A Whole New World
The vastness of Andros Island is a sight to behold. It graciously beckons enthusiasts from all over to partake in its many sporting treasures, like fly fishing, snorkeling, and boating. Considered the largest of the Bahamian islands, Andros has a relatively small population of about 8000. It makes for quiet beaches with pockets of private paradise across its 2300 square miles.
Just as the land seems untouched, the waters too are pristine. For those willing to delve deeper, scuba and deep-sea diving excursions allow an up-close view of our world below the surface. Andros’ barrier reef is an aquatic home of wonders the average person rarely encounters: coral and exotic fish, eels and dolphins, even sharks. But there are plenty of participants willing to take the plunge, including some as young as 13.
Here, among the seagrapes and coconut grove, a group of girls from Maryland and Atlanta takes their turn on an annual trip with the Black Girls Dive Foundation. They spend one glorious week bonding with one another, diving up to 40 feet in crystal blue waters, learning the history and culture of Andros, and bearing witness to the richness of life that exists all around us.
For 14-year-old Belle Williams, diving was an indelible experience, especially as seen from a vantage point beyond her own backyard. “It was kind of surreal—I wasn’t in Atlanta. I was across the water, in the Bahamas,” she reflects. The opportunity to explore the ocean and the life within it also left an impression. “You don’t really think about how cool it is down there until you actually go in. It’s seriously a whole new world.” Her feelings are echoed by other young women in the program.
“It’s very relaxing,” describes 14-year-old Alex Johnson of Maryland, when asked what it feels like to dive. “The first time I went diving here, I was slightly nervous because the waves were really choppy. But once we got under, we got to the bottom and I got to see all the fish and sea life and coral. I was really relaxed and I was like, ‘This is so cool.’”
These represent just two of the adolescent participants who make up this year’s cohort of the Black Girls Dive Foundation. Their presence in Andros is a thing of beauty. This trip is their capstone project, a celebration, and the culmination of a year spent studying and training for their diver’s certification. The organization gives needed room to young girls with a desire to explore their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) identity through marine sciences, conservation, and scuba diving. It removes barriers by sponsoring dive certification at no cost to participants, earnestly pooling together mentors and opportunities that allow the girls to see a reflection of themselves working in these fields of study. For one year—in addition to their regular schoolwork and extracurricular activities—scholars spend their Saturdays training, whether training in the pool at their local YMCA, learning to code underwater drones, or engaging in restoration efforts.
Dr. Nevada Winrow, a neuropsychologist, licensed pilot and diver, co-founded the initiative in 2017 with Taylor Symon-Winrow and it is fueled by the ongoing work of a dedicated staff of volunteers. “It's a lot of work,” says diver and BGDF STEM instructor David Smith. “But it's a very easy passion to get into because the girls are so curious and so driven. They're the ones that are really making it happen. Even on the weekends, they want to get into it; you don't have to drag them. It’s, ‘I want to go to practice. I want to go to training. I want to go.’ It's good to see them really being the driving force.”
Just a brief time spent with the foundation underscores their tight-knit bond, ready to freely explore all that life offers, together. They easily mirror an abundance felt throughout Andros: a generosity of heart and knowledge, palpable care, and an easy-going nature. They are a group that understands the importance of making space; this is the way of the Black Girls Dive Foundation.
Making it Real
Black Girls Dive is based in Maryland, with two local chapters in the Baltimore area. Additional branches in Trenton, NJ, and Atlanta, GA have helped expand their reach over the past few years. Its mission is to keep young girls and women afloat by encompassing three critical areas: narrowing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps that undermine ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity; fostering a wider sense of youth agency and voice; and cultivating the next generation of socially-conscious divers, scientists, conservationists, and planetary stewards.
Scuba diving is their unique model for addressing all three of those topics. In many ways, the program fills a formative void between school and home, combining the former’s educational value with the life skills of the latter at a pivotal stage for young women. They offer the space and time to really engage with academic interests in a setting free from assumptions or insecurities—one that remains fun. Diving becomes a playground for bringing STEM disciplines to life.
“The reaction is normally just excited because you see how we're bridging that gap between whatever they're hearing in the classroom that doesn't make sense,” says David. Smith has seen the light bulb of comprehension go off for youth when they experience concepts beyond a textbook. That is exactly what happens on this recent dive in Andros as the girls reflected on the physical impact. “They're noticing just even with their own ears. For instance, they realize that the pressure drop from the surface to the first 10, 20 feet is greater than the pressure dropped from 20 feet to 40 and 40 to 60. They're understanding their own physics lessons. Seeing it on a blackboard is one thing, but now their ears can tell the difference with their buoyancy. They're giving that tactile response to what they see on the board in class.”
They have used that same approach to grasp other concepts within the sciences and even art. Dr. Winrow can remember a time in the organization’s history when one scholar was shocked to discover that the color sequence ROYGBIV had a practical application, through a lesson covering underwater and aerial photography. The girls are trained in how to operate underwater drones and ROVs, navigate equations to get a specific eye on the subject, and then taught Photoshop editing to pull the image together. To discover that the color wheel is useful, even scientific, is a characteristic spark of the program.
That spark extends to conservation studies. As David explains, “We try to really get them involved in the local area, the local community to understand how it affects their lives. You live in a watershed. What you do in that street outside of your house, you can see how it directly affects the wildlife.” This year, the group launched a new oyster restoration initiative in Maryland to introduce BGDF scholars to historical efforts in the Severn River and other locations. The partnership represents a chance for youth to learn about the life cycle of oysters and understand the population’s decline in specific places, like Maryland. Using 3D printing, scholars build structures that enable oyster growth and flourishing. A similar initiative was undertaken with coral reef restoration.
BGDF’s approach goes beyond head knowledge to encourage their scholars to actively preserve nature—changing their perspective from simply seeing it to accepting that they are a part of its force. Program lectures are just the starting point; they plant the seeds that grow with each new encounter or knowledge gained. For instance, a course on environmental justice introduced Belle to the effect socioeconomic standing has on determining where harmful fuels are placed. “It shows you how largely lower-class areas are affected in contrast to middle-class ones or people who are paid more. It shows you the differences and how they're treated.” She says, “I want to be more active in my community now.”
Black Girls Dive encourages environmental stewardship by pointing to the interconnectedness of our world and the role we have within it. They encourage young women to make the unknown's of the natural world known and take responsibility for them.
Towards the Unknown
Preparing for a dive takes some effort, beginning with the gear. As one group of girls prepares for a morning dive at the Forfar Field Station in Andros, they begin by lugging 30-pound oxygen tanks across the sand from one side of the beach to the other, the sun shining hot behind them. Each one is responsible for carrying their own tank but the encouragement of the group is reiterated in shouts of ‘You got it.’
Alex walks us through the rest of the process, “We set up our kit 30 minutes before our dive. So we get our BCD (buoyancy compensator) ready, attach it to the oxygen tank, and then connect our regulator to the BCD. Then we add a specific amount of weights for us to go under, and we turn the air on to check everything.” Because diving is not a solitary activity, the preparation continues with your partner, or dive buddy. “After we finish setting up, we always do a buddy check, where our dive buddy checks our set to make sure everything's okay, so nothing goes wrong underwater.”
Afterward, the group piles onto the boat and heads to their diving spot. As they await their turn to jump in, the hum of the water soundtracks the remainder of the process. A time of anticipation, they flow between reviewing their dive training with instructors, cracking jokes with one another, and focusing their minds on what is to come. “Once you get all your stuff ready, you help your dive buddy get it on. Don't put your fins on until after, so you don't fall over because it's hard to walk in fins. And then, depending on where you are, [you get in.] So if you're on a boat, then you do a backward roll into the water.”
The idea sitting on the side and letting yourself fall back into the water (a backward roll) was initially terrifying for Alex. “I thought my head might hit the tank and it’s made of metal.” But after seeing other members of their group do it, including her father, BGDF dive safety officer Dwayne Johnson, she felt confident to try it for herself. And found that it actually wasn’t that bad. Really, it was fun. She continued doing it for the remainder of the trip.
Through that willingness to try and to allow their perspective to be informed by their experience, these young women are diving deeper into their environment, their community, and themselves. When witnessing their eagerness to explore the depths of the sea, I see the fearlessness growing in each of them. It is both a mindset and skill that provokes their individual agency, shaping their belief in what they can accomplish, even beyond the water.
“Your breath is the connection between your mind and your body. Out of all of the things that we need to live, it is our breath that we can do without for the shortest amount of time. So that's the thing we need to pay attention to more than anything."
Cortlandt Butts, Diving Instructor, BGDF
Diving is a holistic experience, requiring a full-circle view of physical, mental, and emotional forces. The regulation of breath in our body aligning with our presence in the water is crucial. BGDF Instructor Cortlandt Butts often teaches his group in Atlanta the importance of oneness with the water. “Your breath is the connection between your mind and your body. Out of all of the things that we need to live, it is our breath that we can do without for the shortest amount of time. So that's the thing we need to pay attention to more than anything. And when we do, our minds and our bodies come back into alignment,” he elaborates.
The unknown allows our imaginations to run wild with ways to prepare and brace for what is ahead. When we have not yet experienced something, we reflexively guard ourselves against what we fear. In other words, everything can become a thing if we let it. “Dr. Winrow helped me with some language around that,” Cortlandt shares with me. “What's really going on is, they call it your amygdala and the limbic system being hijacked, so that’s your fight or flight part of the brain. Anything that you're afraid of, your brain is amazing at projecting holographic images. So if you're already scared of a shark, it will make one.”
Each girl in the Black Girls Dive program works to calm those thoughts through every dive they take. By overcoming fear through diving, they shine a light for others who may be afraid. It signals to them that the best way to overcome perceived fears is to move towards them, not away. As Madison Sparks, a 15-year-old BGDF participant from Maryland notes, “It might be scary at first, but it's not scary once you get in the water or try it. Once you do, I feel like you wouldn't be scared at all, because you've done it.” Fellow Marylander Danielle Nelson agrees: “Don't really think about it. If you think too long, you might get even more nervous. But in the end, it's a good experience. Your instructors and your other dive buddies care for you and they're not going to let anything happen to you. Feel assured that it's going to be okay. And just try new things.”
Go Forth in Confidence
Dr. Winrow started Black Girls Dive Foundation to challenge cultural narratives that are, in part, rooted in generational fears from lack of exposure. Notions that Black people do not swim, or that Black women avoid getting their hair wet, still present a barrier to recreational aquatic activities or learning to swim as a life skill. Research has shown that Black children are five times more likely to drown than white children and that low water competency increases the risk of drowning. Add to that the fact that there is an 80% chance a child will not learn to swim if their parents are not swimmers, and the narrative is fueled.
Segregation and discrimination against Black people have historically stripped access to beaches and pools. These factors lead to underrepresentation in water sports like scuba diving and have led to an idea that we don’t swim, enjoy these sports, or are curious about water. groups like BGDF help to break down those biases and misperceptions. “We don't see ourselves doing that [swimming],” acknowledges Dr. Winrow. “It was about dispelling that myth, and part of that is showing people who look like you, who come from the same culture as you, engaged in those activities.”
These myths, coupled with false assumptions that girls are not interested in science, made it clear to Dr. Winrow that space and opportunity were needed to encourage young women’s involvement in areas of aquatic interests and study. This capstone trip sees them continue to make good on that promise, evidenced each time the BGDF scholars confidently splash into the water, equipped with rigorous training to explore an ever-widening world of possibility.
Black scuba divers have a history of connecting with one another through the formation of clubs and associations. It matters that they experience diving among their peers. These clubs offer a pathway to meet others that share similar interests and cultural experiences, as well as seek dive partners. One of the most well-known is the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS), an organization founded in 1991, of which many BGDF instructors are members. Its founders, Dr. A Jose Jones and Ric Powell were two of the earliest African Americans to become certified divers. Dr. Jones also trained Shirley Marshall-Lee, a resident of Alexandria, VA who is widely regarded as the first Black female certified diver. The girls of BGDF walk in that legacy of adventure, fellowship, and skill. Whether or not they realize it now, it will bolster them for the rest of their lives.
This is resilience for a world where race still influences the way we see and interact with one another. “It’s another dynamic that still exists, even for my NABS colleagues,” expresses Dr. Winrow, “that we still experience, where we go on trips and non-Black [divers] don’t want to dive with us. There's an automatic assumption that we're not safe or we don't know what we're doing. So we get rejected a lot. You know, when you get on a boat, you pair it with a dive buddy. And quite often, it's like we literally become invisible. We always talk about how they'll start looking around, looking through us to find a dive partner. It still goes on.”
BGDF leadership shares these stories with their scholars as a way to prepare them for what they may encounter in the world, but also to help them process those feelings and move forward knowing that it is not a reflection of who they are. Black Girls Dive is, “creating for them a safe space. They don’t have to feel like they’re not being selected there amongst their peers,” says Dr. Winrow.
Many of the girls become involved in the program through word of mouth: from other young women, through a family friend, or from counselors at school. The chance to further learn the marine sciences and to interact with people their age captures their attention. The program includes global diving trips and introductions to a community of divers that is inclusive, forever expanding their view of science and scuba diving.
While some scholars begin the cohort nervously, parents often have a greater fear of the water than their children. Dwayne Johnson desires to see the scholars’ involvement in diving capture their attention. “I'm actually trying to convince the parents to be like, ‘Look, your daughter is certified or close to it. You need to get in the water and show them that you’re about it too. Because I think they'll have more enjoyable experiences if they can dive together, right? It's one of the areas where now you’re peers, you’re dive buddies, and you have the same basic knowledge and ability to learn how to be more proficient scuba divers,” he says. That is how BGDF scholar and Baltimore native Rachel Dow sees it, “I learned that….in our group personally, we have a wide range in ages. I know that in diving, everybody is treated the same way. It's no older person or younger person because you're all the same—you're all diving into the water.”
Forming Whole Beings
Black Girls Dive Foundation is centered on belonging and being. As Rachel notes, sharing the experience of diving forms a sense of unity with your partners and belief in your own strength. “I learned to do that: trust myself. You learn to trust yourself and remember. In some situations, you've got to use your memory to help you and it teaches you how to be calm under pressure. Instead of freaking out in a situation, you learn to remember your lesson.”
Life skills like self-trust and problem solving will serve BGDF scholars on a path to achieving any number of dreams. The program has hosted over 300 participants to date, with a 100% college acceptance rate, including to the scholars’ "reach" schools. Some of the young women in the current cohort, like Danielle, Rachel, Alex, and Belle, have expressed interest in careers in the marine sciences. Black Girls Dive Foundation has been intentional in being a pipeline for young women to get into STEM and STEAM programs. “I think that’s one of the most important things,” says Cortlandt. “The second is the camaraderie that they start to build up after they’ve gone through [a program] like this. And then the empathy we build for them. I don’t want them to just do well in scuba diving, I want them to do well in the world.”
When asked about her ultimate hope for the program, Dr. Winrow reveals a similar vision of wholeness. “It is developing these, what I call whole beings: well-rounded, socially adjusted, and reflective. It’s not [just] about them going into science. It’s that whole being—to be able to walk into a room and not feel like an imposter.”
“You tell me what you need. If you need a shovel, here's a shovel. What direction are you trying to go in? I will hold you up while you go there.”
Dwayne Johnson, Black Girls Dive Foundation
Wherever they go, she imagines them being able to carry their individual stories with confidence and assurance, to be able to say, “These are my experiences, this is what I’ve walked through in life that’s made me who I am.” Their baseline will not be shaped the loudness of their insecurities or the short-sightedness of those who overlook their brilliance. From the mouths of trusted mentors come a steadfast stream of loving words to reinforce the power of the scholars’ voices, urging them to be raised. The foundation is a safe, sacred expanse to freely develop their expression and confidence.
As they grow comfortable with their identities, the program acknowledges the responsibility of the adults in their life to cultivate that outspokenness. “Year after year, we are really promoting them finding their voice, and then letting the parents and guardians know, ‘So when they find their voice, be aware that they're going to use it.’ Once they find it, it's really up to us to nurture that exploratory space,” Dwayne shares. It’s about giving them the tools they need to realize the vision they have for themselves. “You tell me what you need. If you need a shovel, here's a shovel. What direction are you trying to go in? I will hold you up while you go there.”
The value of that support is not lost on the scholars. From the Atlanta chapter, 13-year-old Bãn Lewis and 15-year-old Makena Mugambi have found a champion in Cortlandt, whom they affectionately call Coach. “He's amazing. You can vent to him and he will not stop you—he’ll listen to you,” says Makena. And with his wisdom and guidance, “He reminds me of a brother,” adds Bãn. The scholars go through many different transformations throughout the course of the program, experiencing what it is to be embraced for who they are right now and who they will become in the future.
BGDF ensures the holistic growth of its scholars by introducing them to new external spaces to compliment their internal growth. The site of their capstone projects are intentionally selected for cultural enrichment as much as diving capacity. Next year, they plan to return to Egypt on an annual trip to Sharm El-Sheikh to explore the depths of the Red Sea. Before they arrive, they will have studied Arabic, learned about cultural norms, and sewn their own hijabs. Dr. Winrow believes it is all about creating a “dialogue to see where their heads are and building on that. It definitely gives them a different perspective. They begin to treat each other differently in a better way, in respecting their differences. Everybody's different, but everyone has value, right?”
Taking the time to get acquainted with the sites they visit unearths the stories of that place, honoring its people and their journey. Andros in particular has a prominent heritage of craftsmanship. One day of the trip is devoted to studying these traditions, including the development of a vibrant, dyed fabric called Androsia. In the early 1970s, when the Bahamas gained independence, Androsia became so popular that it is now the unofficial fabric of the nation. Symbols and shapes are hand painted on strips of cotton with wax, often dyed and left on the beach to dry naturally. The bright colors are seen everywhere, usually combined with woven baskets, another revered skill. The scholars unwind at the end of the night by weaving baskets of their own, twisting straw into intricate, stunning designs.
These crafts are a work of time--they reflect the slower pace of the island. Andros is a place of rest and freedom. It dots Andros’ history. Two hours north of Forfar is the remote territory of Red Bays. In the 1800s, it was settled by enslaved peoples who escaped to the nearest Bahamian island from the Florida coast. Finding any way they could to get there, many launched themselves on self-made rafts into chilling, unknown waters. Braving hurricanes without knowledge of navigation, few made the crossing successfully. Those who did, Black Seminoles, found refuge in Andros. Their descendants still occupy the island. These waters hold a complex history of bondage and the pursuit of freedom at all costs, even to the extent of death. Many Black scuba divers studying marine archaeology are uncovering details of slave ship wrecks worldwide. It is an emotional journey that humanizes the millions of lives our history has often buried
That is a piece of the history the scholars of Black Girls Dive Foundation swim through during their time in Andros. They find themselves in and through these boundless waters; fully submerged with ample room to discover every facet of their identities. The foundation is a potent symbol of being drawn out of fear and narratives that do not match what we know to be true about ourselves. Of finding freedom for self and generations, standing on the legacy of those who first paved that road. Of being supported in not hiding who we are or what we are interested in. And of reverence for history, culture, and our vivid planet.
Their example will forever be the mark of what it means to be a Black girl who dives.