As children we are taught all about the danger of fire and the threat posed by strangers, but Seren Jones is on a mission to ensure water safety is taken just as seriously, particularly within black and Asian communities.
The Welsh Zimbabwean was formerly an elite swimmer, but after hanging up her goggles turned her hand to journalism and more recently, advocacy.
It was her idea that led to the foundation of the Black Swimming Association (BSA), a National Lottery supported organisation working to encourage more people in African, Caribbean, and Asian communities to engage in swimming and water safety education.
And in less than three years, the charity has gone from a WhatsApp group between Jones, current chair Danielle Obe, filmmaker Ed Accura and international swimmer Alice Dearing – Britain’s first black female Olympic swimmer – to winning awards for the impact it is having.
The BSA has been named the 2022 National Lottery UK Project of the Year, beating off stiff competition from more than 1300 organisations.
They now receive the £5,000 cash prize as well as an iconic National Lottery Awards trophy.
And for Welsh speaker Jones, who grew up in Cardiff and swam for City of Cardiff, it has been a remarkable journey.
She explained: “We started the charity two and a half years ago, four of us. Even though we had a big goal, we were very much under the impression that we would have to do a lot of groundwork and I remember telling the other three co-founders that this was our vision, this was what we wanted to do and if we didn’t get any support or any recognition, it didn’t matter, because it’s not about that. It’s about real community impact and everything else would be a bonus.
“Two and a half years later, getting a National Lottery award, without wishing to sound cliché, it’s such an honour.
“Back in 2018, I worked for the BBC World Service radio and there was a scheme going around where they were offering a commission for niche stories that hadn’t been told.
“I decided to apply because I had an idea about wanting to investigate why there are such a lack of black women in competitive swimming. I pitched my idea and managed to get it commissioned. I created a radio documentary for BBC World Service which aired the following summer in 2019.
“Along with that radio doc, I wrote an online piece in which I featured Alice Dearing, the first piece she had been featured in.
“Once all my work went out, I received several emails from members of the public, one of which was from Danielle Obe. She is a mother of three, was home schooling her kids, is Nigerian, and she said ‘I take my kids swimming, but she said the hardest thing is the detangling of the hair afterwards’. She said she was trying to make some sort of waterproof swim cap that can make that process easier.
“We met up and completely hit it off, speaking for hours about swimming, our lives, aquatics and being black. It was in that conversation that we established that if there was an organisation that existed for people who looked like us to get them engaged in swimming, that would be a start. That was kind of the birth of the BSA.”
The duo joined forces with Accura and Dearing and following a tragic accident in Spain that saw three members of the same Greenwich family drown in a hotel pool, they knew they had to act – launching the BSA.
That was in late 2019, with a full launch the following March – just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For most, the nationwide shutdown of pools might have seemed an insurmountable barrier, but the BSA simply adapted and has quickly established itself as a leading voice in a sport that previously lacked diversity. With support from the likes of the RNLI, Speedo and most recently Sport Wales, the organisation has gone from strength to strength, sparking difficult conversations about the cultural roadblocks to swimming in African, Caribbean, and Asian communities.
Jones added: “We felt we needed to talk about water safety and the priority of how it is just as important to know what to do when you are around water as it is when there is a fire or stranger danger. These are just life skills that everybody should have.
“We have been propelled into a space where we had a substantial voice and the stories and the research, we are doing is considered important and worthwhile. A lot of the BSA has been about keeping up with the demand. We’re there now and we have a fantastic team who help us with all the different roles and responsibilities that need maintaining for a successful charity. It’s so rewarding to be able to get this award.
“It’s an awkward conversation to have about being black and not swimming and all the reasons behind it. When you manage to pull out this information from people, they feel ashamed, stupid, and dumb. But once you get the conversation flowing, now we are addressing it and what can we do to solve it? Ed has done a fantastic job through his own work doing that.”
From four outsiders trying to run an organisation alongside full-time work, the BSA has become an important landmark within the aquatic’s community, now extending from grassroots work in London to Jones’ home country of Wales, receiving £60,000 of National Lottery funding through Sport Wales.
That is just the next step, for an organisation with big ambitions, and one that is already having a huge impact.
As Jones says: “We were just four people who came together.”
No-one does more to support our athletes than National Lottery players, who raise more than £30 million each week for good causes including grassroots and elite sport. For more information about The National Lottery Awards, visit lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and follow the campaign on Twitter @LottoGoodCauses #NLAwards.