Brannon Johnson’s BLJ Community Rowing in West Philadelphia

West Philadelphia native, Brannon Johnson grew up with a passion for dancing, but a rowing scholarship to the University of Texas in Austin shifted the trajectory of her life. In 2013 she founded BLJ Community Rowing in Philadelphia, and has taught more than 150 rowing classes to more than 1000 locals. 


BLJ Community Rowing aims to help bridge the gap between the traditional rowing world of the Schuylkill River and the diverse West Philadelphia community around it.


Growing up in West Philadelphia, can you talk about how getting a rowing scholarship changed your life? 

Rowing was a vehicle to a better life for me. I grew up in the inner city and was the first in my family to go to college. Training in Austin, I got to travel and see the world through rowing, so I understand how important access is. It introduces options and when you have options you can make better choices.


Brannon Johnson teaching a class on an early morning at Boathouse Row. Photo by Heather McBride Photography.


The Schuylkill River goes through West Philadelphia. How important is it for you emphasize access for Black and other West Philly residents that don’t ordinarily gravitate to rowing? 

I still live where I grew up and I’ve seen the lives around me decimated by poverty and now gentrification. Because I rowed I had different options. Because my Dad was an entrepreneur I had different options. The river should be accessible to everyone. USRowing, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and Schuylkill Navy are all recognizing this, which is wonderful. Being Black in this space is interesting because we get more business from people walking up and wondering if they can do it too. Being the change [we] want to see in the world is our recipe for success.


What are some key things you’ve learned as a young Black woman navigating a historically white space? 

I’ve learned that I lead differently and that’s okay [because] being different doesn’t necessarily make me wrong. I’ve learned there is magic in doing, but success is about sweat equity. 


Brannon Johnson on the river teaching a rowing class. Photo by Heather McBride Photography.


How do you work to ensure your rowing club is more of a community and not an exclusive organization? 

Being a boathouse without walls, we really had to think differently and program differently. We are people over performance and community over the individual need. My favorite African proverb is, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together,” and we live that. We also make sure to offer free Learn to Row clinics and we advertise in non-traditional sectors.


What have you learned along the way in pursuing this endeavor?

I knew by being Black in this sport that I could provide a solution to the lack of diversity problem. Then, by not having a boathouse I had to think and build differently, which is exactly what the sport needs. To do the same thing and expect different results is insane.


BLJ Community Rowing members enjoy a morning rowing session on the river. Photo by Heather McBride Photography.


What are some positives of doing boat work at the rowing club alone for good portions of some days?

[Some positives are] getting time to think and process. Not being plugged in all the time is really healthy in our current cultural climate, we just got to shout out Trip Adviser for this!


What are some of the health benefits of rowing? 

Rowing is the best full body workout that you are going to get outside of swimming. There is no impact on the body, which makes it great for your joints, unlike running. Rowing is an excellent sport to learn at different ages for different reasons.