Different Strokes Paddle Program launched in HRM in late June with the goal of getting more diverse people into kayaks and out enjoying nature. Founder Alexi Rodriguez is offering free one-hour lessons to BIPOC folks who are interested in learning how to kayak or improving the skills they already have.
When Rodriguez took the Outdoor Adventure program at Algonquin College, he was one of few people of colour in the class.
"Once I got into that space I realized it was a very white space, just like most other places. But there's no reason why it should be when it's something that's supposed to be accessible for everybody," he tells The Coast.
Since starting Different Strokes last month, Rodriguez has already done almost a dozen lessons at popular lakes like Long Lake, Kearney Lake and Lake Banook.
"As soon as I realized how helpful outdoor adventure is in my life, and how many skills I've acquired that help me, right away I connected that to wanting to help other people," he says. "It's such a beautiful way to spend time and get out frustrations and stress."
Rodriguez started a GoFundMe in June to raise money for new kayaks for the program, and has already raised over $7,500. Lessons are for all levels, whether you have never kayaked before or already know your way around the water. Follow up lessons (and lessons for non-POC) are $40 an hour.
"If people already have experience then we can skip over some of the basics, just enjoy some time paddling and work on some kind of finer skills," Rodriguez says.
The kayak instructor says he wants to change the idea that kayaking isn't for people of colour. "I think a big part of it is perception. Our society kind of frames things so that recreation, recreational activity is seen as like a privileged, white activity," he says. "If you can't see somebody that looks like you doing something, it's kind of hard to relate. And that's kind of what I'm trying to tackle."
Growing up, there weren't many people of colour to look up to in the outdoor industry. "I never saw anybody like me doing stuff that I'm into now, whether it's white water kayaking or snowboarding or mountain biking, any time I watch those videos, nine times out of 10 it's a white person doing it," he says.
The racism that permeates outdoor activities like surfing, hiking, or even golf isn't always overt. The kayak instructor says the reasons they are so overwhelmingly white are subtle.
"It's not like these companies, the kayak company or bike company or whatever, are putting out commercials saying 'this is for white people, you need to come'," he says. "But it's mostly white people in advertising, it's mostly white people who buy the products, it's usually expensive products so finances do become a barrier."
On top of operating Different Strokes, Rodriguez also runs a sea kayaking business out of Inverness, McKinnon Kayak Tours. He's looking for more instructors for Different Strokes so he can keep it running while he's split between two jobs.
"The point is to provide equity to people of colour so that they have new job skills as well as an employment opportunity through the program," says Rodriguez. "But also so that if I'm in Cape Breton or I'm travelling or whatever, the program's able to keep running whether I'm here or not."
As the program expands, Rodriguez wants to include other water sports like paddle boarding and canoeing. "In the future, I really hope that I'm helping people of colour and eventually all kinds of different marginalized communities get outside, starting off with water sports, 'cause those are the tools and the expertise I have at my disposal," he says.
But he also wants to ensure people of colour can discover various opportunities in all areas of the outdoor recreation industry. "Eventually I'd like to open it up to hiking, camping, ski, snowboarding, mountain biking, all that stuff," he says.