Shawanna Kendrick is making space for Black women in the Chattanooga-area outdoors scene

Photos contributed by Shawanna Kendrick / Left: Paddlers coast down the Tennessee River from the Olgiati Bridge. Right: Shawanna Kendrick, the founder/CEO of The H2O Life
Photos contributed by Shawanna Kendrick / Left: Paddlers coast down the Tennessee River from the Olgiati Bridge. Right: Shawanna Kendrick, the founder/CEO of The H2O Life

When Shawanna Kendrick founded The H2O Life in January 2021, she did so with the intention of creating a space in which women of color, specifically Black women, could engage with the outdoors with a community that looked like and understood them. Fear and cost are often barriers that prevent people from getting into outdoor recreation, Kendrick says, but for women of color, the lack of representation creates an additional barrier.

"The outdoor industry is not as diverse as it could be," Kendrick says. "So when you don't see someone who looks like you or maybe has similar life experience as you, it's hard to jump out there and just say, 'I'm going to go and do this. I'm going to go and try it.'"

Kendrick began her outdoor journey with hiking, and The H2O Life's initial focus was on this activity as well as the mental and physical health benefits it provided. Community and wellness are at the heart of The H2O Life's mission — the H2O stands for Hiking, Healing and Outdoors.

"My goal is to bring as many women who are willing to follow and are courageous enough to join me in my effort to just disconnect and reset," Kendrick says.

  photo  Photos contributed by Shawanna Kendrick / Kaelan Byrd, Mary Beth Sutton, Lauren Partridge, Lakesha Carson, Terri Chapin, Shawanna Kendrick, Tamala McDuffie and Bryson Locke attend the Women on Water celebratory paddle event.

As Kendrick's outdoor knowledge and experience have grown, so too has her organization, with The H2O Life now encompassing paddlesports, particularly kayaking. Kendrick leads groups on kayaking excursions at different locations, and she says there is a measurable difference between people's reactions to paddling versus hiking.

"It's the excitement and the joy I see on the faces of the participants when they have done something they never thought they could do, never considered doing," she says of the difference.

Kendrick explains that many of The H2O Life's participants are engaging with paddling for the first time. In August, The H2O Life hosted a Black Women Paddle as part of the inaugural Chatt Town Cool Down, an end-of-summer celebration along Chattanooga's riverfront, in which about 40 participants joined Kendrick for a paddle from Ross's Landing to Coolidge Park. Kendrick says that she was grateful people entrusted her with their journey into outdoor recreation.

"When people are ready, they'll show up. And that's what happened that night," Kendrick says of the Black Women Paddle. "People showed up because they were ready to try something new."

Another of The H2O Life's programs was Women on Water, an eight-week class held this year to help Black women become more comfortable on and in the water. The class taught participants how to utilize a personal flotation device, care for their hair and skin in the water, operate safely in the water and pilot a kayak, among other things. Over those eight weeks, participants took small steps to ultimately build up their knowledge of and courage in the outdoors.

In her time leading The H2O Life, Kendrick says that she has had the opportunity to see many Black women grow into confident paddlers. She relates a story of a young woman who, once Kendrick started the paddling portion of the organization, "gave a hard no" to getting on the water. Over time, though, the young woman eventually started paddling, and now, Kendrick says that she has the confidence to pilot a kayak and a stand-up paddleboard and paddle to the base of a waterfall.

"It is hard to measure that level of success without mentioning joy, [and] I see so much joy in her," Kendrick says. "She's fearless; she's absolutely fearless, and I love it."

According to Kendrick, it's not hard to get Black women interested in the outdoors, but it is hard to develop trust. She believes in meeting people where they are and says that she won't take anyone on an excursion that she wouldn't do herself. Kendrick has the patience to wait for others to develop the courage to make that first step into the outdoors, and once they do, she's prepared to help them discover a new H2O life.

Connect with Kendrick and The H2O Life at or on Instagram and Facebook.

  photo  Photos contributed by Shawanna Kendrick / Amara Alexander, Shawanna Kendrick, Wendy Harris and Lauren Partridge enjoy a paddling adventure on Nickajack Lake.

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