West Philadelphia rowing champ Brannon Johnson runs BLJ Community Rowing, the only Black-owned and -operated rowing club in America. She also trains other Black rowers how to carve out their own spaces in the predominantly white sport.
According to BLJ’s website, the club started with an initial mission to use rowing as a vehicle for change. BLJ’s priority is to bridge the gap between the traditional rowing world and the diverse West Philly community by removing boundaries, providing access and creating opportunities within the elite sport.
“I definitely stumbled into my mission,” Johnson told 6ABC, “and I love that it’s not about me. I love that it’s about this community.” Johnson said that holding each other accountable and pushing one another to do better and be better is major in the space she has created.
The rowing maven has traveled the world to race and train in the sport. “I had better options because rowing was available,” Johnson said. It afforded her the opportunity to meet many different kinds of people. “I didn’t see anyone that looked like me around the sport, so … it’s important to me that I give that option to as many people as … possible in the Black and brown communities.”
One of Johnson’s students attested to the trainer’s ability to help with overall confidence on and out of the water.
“It’s definitely been nice having somebody to look up to and somebody that holds me accountable,” high school rower Kaiya Johnson said.
Rowing coaches Asiyah Harrison and Jaden Oates have both observed the lack of Black presence in the sport. Harrison praised Johnson for her outstanding contributions and for showing her what it’s like to be an entrepreneur and “a Black woman in such a white male-centered space.” Oates said his high school rowing team, which is predominately Black and Hispanic, embraces other rowing teams of color whenever they cross paths.
“It’s not that many of us,” he said.
BLJ Community Rowing offers adult and youth programs. Churches, schools, companies, and organizations are welcome to participate in the corporate program, where employees can learn about and practice camaraderie, teamwork, health and wellness.
BLJ is located at 2200 Kelly Drive in Philadelphia, in front of St. Joseph University’s boathouse along Kelly Drive.