For Brannon Johnson, rowing isn’t just a form of exercise – it’s a way to learn how to live a great and fulfilled life.
“Rowing really is a vehicle to a better life, and I want to make sure that I am doing everything I can to be a bridge so that other people can have those same opportunities,” she says.
Brannon is the founder and head coach of BLJ Community Rowing, an all-outdoor rowing community based in Philadelphia. She recently sat down with Hydrow Athlete Aquil Abdullah to discuss race in rowing, nurturing a community, and making the sport of rowing more accessible for everyone.
AA: So Brannon, tell us a little bit about BLJ Community Rowing.
BJ: Sure. The mission of BLJ Community Rowing is to provide access to the elite sport of rowing by removing boundaries, creating opportunities, and really, really focusing on community. I started by teaching free learn-to-row clinics and learn-to-row classes. We started seeing this interesting growth. People wanted to participate; they wanted to get behind this grassroots idea and help it build and grow.
We don't have walls, so we are outside all the time. Not having walls made us really build our organization differently. Our coaches are either collegiate rowers or training for the national team, so we are sponsoring them. We support them and we get them whatever they need. And what is interesting in the working environment is our masters really mentor them. So even if they don't continue to row, they’ve really helped the coaches kind of shape their lives. What I find fascinating is it's an exchange where we're teaching people how to row, and they're teaching them about life, right?
AA: Very cool. How did you get into rowing in the first place?
BJ: In middle school, I did an inner-city learn-to-row camp. Our parents made us do non-traditional things, because I wasn't interested in it at all at first. The head of Vesper Boat Club happened to be at the end of the camp race, reached out to my dad and said, "She really needs to continue in the sport.” I rowed all the way through high school and went to the University of Texas on a rowing scholarship.
Through rowing, I really got to see the world. I got to travel extensively and it has afforded me so much. And the problem for me being black and growing up in a very black space was that I didn't see anyone who looks like me.
Bonds forged in fire
AA: When did it hit you that, oh my goodness, this rowing world is so segregated. And how did that provide you with the inspiration of “I'm going to change this”?
BJ: It wasn't like this light bulb like, oh my gosh, this is everywhere. I think it was more gradual. Whenever you're going through all the regattas in high school, and then you're going through all of the regattas in college, and then you're going to international regattas. And I was like “Oh. There’s that.” You develop that thing in the pit of your stomach that you learn to live with.
You really learn to live with it, but you notice that you're “the other” all the time. And I think it wasn't until I was home back in Philly, and I started to coach on the side, that I started to have conversations, because I was getting in a quad with three other people. That's how I was teaching. That's how I was instructing, coaching. And I was able to introduce a different perspective.
The conversations, those initial conversations really stuck with me. People would just be like, "Brannon, you really are a great coach. I never thought about this. I never thought about it this way." They were just social conversations, conversations about the social economic ramifications of race and poverty. This was while sitting in a quad. Those conversations will always stay with me. Those people that were in that boat still row with me to this day, 11 years later.
AA: Wow. What I'm hearing is that the community actually dropped this seed into your head and you picked up on it.
BJ: I got clearer whenever I started to see people coming back and asking more questions, and asking me what my plan was. People started to say to me "You should do something with this."
We had riots and we had a lot of tension in Philly. A lot of racial tension in Philly. You can't shove and leave that on the dock. You have to talk about it, and we had to talk about it because we have white people and black people. We had to have some tough conversations. We had to grow. And it's not easy. It's painful. We had tears and we had arguments. That gets very difficult. But I think those are bonds forged in fire, right?
“Success is authenticity”
BJ: I see us really being a place where people can see how rowing can work and be successful, and be different. It's a very black space, but ‘black owned’ does not mean ‘black only’. We have a lot of white people who participate and have donated. I see us really being that organization where people are like, “Okay, you don't have to have this grandiose pool house or this amazing structure to get into rowing.”
The boat house model is difficult to maintain. I think it's also dated. No one really wants to pay a huge amount of money to join this elite club. It's just the times have changed and you have to stay relevant. We do a lot on social media, we do a lot of things digitally. Like really think differently, partner with the community, get people going and grow from there.
For me, success is engagement. For me, success is authenticity. Success is mutually beneficial relationships. There are people from completely different backgrounds, different sides of Philadelphia. We have people come from very wealthy areas and very poor areas. They get in the boat together and they shove. And for that 45 minutes to an hour, they're a team.
AA: If people want to do more, want to see what it is you're doing at BLJ Community Rowing and get involved and see your vision of rowing without borders, what can they do?
BJ: If you’re ever in Philadelphia, come and see us. We love putting people out on the water. We are one of the only organizations where you can sign a waiver and get in a boat right then and there. In the summer time we get a lot of vacationers that come in. That is important to us.
Donations also always help. We need equipment. We're outside all the time, so our equipment takes a beating. Also reach out if you have a skillset or a professional skill you’d like to donate. We really are a grassroots group, and it takes a village. It really does.
AA: It's been great getting the chance to talk to you, Brannon. Thank you for your time today.
BJ: Thanks for having me!
For more information and to donate to BLJ Community Rowing, click here.