As a new national brand ambassador for Kokatat, whitewater paddler Antoinette Lee Toscano says she’s happy to see many in the paddling community embracing diversity, even if there’s still a long way to go.
“I am thrilled. And not just for myself, I’m thrilled I can be a mirror for some boys and girls to see this is possible in their own lives,” she says.
Toscano is a former IT exec, contributor at Paddling Magazine and Culturs magazine, the producer of WhitewaterTV and co-founder of Diversify Whitewater. Toscano joined Kokatat’s ambassador team on February 26, on the heels of being named a Badfish SUP team rider earlier this year.
On a mission to create a more inclusive paddling community for everyone, Toscano says representation is crucial to attracting new paddlers from minority communities. Representation is also vital to making everyone feel welcome in adventure sports, as the lack of existing diversity can be perceived as exclusive and unwelcoming.
“Representation matters. In mirror marketing, a phrase I created from a style used in children’s book writing, I see myself represented because I see people who look like me. Maybe they’re women; maybe they’re a person of color. I can see my own life and what’s possible for me,” she says. “But if I never see someone who looks like me in advertisements or in brand representatives, then I only ever see through window marketing. I can only see what someone else’s life looks like and what’s possible for them.”
[ Read More: Meet the co-founders of Diversify Whitewater, an initiative to get more people of color paddling ]
Toscano points out that in being a brand ambassador for Kokatat and Badfish SUP, she’s representing more groups than the BIPOC community. She’s also a veteran, and at 53, she’s part of a demographic not often tapped to be in front of the camera in the outdoor adventure industry.
“Amongst the various groups I represent, I also represent the middle age group. It used to be when you turn 50, everyone expected you to get in your rocking chair and be a grandma. I’m certainly not ready to be in anybody’s rocking chair,” she says. “As a person of color and someone older than 25, I am not your typical poster girl for a brand ambassadorship or to be a paddle team member. And generally, when advertisers are looking for a person of color to appear in marketing messages, I am not who they look for. They’re not looking for someone who’s 5’5” and built like Wilma Flintstone.” Toscano is a former competitive bodybuilder and powerlifter, and represented the United States Army while assigned to the 10th Mountain Division as an Air Assault qualified Expert Field Medic in Fort Drum, New York.
“We are very excited to have Antoinette as a Kokatat Ambassador,” says Lisa Kincaid, Kokatat’s Promotional Marketing Manager. “Antoinette and fellow co-founder Lily Durkee introduced more than 100 people to paddlesports in 2020 through free Diversify Whitewater paddling skills events. In 2021, they will train hundreds more at regional events around the nation. We felt that her passion as a kayaker, fisherwoman and standup paddleboarder inspires others to take up paddlesports.”
In February, Kokatat also welcomed Ugandan paddler Sadat Kawawa as a Global Team Member. Kokatat’s addition of Kawawa and Toscano as representatives is underscored by the announcements coming during Black History Month.
“I’m proud to be a part of the Kokatat Global Ambassador Team and hope other Black men and boys around the world will see me and know that paddlesports are possible for them too,” said Kawawa in a statement. He also shared the news in a video on Toscano’s XOTV channel WhitewaterTV.
Toscano recently profiled Kawawa on WhitewaterTV and connected Kokatat with him. “I watched him in Red Bull’s The Way Of The Wild Card and, though Kawawa was a stranger to me, I knew I needed to interview him,” she says.
“Sadat had been on our radar for a while, but thanks to our partners at Diversify Whitewater, we learned he was in the market for partnerships and we moved quickly,” said Kincaid in Kokatat’s press release.
“The little media coverage of Sadat prior said to me that he probably just did not have a platform or opportunity to say, ‘Please consider me for your brand.’ He just didn’t have a way of getting in front of enough companies to notice him. I think that happens a lot to athletes of color,” says Toscano, adding she’s stoked to have played a role in bringing more awareness to Kawawa.
“There’s not enough of us: images of dark-skinned people of color represented in marketing messages as brand ambassadors and the like. And that’s unfortunate because it leaves a lot of boys and girls of color unable to see themselves in that adventure sport,” says Toscano. “The adventure sports community has been welcoming and supportive to me, and I want other people of color to have this same experience—the joy of the wild, a sense of accomplishment, and meeting new people. Representation in media, industry and in ambassadorships is part of that.”