Environmental educator Chandrika Francis makes the swimming pool a safer place for marginalized groups and remakes a 30-foot bus into her dream home on wheels.
As students approach the pool at Oshun Swim School in Renton, Wash., it’s not unusual for pulses to quicken and for breath to catch. This is no ordinary fear of water for the dozen assembled African American women. “There are layers of historical and cultural trauma around water, in which black families don’t feel safe in the water or near the water,” says Chandrika Francis ’10, who founded the school last year to exorcise dread and make swimming joyful to her nervous charges.
“My biggest goal is for our relationship with water to be healed,” Francis says. She named the school Oshun after Orisha, the West African Yoruba deity of rivers and lakes, who represents pleasure, healing, and “all of the things that make life worth living.”
Culturally, swimming pools represent “one of America’s most racist institutions,” as environmental writer Brentin Mock observed in 2014. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination on the basis of race, the stigma of segregated swimming pools is not so easily vanquished. A 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation shows that 64 percent of black children have no or low swimming ability, compared with 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of white children.
“There’s this whole history of violent exclusion, and also a complete lack of access to water spaces,” Francis says. “It goes all the way back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage. There have been generations told, ‘Stay away from water, it’s not safe.’ ”
For most of Francis’ swimmers, classes are a fish-out-of-water experience, “like going to a different planet,” she says. “It’s their first time being submerged in water. There’s a lot of work around just getting them comfortable putting their face in the water, getting them comfortable with the buoyancy. It’s so different when there’s no gravity.”
Growing up in Oakland, Francis had no such trepidation: Her father is from the Caribbean, where he regularly swam in the ocean; her mother grew up in Maine, where she swam in the Atlantic and in the state’s bountiful lakes. It’s a passion that effortlessly transferred to their daughter. “Water has been a complete joy for me,” Francis says.
She adds that her time at Oxy—where she majored in urban and environmental policy—helps her relate to her students. The College inspired “all my levels of identity—a person of color, being queer, and being a woman. It’s essential to the work that I’m doing—having that strong sense of identity.”
Since graduating from Oxy, Francis has been supporting black and indigenous people of color to reconnect with the Earth. As a Fulbright Scholarship recipient in 2010, she taught English to middle and high school students in Spain. She later worked as a tutor and mentor at an underserved public high school in New Orleans in a program called City Year Louisiana, and led backpacking trips as a mountain instructor with the YMCA’s Bold & Gold program in Washington state.
[The College] “inspired all my levels of identity—a person of color, being queer, and being a woman. It’s essential to the work that I’m doing—having that strong sense of identity.”
More recently, she studied environmental education through the University of Washington’s graduate program at IslandWood, where she planned and implemented four-day science education immersion experiences for fourth- to sixth-graders from around the Puget Sound.
In spring 2018, after reaching out to more than a dozen pools looking for a space to teach classes a couple of nights a week, she started Oshun Swim School at an aquatic center in the Seattle suburb of Renton. To date, 50 women have taken part in Oshun’s eight- to 12-week classes.
Among Francis’ students is her partner of almost three years, Syesha Thomas, who compares her initial fear of water as akin to being locked in a closed room with no way out. But Francis has created a safe and nurturing environment, she says, and now she can swim half a pool length.
“You feel protected and supported, and your guard can come down,” says Thomas. “That allows you to take more risks, because you trust everybody in the class.”
Francis and Thomas live in a 30-foot converted U.S. Forest Service bus that the couple found on Craigslist and bought in November 2017 for $7,000. Their “tiny house on wheels” bears a license plate that reads “WAKANDA.” The interior is resplendent with acacia hardwood floors and walls made of recycled pallets. The bus has a water tank that feeds a sink and shower, and there is a composting toilet.
So far, they’ve taken their bus as far away as Joshua Tree (roughly 2,500 miles round-trip), and have made many friends in the “Skoolie” community, as it’s known. But it’s the coast and its endless oceanic vistas that beckon. “It’s about living the life you’ve always dreamed about,” Francis says. “Being able to drive along, and pull up next to the water—enjoying the beautiful breeze and watching lapping waves from your living room—is a truly liberating experience.”