here?” Because we do.

One of our sponsors donated the first few hundred dollars to start our Scholarship Fund, and it’s been growing since. Because of those funds and our partnerships with some amazing businesses, we’ve been able to get moms and their kids into the climbing, rowing, kayaking and swimming lesson community.

We’re not saying we need that [financial assistance] all the time, because we don’t. Some of our members can afford to participate in our events and purchase memberships. But we work with over 60% of parents who are financially challenged, so this [outdoor activities] isn’t a priority for them. But we want to provide it as an outlet for them so it can help mentally, emotionally and physically. It can help keep their whole family active.

We don’t ever want finances to stop someone from participating. We’ll do whatever we can to help. We built our own fleet of kayaks so we can go to the inner city youth and their families with kayaking tours. Then they can see the beauty of their city from a kayak, and they’ll be able to experience something without having to pay for anything.

The more people we can educate and expose to these environments, the more people we’re going to get to help us take care of it. Then everyone can continue to enjoy it.

A woman sitting on a paddle board on the water

A BWWK+ member out on her paddle board

Aqua Bound: Tell us about Alaska and your GoFundMe project.

Tanya: This is going to our biggest accomplishment so far, once we pull it off. Two of our members will attend an 8-day backpacking trip in Alaska in August (2022). We’ve partnered with NOLS, who gave us this amazing opportunity to give one member a paid expedition.

That’s wonderful! However, one of the other barriers we face is that there’s typically not another person of color participating in these events. It’s rare if you see two people of color doing these types of expeditions. So we wanted one of our admins to attend the expedition with Kim, the NOLS winner.

It’s not that Kim couldn’t have done this on her own—she would’ve. But now she’ll be able to do this with someone who looks like her. She’ll be able to relate to this person, to let down her guard with someone who can understand how she got to this spot.

Scholarships are great, and being able to financially afford a trip like this is great, too. But it’s rare. We want to make sure that both ladies get to experience what they wouldn’t see themselves ever doing…and where it’ll put BWWK+ on the map! Now we’re sending people to Alaska!

So we’ve set up a GoFundMe page to cover the cost of the expedition for Missy plus the equipment, food and lodging for them for before and after the backpacking trip. We also need to be able to cover any emergencies that may come up.

NOLS has already offered some spots for more women from BWWK+ to go on a trip with them in 2023.

4 women from BWWK+ at a ropes challenge course

BWWK+ helps women of color explore an array of outdoor activities

How to Connect with Black Women Who Kayak+

BWWK+ is always open for someone to open a chapter in their area or to join an existing chapter. All women of color are welcome as long as they’re in alignment with their vision and mission.

You can find much more information on BWWK+’s website as well as their social pages: Instagram and Facebook.

What paddle questions can we help you with today? Get in touch with our Wisconsin-based Customer Service Team: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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