AAPI Paddler Feature - Lily Durkee - ACA

May 24, 2022

AAPI Paddler Feature – Lily Durkee

In recognition and continued celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, ACA staff recently had the opportunity to “sit down” with paddler, athlete, and community builder, Lily Durkee. Lily has an amazing story of involvement with not only paddlesports, but also expanding access and opportunities for all people to experience engaging and memorable outdoor activities.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into paddling. Have you found an intersection between your identities as a paddler and as an Asian American? If yes, how have these identities overlapped? What has this balance looked like for you?

I started whitewater kayaking when I was 9 years old at Valley Mill Camp in Germantown, Maryland. I then raced kayak slalom as a teenager with the Valley Mill Slalom Team, which gave me the opportunity to paddle across the US, Canada, and in Europe. I was one of the only non-white competitors on the slalom circuit, and one of the only paddlers who identified as Asian American that I knew. Because I grew up paddling in the DC Metro Area, which is very diverse, paddling was the only space where I remember feeling like the “only one.” In school, I can’t remember a time when there weren’t other AAPI students in my classes, and I loved that paddling gave me a unique identity that I could be proud of. In hindsight, I wish I had encouraged my AAPI friends to get involved with the sport too. 

I moved to Fort Collins, Colorado in 2019 to start a PhD program in Ecology at Colorado State University. I love living in Fort Collins, but the community here is much more homogenous than DC. I am often the only AAPI person on the river and also in other spaces, like in my classes or neighborhood. I have started to seek out connections with folks who share cultural identities and experiences with me, which has been very fulfilling. It has always been important for me to balance my identity as an Asian American with my identity as a paddler. My work with Diversify Whitewater has also allowed me to find folks who also exist at the intersection of both identities, which is one reason the work is so rewarding!

What experiences lead you to co-found Diversify Whitewater? What have you learned along the way?

During the Black Lives Matter movement, I felt restless, and I wanted to make a difference in my community. I realized the best way I could make an impact would be in a community that I’ve been a part of for over 15 years — the paddling community. I wanted to bring Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) together on the river and create a safe and welcoming space for us to paddle together. I wanted to give BIPOC boaters a platform to be recognized and celebrated. Diversify Whitewater was founded with that vision in July of 2020 by me and Antoinette Lee Toscano. We held two free community paddling events that year for BIPOC and allies in Northern Colorado. The support from the paddling community and industry leaders was tremendous. We realized that the best course of action would be to file for 501(c)(3) designation and to grow the organization to incorporate regions outside of Colorado. I have learned a lot during this whole process about event planning and nonprofit management with the help of my friends, family, and leaders of paddling nonprofits like the American Canoe Association, American Whitewater, and the Great Falls Foundation. This year, we have 13 events planned in 9 US states, and we are led by a Board with eight passionate directors. I am so excited to see what the future holds for Diversify Whitewater!

What advice do you have for clubs or competition committees seeking to grow a welcoming paddling committee whose makeup reflects the demographic profile of their town or city? What are the first steps?

Diversify Whitewater always works to partner with local organizations who are already working to make outdoor spaces more welcoming and accessible for BIPOC & allies. For example, our first event in 2020 was sponsored by cityWILD, an amazing organization that works to break down barriers for Denver youth in outdoor recreation. Because a large barrier to entry for paddlesports is the cost, Diversify Whitewater makes all of our events 100% free to attend – this means covering all park entry or parking fees and providing free use of equipment and instruction. If you or your paddling club are interested in holding an event like this, I would recommend partnering with Diversify Whitewater along with other DEI-focused organizations in your area. We welcome event proposals during our event application window in January-February each year, and we are always looking to bring events to new areas and impact more communities. 

Follow @diversifywhitewater on Instagram and visit our website at www.diversifywhitewater.org to view our event schedule for this year and to learn more about the work we do. If you would like to contribute to our mission, please consider volunteering at an event (signups become available about 1 month before each event date), making a donation through Venmo to @diversifywhitewater or holding a fundraiser for Diversify Whitewater on Facebook, or volunteering with our admin team. We are looking for volunteers to help with social media, graphic design, event planning, and administrative tasks. Please email lily@diversifywhitewater.org if you are interested in any of these volunteer opportunities.