In April 2022, People of Colour Paddle was established on social media channels with the ambition of connecting paddlesports with more ethnically diverse communities, and to improve the representation of those communities across coaching, volunteering and community leadership. We checked in with founder, Adya Misra, to chat about inclusion and diversity, and find out more about her plans for People of Colour Paddle.
I am a British Canoeing paddlesports coach, and while this is not my day job, paddling has become so much more than a hobby. I volunteer at Liverpool Canoe Club, where I am the lead for all stand up paddleboarding activity and spend most of my time coaching. I spend quite a lot of time on my board, but I’m a sea-kayaker at heart and love going on long expeditions in my boat.
I wasn’t the adventurous type at all and started kayaking at the age of 28 after a persistent friend wanted me to try it. My first time in a kayak was actually a tandem kayak because I was anxious about being slow and getting left behind. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I started kayaking in Lake Mälaren in Stockholm when I lived there and when I returned home there was a lot to learn about kayaking on the Tidal Thames. Eager to get better, I did my 2 and 3 star awards which spurred me on to undertake my first steps into coaching in 2017. I had no idea what I was doing to be honest, because the entry-level qualification I had, ceased to exist a few months after, as did any opportunities for coaching. I had hoped to assist on courses, and help out on club nights or events but I never got the opportunity. It was only in 2020, after paddling with Liverpool Canoe Club for more than a year, that I had the opportunity to lead groups on the water. I started developing my coaching practice and I’m pleased to be developing as a coach.
It is hard for me to think of my life now without paddlesports, or any outdoor activity, despite having had little or no exposure to it as a young person. Paddling is an anchor, a safe space for me, as it has remained one of my only constants through many changes in life.– Adya Misra
I was a British Canoeing ShePaddles Club Champion in 2020-2021 and I was passionate about getting more women involved in paddlesports. My experience during this time helped me realise that our efforts to increase diversity need to be multifaceted. ShePaddles focusses so much on girls and women, but the wider community doesn’t consider racial or ethnic diversity, neurodiversity, disabilities or diversity in body size. I spent all of 2021 thinking about whether it is enough that I am a paddlesports coach, or is it also important that others who look like me get to that place too? Reflecting on being the change I’d like to see, I felt that being truly inclusive means I cannot stop once I reach my goals.
In 2022, I was honoured to be invited to the Outsiders Summit with Phil Young (The Outsiders Project) and Soraya Abdel-Hadi (All the Elements) where I had the opportunity to meet leaders from other sports changing the narrative around participation in the outdoors. The energy during that weekend gave me the courage to put in place what I had been thinking about for so long.
The vision of this initiative is to normalise the participation of people of colour in paddlesports within the UK with the view of connecting urbanised communities back to nature. I use the word “normalise” instead of “inspire” because I don’t want people to be like me, I want them to have a much better experience and a range of opportunities that I didn’t have. Also, I would like to see a future where women of colour can do paddlesports and are encouraged by their family and the wider community.
Through this work, I hope to be able to get new people trying paddling, falling in love with it like I did and helping them progress to leadership roles within paddlesports. This is essentially a mentoring program and in order to get there, we need to build our communities within paddlesport.
Everyone I ask will have a different answer about any barriers that exist. There are some themes that I think are important and need to be addressed by us as a paddlesports community. I have been paddling since 2014 and my impostor syndrome grew stronger as the years went by. There were small things that made me feel like I couldn’t be a paddler; seemingly trivial comments by fellow paddlers convinced me I wasn’t going to last in paddlesport and this was maybe just a passing phase. I also nearly gave up kayaking in 2019 after a terrible experience on a course.
At current count, there are very few people of colour who retain prominent leadership/coaching roles within the paddlesports community. This lack of representation from Asian, South Asian, Afro-Carribean diaspora in turn reduces likelihood of people from these backgrounds attempting to try paddlesports because they don’t see faces that look like them represented. As an example, it's hard to find people of colour represented on instagram pages that belong to paddling brands or paddlesport organisations. I don’t know how many look at these pages and maybe think, paddlesport is just for white folks.
We also have issues within our communities that may hinder us. Lack of generational wealth or not as much free time means that our parents didn’t always have the opportunity to introduce us to outdoor activities. There is such a big focus on being financially stable and staying academically focussed to get good jobs, paddlesports doesn’t feature in conversation. Going back to what I said earlier, no one that looks like us does any paddlesports so why should we?
Practically this means that people of colour remain disconnected from our blue spaces, and have reduced opportunities to become involved in larger conversations around environmental issues that affect paddlers. Climate change affects all of us, yet many of us are not part of the conversation or action.
In my view, this also means that people of colour remain bereft of the beneficial effects of paddlesports: increase in self-confidence, better body image, increased well-being, opportunities to develop leadership skills. We can absolutely get these from any sport, but since I’m a paddler I like to promote its benefits to everyone
I would love it if any clubs or commercial paddlesports providers who are interested in diversifying their member/customer base and have the capacity to do this to please get in touch so we can work together. This is not a commercial project for me, and I am only interested in mentoring people of colour so they can navigate paddlesports with confidence. Other paddlers can demonstrate allyship by publicly challenging those who may criticise this work or project.
If you are a person of colour and already doing some paddling (SUP, canoe, kayak) I am heading to Caldon Canal in Leek on 3rd July for our first social. This is a beautiful spot to enjoy some quality time in nature and not worry about tides, wind etc. The event is free, but I need to know if you are coming. Head over to my Eventbrite to register.
You can follow the journey of People of Colour Paddle on social media:
Facebook: People of Colour Paddle