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SOUTH-CENTRAL : New Captain Urges Lifeguard Diversity


Russell Walker blazed a trail in 1965 when he became Los Angeles County's first black lifeguard, and he has been doing it ever since.

"I've been called so many firsts before in my career," said Walker, who recently was promoted to captain and put in charge of the county Lifeguard Division's Central Section in Santa Monica. "In fact, each time I'm promoted, I am 'the first.' "

Few minorites have followed him, however. Of the 107 permanent year-round lifeguards on the county crew, Walker is the only African-American. There are 100 Anglos, three Latinos and three Asian-Americans, according Stan Wisniewski, deputy director of the county's Deaprtment of Beaches and Harbors.

Walker, who grew up in South-Central and now lives in Oxnard, said he hopes to use the influence of his new position to bring diversity to the ranks of the county lifeguards. In his job, he oversees some of the county's most heavily used beaches and supervises 250 employees.

"Looking for potential talent (among minorities) is always an ongoing thing for me," he said. "There are a lot of minorities who are good swimmers and it's an untapped resource."

To that end, Walker helped found a program in 1986 called Water Awareness, Training, Education and Recruitment (WATER) to encourage inner-city youths to pursue ocean-related careers. Stacy Smith, coordinator of the program, which is run by the beaches and harbors department, said it serves about 1,000 youths annually. They participate in a junior lifeguard program, surf camp, sailing and sailboarding classes.

Classes are taught by county lifeguards, and transportation is provided by a corporate sponsor, Smith said. The program also provides funding for as many as 100 scholarships for youths to go through junior lifeguard training.

County officials say the program has helped attract minorities to the temporary lifeguard positions that are filled each summer, and that over time, the permanent staff will be diversified as well.

There was no such program when Walker was a youth in South-Central. But his sport of choice, he said, was always swimming.

He joined the Marlins, a predominantly black amateur swim team that competed in meets at the 28th Street YMCA, and he also swam at Jefferson and Dorsey high schools. He played water polo while attending Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.

He qualified as a summer lifeguard in 1965 after placing among the top 25 swimmers out of 1,000 who tried out. He served in the Navy, finished college and completed a master's degree in management, but still, he said, he kept coming back to the beach as a lifeguard for the summer.

Part of being a trailblazer, Walker said, is contending with prejudices and stereotypes.

Reminded of ex-Dodger executive Al Campanis' 1987 gaffe in which he contended that blacks are not good swimmers because they "don't have buoyancy," Walker said: "We're always going to have people who have that kind of stereotype in mind, and I feel that it is part of my job to educate people like that."

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