Figure Skating in Harlem is a program founded by Sharon Cohen to help fight discrimination against young women of color. Cohen is a national gold medalist for competitive skating and knows the lack of inclusivity that comes with the sport. She started teaching girls to skate in East Harlem before officially creating the organization. While the organization gets most of its publicity for ice skating, the program extends past the ice by providing the girls with lessons in leadership as well as classes in both science and technology. “Our big wins are when our girls go on to schools like Georgetown and Barnard, Howard and Spelman,” Cohen shared with ABC News' "Nightline." The program has earned bragging rights when it comes to its students pursuing higher education and rightfully so considering 100% of them go on to do so.

Ila Epperson, a 15-year-old New York City-native, has been a part of Figure Skating in Harlem since she was 6 years old. “Everybody goes through a struggle of not knowing who they are but a big part of it is knowing where you come from and not being able to put two and two together,” Epperson recently told Nightline. Epperson struggled with finding herself and found answers in the ice rink – skating has guided her in the right direction and has also given her a place where she doesn’t have to explain herself. “This is who I am, this is what I want to do, and this is what I have to do to get there,” she said to Nightline.

While Figure Skating in Harlem is dedicated to providing black and Latina girls access to the sport, as well as educational mentorships – it doesn’t stop the girls from experiencing racial discrimination from other teams. Epperson an incident to “Nightline” in which another team made unpleasant comments about ensuring the girls don’t take their bags – “Race is in everything,” she said. Destiny Jean-Michel, Epperson’s best friend, mentioned the situation being intimidating at first, but being the only girls of color actually became empowering and inspiring.

Destiny Jean-Michel was raised by her father after her mother left the family years back. Destiny’s father, Cliff, said the program changed his daughter’s life. Destiny agrees, “Once I came to Figure Skating in Harlem, I got sisters.” The program has provided emotional support for Destiny, but it didn’t stop there – Figure Skating Harlem also helped her get a full scholarship to a top-tier private school in New York.

The program’s success in Harlem, New York inspired Sharon Cohen to expand the program. Her next stop was a city struggling with education reform – Detroit. Cohen tells Nightline, “It is a community in need, in need of educational support as well as leadership that comes with figure skating.” The expansion of the program has inspired many, including Janiya Johnson, an 8-year-old girl with dreams of not only making it to the Olympics, but becoming a legend as well.

“We are creating champions for life,” says Cohen to Nightline on what her motto is. It is imperative, more now than ever, that girls of color have all of the opportunities to become whoever they want to. This year’s Winter Olympics was at its most diverse and while that’s so, it was still 92 percent white. There is working to be done and with the help of Sharon Cohen and Figure Skating in Harlem, the future, especially of figure skating, looks very bright and promising.


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