Swimming

Portland's Regional Government Wants to Give You a Life Jacket

Metro’s Jason Ligons helps BIPOC kids have fun in the water, and has advice for everyone on staying safe.

By Sam Stites April 21, 2023

Metro’s Jason Ligons wants BIPOC kids to know that swimming is for everyone. As a teenager growing up in Vancouver, Washington, Ligons was picked on for being the only Black kid on his high school swim team—so much so that it led him to quit the team. He often heard the tired idea trope “Black people can’t swim.”

“It’s something that’s been taught [to Black people],” he says. “So I created a program where I try to make swimming cool to them again.”

Today, Ligons is a naturalist for Metro, the local regional government that, among other duties, manages some local parks, including a few popular with people who like to get wet. He previously served as a cutter surface swimmer in the US Coast Guard and has worked as a park ranger both for Metro and at Multnomah Falls.

In his years working on and around bodies of water in the Portland area, Ligons says he’s seen quite a few people get hurt—even several fatalities.

“We kept getting deaths on the river, and people getting injured within bodies of water,” Ligons says. “I kind of noticed that a lot of them were people of color. When I got to Metro, I saw the same things happening, and I finally had enough ear from management to do something about it.”

That led Ligons to establish the Swimming Upstream program, which partners with local community organizations to help BIPOC kids build their water safety skills, and teaches them about swimming’s illustrious, albeit relatively unknown, role in the history of communities of color.

He has also helped distribute more than 3,500 personal flotation devices (a.k.a. life jackets) to Portland-area swimmers and boaters at places like Metro’s Oxbow Regional Park on the Sandy River, Broughton Beach on the Columbia River, and Blue Lake Regional Park in Fairview.

Metro plans to hand out even more life jackets this summer than it did last year, in partnership with local community-based organizations. The regional government also launched a multilingual advertising campaign on cable TV, YouTube, and social media to emphasize water safety.

Ligons's biggest piece of advice for those heading out to enjoy the water? Wear a life jacket that fits snugly—especially if you’re a child or teenager who isn’t water confident. Adults should keep a close eye on children at all times when they’re around water.

Secondly, he says, always swim with a buddy.

And, Ligons says, staying sober while swimming or boating is crucial to keeping yourself and those around you safe. Metro emphasizes this for teenagers who, although they shouldn’t be drinking anyway, are prone to the pitfalls of peer pressure.

Drinking, Ligons says, “is a bad thing when you’re swimming, no matter what.”

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