Of Wakanda and Water

By Andy Faught

Environmental educator Chandrika Francis ’10 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.

One such student, Kayla Huddleston, has avoided water her entire life. “The most I would ever do is get my feet wet,” says Huddleston, who coordinates a graduate program at Seattle University. “I had never fully immersed myself in a body of water prior to swim class. There’s definitely anxiety, because it’s completely new territory. It’s like learning a new language, but your life depends on it.”

Having now taken two of Francis’ classes to confront her fears headlong, Huddleston can dive to the bottom of the pool, and she considers herself “fully comfortable” in water. “Water is now more sacred than it ever has been,” she says. “I view water, and swimming, as a life-affirming and life-giving ritual and practice.”

“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 trepidations: 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.”

Francis was set on enrolling at an East Coast college when she grudgingly acceded to her mother’s on-a-lark suggestion that they visit Oxy. “I told her that I’d do it but that I know I’m not interested,” she recalls. But an overnight stay in Pauley Hall—where diversity and multiculturalism are promoted and nurtured—opened her eyes. “People were so friendly and seemed genuinely interested in me. I could feel the sense of community there.”

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.

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. (The school also caters to nonbinary students who may feel self-conscious in a pool because they do not identify as exclusively male or female.)

Francis starts lessons outside the pool, leading a group meditation and reducing stress with games. Throwing a ball, for example, naturally relaxes people and “all of a sudden they’re jumping around and not even thinking about” their fears, she says.

She also hosts “sound and soak workshops,” in which participants listen to meditative music in settings that include a hot tub and sauna. Separate water workshops provide “tips, tricks, and practice needed to be comfortable with submerged movement and play.”

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, who completed her J.D. in 2017 from Seattle University School of Law and is now a sales leader at Amazon Web Services. “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 (“The first seven feet are just the hood,” Francis says) 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. A wood-burning stove wards off the Northwestern chill.

Francis got the idea for such a lifestyle after following tiny house movements on Pinterest, Instagram (on which she posts her own bus-life musings), and on TV shows. “When we got it, it had all the seats in it, and the demolition took so much more work than we ever could have imagined,” Francis says.

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.”

Faught lives in Fresno—but not on wheels.