Swim England

A nation swimming

Open Minds Active breaking barriers but investment and increased access needed

Open Minds Active have been breaking down barriers to participation since May 2020 – but investment into facilities and increased access to more blue spaces is needed to ensure ‘everyone is included’.

Based in Bristol, Open Minds Active are a social impact organisation, set up to promote positive mental health and wellbeing through access to the outdoors.

Swim England’s Value of Swimming research found that swimming is shown to have a positive impact on feelings of social inclusion.

In particular, there is evidence of the value of outdoor swimming for developing feelings of belonging and a sense of being part of a community of outdoor swimmers.

Open Minds Active run adult learn to swim sessions for women of colour and to date, have taught more than 150 women to swim in a local pool.

The organisation also work with local partners to facilitate welcoming outdoor swimming spaces during the summer to introduce the women to open water swimming.

Many of the women referred to the project are new to the city and are often refugees or seeking asylum.

Being part of this swim programme has helped them gain confidence in settling into their new surroundings and reduced social isolation by forming new friendships.

Those responsible for forming Open Minds Active, including founder Maggy Blagrove, were aware of the lack of cultural diversity within open water swimming and have made it their mission to break down barriers to accessing blue spaces.

Many of the women attending the sessions are from the Muslim community and swim teacher Wafa Suliman, a former competitive swimmer in her home country of Sudan, understands the barriers they face.

A great journey

Speaking to Swim England, Wafa said: “We just had a chat about our dreams of having women only swimming.

“Maggy said she’d be happy to see more diversity in open water. But then we realised that most Black people don’t know how to swim because of different barriers and challenges.

“So we started learn to swim with 12 ladies. We started as one session and now we do a couple of sessions.

“Each session has 20 ladies, so we get around 40 ladies in two different sessions. We start from zero, we teach them how to swim and then gradually, in the last year, we started to take them to try open water in summer.

“We engage them in different activities like workshops, walking, yoga, swimming – and they’ve done some surfing as well – so it’s really a great journey.”

Wafa has been swimming since the age of five and after experiencing the benefits of the water herself, she enjoys seeing the positive impact it is having on others.

She added: “Swimming has always been part of my identity, but it was a real minority of people [from ethnically diverse communities] who sent their kids to learn to swim.

“Now, this fact is really being changed. It’s exciting for me because I can feel it changing.

“It’s changed a lot and we hear a lot of good stories and a lot of positive feedback. For some ladies, this could be with their mental health and their personal life issues.

“Here, I feel like there’s more voices. The Value of Swimming event made me feel like ‘yes, there’s a lot of people who care’.

“Diversity is very important and I feel like part of society. My kids are growing up here and swimming is part of UK culture – in the school curriculum for example.

“It’s a life skill and they need to learn it, which I’m proud of.”

Space and time for everyone

A key element of the work done by Open Minds Active is about facilitation of safe, inclusive spaces where women with cultural sensitivities can learn to swim in an environment that is friendly and fun.

Support is needed from the Government in order for women, children and everyone to continue learning this vital life skill and enjoying the benefits of both indoor and outdoor swimming.

That’s why Swim England’s latest Value of Swimming report is calling for long-term capital investment from the Government in the renewal of public leisure infrastructure to provide a network of modern, inclusive and environmentally sustainable facilities for local communities.

Greater access to outdoor blue spaces such as rivers and lakes is also needed, alongside the designation of 200 more bathing waters by 2030 and quicker action to improve the health of our nation’s waters.

In her own message to government, Wafa said: “Please be inclusive everywhere. Make sure you have space for women only, make sure you have space for everyone.

“Understand the reasons, do research, dig more, see the barriers and challenges, and make sure that you have space and time for everyone.

“We need to make sure everyone is included.”

Click here to find out how you can support Swim England’s ‘Don’t Put a Cap on Swimming’ campaign and you can read the full Value of Swimming report here.

Image credit: This Expansive Adventure