Figure Skating In Harlem Celebrates 25 Years Of Empowering Girls Of Color
by Lynn Rutherford
Brandon Frazier, Jason Brown, Vincent Zhou, Alexa Knierim, Alysa Liu, Madison Hubbell, Karen Chen, Zachary Donohue, Mirai Nagasu, Evan Bates, Madison Chock, Mariah Bell and Nathan Chen pose with students at the Figure Skating in Harlem 25th Anniversary Gala at Gotham Hall on April 25, 2022 in New York City.
NEW YORK — From an International Olympic Committee award, to expanded programs, to a star-studded gala attended by many members of the U.S. 2022 Olympic figure skating team, it’s been quite a 25th year anniversary celebration for Figure Skating in Harlem.
Founded by former figure skater Sharon Cohen in 1997, FSH — which offers year-round academic, leadership and skating programs for girls ages 6 through 18 — began the year with recognition as one of six winners of the 2021 Women and Sport Award, presented by the IOC. The annual awards are given to people and organizations who advance gender equality on and off the playing fields.
“It was a momentous occasion to be recognized in such a profound way, particularly on such an international platform,” Andrea Jordan, the FSH chief operating officer, said the day of the 25th FSH Anniversary Gala, held earlier this week in midtown Manhattan.
“For the students in our organization to be associated with the Olympics on that level, it was just magical,” she added.
More magic was in store at the Gala, where FSH students mixed with a who’s-who of Team USA stars, including recently crowned Olympic champion Nathan Chen and Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.
Among the other U.S. skaters in attendance were world pairs champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier; three-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates; two-time world championships medalist Vincent Zhou; world bronze medalist Alysa Liu; two-time Olympian Jason Brown; reigning U.S. champion Mariah Bell; 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen; and 2018 Olympic team bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu.
“The way FSH uses skating to bring people together and teach them about teamwork and support, that’s what our sport is all about, as well as getting back up every time you have a misstep or any type of setback,” said Brown, who finished sixth in the men’s event in Beijing. “The life lessons the students learn through this organization focus on that and highlight everything that is so special about this sport.”
FSH stands on three pillars: education, skating and fitness and leadership. Using a standardized computer assessment, some 96 percent of its students reported improved leadership skills, while 90 percent showed an improved competency in STEM concepts and 80 percent of students showed improvement in reading or math. The vast majority graduate from high school and go on to college.
“The combination of those three pillars carries our girls throughout life,” Jordan said. “When they fall on the ice, they get back up. It’s the same thing in life — you meet different challenges. The lessons learned in our program allow you to persist, to push and move forward. And that is the heart of what we want our students to learn with us.”
Figure Skating in Harlem students pose for at the Figure Skating in Harlem 25th Anniversary Gala on April 25, 2022 in New York City.
Currently, about 130 girls from Harlem, upper Manhattan and lower Bronx are enrolled in the program, but Jordan expects this number to grow to 180-190 as New York City continues to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. All attend the FSH Academic Center one or two days a week for tutoring and homework help, as well as social and emotional workshops and small group interactions designed to help build sisterhood.
FSH students aim for an “A” average, are in good standing with a “B” average and must attend extra homework tutoring with a “C” average. Girls with a “B” average or better get two figure skating sessions per week.
“Obviously, figure skating is an expensive sport,” Jordan said. “Our students get far fewer sessions per week on the ice, compared to what many other skaters get in terms of private lessons. We have a synchronized skating team (Harlem Ice) that goes to a couple of competitions each year, and they get an extra session or two per week, yet they medal in spaces where they don’t necessarily have as much access.”
FSH alumni Sandra Williams (2006-2015) remembers how the lure of gaining time on the ice encouraged her to focus on her grades.
“I love skating, and the only way I would be able to skate is if my grades were in check,” said Williams, now a college graduate and senior media planner for the Black Entertainment Network. “And they have tutoring, they have the STEM program, they have financial literacy classes. That always kept us ready to go, especially in our college prep classes.”
One of FSH’s newest initiatives, Pipeline to Power, extends the program to young alumni aged 18-25 as they enter college and, later, begin to build their professional lives.
“Access to college can sometimes be difficult for Black and brown students,” Jordan said. “Our programming is very focused on helping our girls with applications, applying for financial aid, writing their college essays and thinking about the different pathways they can take based on their current interests and needs.
“We also know there is underrepresentation of Black and brown women in mid-level and executive leadership roles,” she added. “Pipeline to Power allows us to mentor our girls throughout college and career (by) tapping into our robust alumni and professional network, and to really match our students with other women who can support them in their professional journeys.”
A recent alumni reunion brought many former students back into the fold; some shared their professional journeys with current students.
“There are a couple of areas we are focusing on,” Jordan said. “One is understanding how you think about leadership skills. Another is self-advocacy, and communication tools you can utilize as a woman starting off in a career. … And then there is this sort of alumni career track, which focuses on connecting our students to internships and job opportunities across different professional fields.”
Williams credits FSH’s multi-pronged approach with helping her launch her own professional career.
“I probably wouldn’t have said ‘yes’ to an interview like this when I was younger,” she said. “Just being able to have those public speaking skills, and that sisterhood — the feeling of not being judged by the world, that everyone is just there to hear you speak and share ideas — was what kept me with the program and still working with it after I graduated.”