A conversation with the founder of Swim to Empower

Named for the Greek for “freedom,” Eleuthera is 110 miles long and just a mile at its widest. To the east is the occasionally wild Atlantic, to the west a shallow, almost-always-calm Caribbean Sea … waters on both sides that literally beg to be swum.

Unless, of course, you don’t know how to swim. Which is the case for 80 percent of the islanders. Taught to be scared of the ocean, even a percentage of the fishermen who make their living off the sea can only dog paddle.

A pair of young American women are trying to change those numbers, founding Swim to Empower, an effort to teach people of all ages – teachers, artists, parents, even fishermen — to swim.

Filmmaker Jen Galvin documented the efforts of Swim to Empower in her movie Free Swim and book We, Sea. “Having grown up in the U.S. on Long Island, I was aware of the questions about minorities and the swimming gap and had wondered why some kids in my neighborhood didn’t know how to swim.”

Her documentation has helped lead to the program’s expansion.


“Through the power of learning to swim the story promotes discussion about the swimming gap and ignites broader questions about health and conservation,” says Galvin. “What might be the unexpected power of learning to swim? What is at stake when people are unable to connect with their environment beyond purely using it for utilitarian gain? And, when we come to better understand our environment will we value it, and ourselves, more? For many, swimming translates into a new perspective – a ‘sink or swim’ mixed with a ‘there’s no place like home’ sentiment – bringing a greater sense of freedom with the knowledge that the underwater world exists and can be survived, and even enjoyed.”

A conversation with one of Swim to Empower’s founders, Brenna Hughes, who has been teaching swimming in the Bahamas for eight years, and filmmaker Galvin.

Q: Simple question: Why is that so many Bahamians can’t swim, despite growing up surrounded by water?

Brenna: It’s funny that you framed this as the simplest question. In my mind, this is one of the more nuanced questions because there are so many reasons why Bahamians and many coastal people do not swim. Socio-economic, political, cultural, personal…the list is endless. If I had to pick the most formidable barrier to swimming, I’d say access. Granted that’s an extremely vague answer, but access to both education and equipment is an enormous barrier to learning to swim and links the larger legacies I just referenced.

Access to equipment is an interesting matter, as I mean both pools and open water beaches. Equipment differs depending on where you live in the Bahamas. Nassau residents have access to swim clubs and pools and members of the family islands have access to open water beaches. However, with recent private home and hotel development this seemingly balanced access has become more unequal as open water areas are quickly becoming privatized. Thus the equipment itself becomes a division between the affluent and poor, those with straightforward access and those without, and has deepened the socio-economic and political divisions between those who can swim and those who cannot. That’s after eight years of working with communities in the Bahamas.

Jen: I agree. It’s a surprisingly complicated question that brings up many loaded, historical harms – and when asked to an individual, it’s usually a very personal question. People also define swimming differently. Some think swimming is getting wet up to your knees, splashing around or just taking a soak. I see swimming and being comfortable in the water as a node for environmental, economic and social determinants of health – and this is what makes it a deep, rich story, especially for islanders living on such a long, skinny and low-lying island. But, for such a heavily layered issue, there seem to be some practical solutions. The work of organizations like Swim to Empower and the Diversity in Aquatics Program can’t be stressed enough. Access is definitely a key word here, like so many other public health issues. Physical beach access and educational access are barriers to learning to swim. I guess you can also distill it down to a more basic kid-adult framework.

Kids learn to swim from adults (or, older peers). If there are not adults who can teach kids and prioritize the idea of children learning this life skill, most kids won’t learn to swim. Plus, kids tend to spend a lot of time indoors. Having witnessed time and time again the emotional confidence learning to swim gives no matter how old the student, it’s also an emotional access issue. There are real fears associated with swimming that shouldn’t be dismissed – especially when it comes to the ocean. Swimming is labeled as a life skill for reason – it reveals untapped potential for achievement, health, and broader connections with the natural world.

Q: What was the hardest part of the project, early on?

Brenna: The hardest part was creating a program that is self-sustainable and community focused. In the beginning, it was critical to foster genuine connections with key community members. However, this takes time. Although it often felt like we were losing momentum, the time we invested in the community resulted in a successful collaboration.

Jen: My role as an indie documentary filmmaker was to tell a story that connected ocean health with human health in a personal way. The film and the book were ways to document the paradox of islanders not knowing how to swim – and the power of people learning while reconnecting with their coastal home. I originally had wanted to tell this story over several locations globally, but ended up focusing the story on Eleuthera because of the innovative work of Swim to Empower. Plus, there’s something powerful about telling a big, universal story that comes from a small place. I let the story speak for itself and allowed people to use my camera as a vessel for their voices and actions.

Technically, Free Swim was challenging because I was a one-woman crew and my equipment was constantly exposed to the hot sun, sand, saltwater and bumpy dirt roads. Capturing sound during the swimming lessons was a little tricky at times, especially because the wind really can rip.

Q: What has been your biggest success to-date?

Brenna: The ability to link the work of the Bahamas Swimming Federation, Olympic Association, and Swim to Empower. Our goal is to create a self-sustainable program run by Bahamians, for Bahamians. Although we had hoped that the Teacher Aides, students who had excelled in the curriculum, would become the instructors and perpetuate the program, teenage pregnancy and the prevalence of drugs have hindered this path. Therefore we saw an opportunity to work with the Bahamas Swimming Federation and the Bahamian Olympic Association to access their network of expert Bahamian swimmers. This linkage has been priceless in the development of the organization, as the competitive Bahamian swimmers have taken the project on as their own and not only continued but also expanded the program beyond the original five communities on Eleuthera.

Jen: Teachers, parents, camp leaders, students and organizational leaders are using the guide that comes with the movie. With funding from The Eastman Foundation and the Living Oceans Foundation I’ve also worked to run multimedia workshops for educators – the first conducted in Nassau with teachers from throughout the Bahamas; the next one will be in Nevis in mid-April. Free Swim continues to be an empowering film that combines the individual human experience of learning to swim with larger societal topics, exploring complicated socio-economic and environmental challenges with which communities’ worldwide struggle. And the more it’s shared, the more somehow the film’s purpose grows. Storytelling can move viewers to step beyond simply being aware of an issue to actually doing something about it – and oftentimes, watching a good story triggers more story-making.

Q: Are there some on the island who’ve taken up your efforts and are now teaching swimming to their friends and relatives?

Brenna: Yes. On a local scale, the teacher aides and older siblings in the community continue the lessons when the program is not in session. On a larger scale, competitive Bahamian swimmers from BSF and BOA have taken over the efforts and are now really leading the force. They are returning to islands where they grew up or have a great deal of relatives and are teaching those communities how to swim. It’s amazing to see how a program can expand but still stay rooted in community.

Q: Do you have favorite memory of the time you’ve spent on Eleuthera?

Brenna: The one that sticks out in my mind was one day after lessons when one of the young boys, Denero, grabbed the lifeguard tube and started playing it like a drum. The other children gathered around him as a “band” and the class sang and danced our way down the jetty. It was an amazing moment to see the ocean, which had brought so much fear, suddenly produce abundant joy.

Jen: I consider my friends on Eleuthera as family now. It’s a very special place for me. Always will be. There are really so many memories, especially since the film continues being shared with audiences around the world. While filming it was incredible to witness such a consistent, human response when people of any age learned to float. I’ll never forget those faces.