NEWSLETTER SIGNUP

By signing up to our newsletter, you agree to our terms.

Citizen of the Week: Brannon Johnson

Once known as the “black girl who rows,” the West Philly native is opening the world of rowing, and the Schuylkill River, to anyone

Once known as the “black girl who rows,” the West Philly native is opening the world of rowing, and the Schuylkill River, to anyone

When the engine broke in August on the launch boat Brannon Johnson uses to ride alongside her rowing students, she didn’t let it stop her. Instead of canceling her classes because she couldn’t drop $5,000 on the new engine, Johnson rowed herself, alongside her clients on the Schuylkill River, from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday until last week, when it finally got replaced.

When Johnson, 33, was the only black person on Boathouse Row as a West Philadelphia high school student, she didn’t let it stop her. She instead rowed her talent to a full-ride at University of Texas.

When even her clients questioned her credibility as a rowing teacher because of the color of her skin, she didn’t let it stop her. Instead, she grew her community of Brannon Loraé Johnson Community Rowing to over 57 Philadelphians new to the mostly closed world of rowing.

And when over 15 people approached her saying they wanted to get on the water but couldn’t afford it, she didn’t let it stop them. She problem-solved: Those 15 people don’t pay a penny, but instead do volunteer work to show their initiative.

To Brannon, it’s all part of a mission that has driven her since she was a teenager, looking for a way out of her rough circumstances.

“When I was young, my dad sat me down [at a race] and said ‘Brannon, I want you to look around,’” Johnson says. “I was 16 and I had just won Cities and colleges were coming, and I was the ‘black girl who rows’ so my name was getting out there to people who wanted me. And he said ‘The difference between you and everyone else in this room, and your siblings and cousins, is that rowing is going to be your vehicle that will give you access, that’s going to be something they’ll never have. You need to be a bridge and break down these barriers and provide access for people like you to cross over.’”

“I wasn’t even really listening, I was probably thinking about boys,” Johnson adds. “But now, it’s something that’s really important. [Rowing has] given me such great access and we have these great stories of amazing things we’ve done. What keeps us together is I make us a family.“

Brannon Johnson coaches a quad of 1st year rowers on the Schuylkill.
Brannon Johnson coaches a quad of 1st year rowers on the Schuylkill.

To Brannon, Boathouse Row—and therefore rowing on the Schuylkill—has always felt like an exclusive club. Joining 10 houses along the river costs $400 to $650 per year; some houses also have a one-time joining fee for capital expenses ranging from $200 to $1,500. (Philly school students interested in rowing can join Philadelphia City Rowing, a free program funded by the rowing community; adults can try rowing for free on annual Row and Paddle Days.)

Brannon has broken through that barrier. She started teaching rowing—something she says she loves way more than competing in the sport—when she came back to Philly after college. And she saw her first real glimmer of the change she could bring to Boathouse Row. “I knew I could build something important, something relevant,” she says.

A couple years later, she opened her “Boathouse Without Walls,” located in front of St. Joseph University’s boathouse along Kelly Drive—just racks with her boats (her main purchases, she says, are boats and shoes).

Today, Johnson works 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., every day. She teaches up to 13 people in each class, teaching multiple classes at a time. Her “Learn to Row” course for adults is a 6-week long program that meets once a week and costs $180. People use this class as a stepping stone into a boathouse or just to learn how to row and have fun. So far, Brannon has taught 972 Philadelphians to row; around 60 have stayed with her and continue to row the BLJ Rowing Community, including several African Americans.

“We taught 900 plus people how to row, but I won’t feel like I’ve accomplished my goal and really given back until we reach 1,000 people,” Johnson added.

During the winter, Johnson’s community of rowers don’t stop: rowers join Johnson in Manayunk to practice on erg machines to keep up their fitness.

“I’m not against Boathouse Row,” Johnson says. “We’re just different. And the fact that [BLJ Community Rowing] is working is really awesome.”

Brannon Johnson -diversity rowing
Johnson, in the launch her students helped her raise the money to fix.

For Johnson, being a black woman on what she considers the mostly rich, white river is never far from her mind. In the refined tradition of rowing, yelling at a coach is never done. But she has been yelled at by rowers on several occasions, she says, because she’s black. New students often question her ability when they first come to class, because they can’t believe their coach is black. It isn’t until these students Google her and find her successes that they actually believe she knows what she’s doing.

“Racism is really what we’re up against,” Johnson says. “People don’t realize that the river runs through West Philly. So you have these super rich people coming from Chestnut Hill and the suburbs and rowing through the ‘hood. It’s in West Philadelphia and we don’t have access to any boats; it’s actually more accessible for us but we can’t we can’t buy memberships because we don’t have the means. And that’s a problem.”

Every business move Johnson makes is purposeful and intentional, she says. Her business is in a “growing period,” and is growing every day.

“We’re doing a really cool thing,” she says. “What sets us apart is we just really don’t give a shit.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the city owns the houses on the Schuylkill; the city owns the land, but often expensive upkeep of the houses falls to the members. It also stated that joining a club costs $1,000, and that inexperienced rowers are not welcome; actually, it costs between $400 and $650 per year, and most houses accept new rowers regularly.

 

Photos by Sabina Louise Pierce

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

Recent Tweets
@THEPHILACITIZEN

@thephilacitizen @@thephilacitizen
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
For Back on My Feet, running isn’t a gimmick; it’s a tool. https://t.co/zexnIpq3pR 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Philly native Jamol Manigault on 'Jason's Letter' shot in Philadelphia and Delaware. via @thephillyvoice https://t.co/n2xydUuVnu 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Part 8 of our Mystery Shopper series. Rx Narcan confusion at local pharmacies and battling with the bank. https://t.co/BR3iZd9d9X 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Meet The Disruptor: Saxbys CEO, Nick Bayer. A story about millennials & coffee that won't cause a generation war. https://t.co/XcnMBwbatA 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Real Stories: Fred Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission via @phillyhomeless https://t.co/XVtQJ4IXlf 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Megha Kulshreshtha's app, @foodconnectphl , helps solve the dual problems of food waste and hunger in Philadelphia. https://t.co/1Vzf9cEe6Z 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
@FairmountV founder, Don Kligerman, wants to start a movement to greater philanthropic engagement.… https://t.co/r0vV4z5FzA 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
June is Reentry Awareness Month in Philadelphia. https://t.co/R1ZS8St6Rm 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Philly-based Back on My Feet has improbably shown how running can help the homeless regain their footing.… https://t.co/7FYyn6XyWR 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Happy #SummerSolstice, we're on our way to the beach! What's that? It's only Wednesday? Well, fine then!… https://t.co/xjgDQuAozn 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Part 8 of our Mystery Shopper series. What happens when we attempt to purchase Narcan and do battle with the banks? https://t.co/hXkY96yOSE 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Should Philly take a page from the Paris Climate Agreement to solve below-avg donation figures? @DonKligerman posits https://t.co/Zt1LdOZPaS 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Our Citizen of the Week, Megha Kulshreshtha, bridging the divide between local restaurants and the hungry. https://t.co/HcR9tWlNhR 

LOAD MORE

Be a Citizen Editor

Suggest a Story