From isolation to community: How WU BLAC has been working to better the experiences of WU’s Black student-athletes
This is the first article in a two-part look at the Washington University Black Letterwinning Athletes Coalition and the work students and administrators are doing to better the experiences of Black student-athletes at Washington University. You can read the second part of the story here.
When 19 student-athletes joined a Zoom call on Oct. 4, it was the first time many of them had ever met one another. Even though they were all a part of Washington University athletics, they had never gotten to interact across their various teams, and before this fall, there had not been much of a sense of community for Black athletes on campus.
The Zoom call was the first general body meeting of the Washington University Black Letterwinning Athletes Coalition (WU BLAC), a new student group focused on fostering that sense of community for Black student-athletes and advocating for their interests within the Athletic Department. On the surface, it was just a single Zoom call. But it represented much more.
‘There’s always been a sentiment to have something like this’
After being the only Black student on her majority-white high school’s swimming team, the chance to be surrounded by other Black athletes and coaches was a major part of what attracted senior Caira Watson-Haynes to the high school track team. While she was on it, the team always had two or three Black coaches, and she felt that she was able to be herself on the team. She cherished how track served as an escape from the broader school community.
Her ability in high school to use the sport as an escape was part of why Watson-Haynes was taken aback after arriving on the Wash. U. track and field team. There was just one Black assistant coach for more than 50 student-athletes.
“It was just a culture shock in a sense, because track was no longer able to be my escape from the larger school community,” she said. “Just not having Black coaches who you could turn to who understand what I’m going through, it just made it really tough.”
That sense of isolation for Black student-athletes undergirds the demands of WU BLAC and informs how the group’s members are seeking to build on the momentum of this year’s renewed focus on racial injustice to better the experience of Wash. U.’s Black student-athletes.
One of the key demands is increasing the presence of Black people and other people of color in the athletic administration. While more than half of the Wash. U. student body is non-white, WU BLAC says that just 12% of the administration is people of color.
“It’s an obvious inadequacy,” men’s basketball junior and WU BLAC Vice President of Operations Kameron Mack said. “What that does is more so in thought and in theory because it makes you feel undervalued and it doesn’t create a space where you feel as though you belong.”
For Eka Jose, a senior on the track and field team who serves as co-president of WU BLAC with Watson-Haynes, isolation manifested itself in difficulties connecting with members of the administration. “Having such a limited number of staff in the department, it’s hard to find someone that you really connect to, so when you do find that person, that relationship is really important because it’s just someone there that you can really depend on and that you know is already about your interests before you express it to them,” she said. “That can be hard to relay to someone who doesn’t have very similar experiences as you do.”
Limited opportunities for engagement between Black student-athletes have further compounded the effects of that lacking representation.
Jose estimated that there are roughly 40 Black student-athletes in the Wash. U. athletic program. She said that number is “pretty decent,” particularly when compared to peer institutions. But having Black student-athletes is not in and of itself sufficient. “The thing is, we don’t really get to see each other or mingle,” Jose said. “You might recognize someone, but you don’t really know them to the point where you really feel comfortable having a conversation with them, even though that’s your desire.”
Mack encouraged people to empathize with Black student-athletes. “Put yourself in the shoes of a Wash. U. Black student-athlete going into a practice or a game setting each time and being the only person in that space that looks like you,” he said. “That can be isolating. What we want to do is help Black student-athletes feel less isolated by creating those spaces where they can see people who look like them.”
It’s more than just isolation. WU BLAC has brought a focus on the need to better the experiences of Black student-athletes generally, spotlighting issues that Black student-athletes have dealt with at Wash. U. for decades.
Nearly 250 recent alumni of Wash. U. athletic programs signed a letter in support of WU BLAC, and submissions flowed fast when they started sharing anonymous retellings of their experiences with racism at the University. They detailed experiences that ranged from the rampant use of microaggressions and stereotypes to active and overt racism, with negative encounters an indelible part of the students’ Wash. U. athletic experience.
Some students listed specific experiences, like coaches and captains joking about lynching and speaking negatively of protests for racial justice or avoiding rap music in the weight room because it was too ‘urban.’ Others had more general charges, with some students detailing how athletic trainers had ignored their physical ailments and how pushback against microaggressions was met with few changes.
“We would like to call attention to these experiences to emphasize that this is not just one team, one coach or one student but a systematic issue that has been neglected for too long,” the alumni wrote toward the end of their letter to the administration.
That outpouring of support from alumni only made the members of WU BLAC more committed to their fight. “We have huge social unrest and all of these things with Black Lives Matter, and I’m sure that fueled wanting to get something going in the Athletic Department,” said junior Samantha Weaver of the women’s basketball team, the WU BLAC communications chair. “But I think there’s always been a sentiment to have something like this.”
‘They just felt like we should be able to do better’
WU BLAC’s roots go back to the fall of 2019, when Watson-Haynes and Jose worked with Senior Associate Athletic Director Summer Hutcheson and others in the administration to plan a social event specifically for student-athletes of color.
Then, this past February, students organized a Black History Month social media campaign on the official athletic department accounts. Plans for other initiatives had to be postponed because of the pandemic.
The summer’s renewed focus on racial justice kept the topic in conversation. Knowing that the pair had been planning events for Black student-athletes and other student-athletes of color, Mack approached Watson-Haynes and Jose with the idea to form a new organization. By the second week of August, the students had launched WU BLAC, taking inspiration from similar student groups on campuses nationwide but making the organization their own.
Director of Athletics Anthony Azama was instrumental to the organization from the beginning. “He’s been a driving force since day one and has really given us the platform to be able to do and execute any of this,” Mack said.
Azama stressed to the students the importance of having a solid plan that could generate tangible outcomes and strived to connect them to whatever resources they needed to succeed. He and the WU BLAC executive board members began having weekly meetings over the summer that have continued into the school year, and he has been impressed by how quickly initiatives have moved since WU BLAC first came to him.
The students’ desire to be actively involved in bettering the experiences of Black student-athletes particularly moved Azama. “These young people are incredible, to want to take on the responsibility when the more convenient route is to stand on the sidelines and point a finger at the University or the Athletic Department,” he said. “They want to be part of making it better, and helping us make sure we live up to our mission and our values, creating and building a community that is focused on really helping to develop, as well as impact, others that both look like them and ones that don’t.”
As much as the students’ work impressed him, the first few meetings were still hard for Azama. “It was tough, because it’s not my intention to have a department where somebody doesn’t feel heard or doesn’t feel seen,” he said.
But the meetings were future-focused, which allowed conversations to remain optimistic. “It wasn’t accusatory. [The students] didn’t point the finger at me. They just felt like we should be able to do better,” he said. “And I feel like that every day.”
After WU BLAC’s first few meetings with Azama, Assistant Athletic Director for External Relations Chelsea Petersen began working with members to plan graphics and outreach, and the organization started to ramp up its efforts as the school year neared. They kept in mind Azama’s advice about a clear mission and ways of measuring growth and began thinking of ways to foster community among the school’s Black student-athletes.
Given the constraints of the pandemic, the initial community-building has primarily happened online. WU BLAC held an initial information session about the organization over Zoom on Aug. 16 and has accumulated 270 followers on Instagram. The Oct. 4 first GBM was a key milestone for the group’s efforts.
At the start of the Zoom call, each of the athletes changed their display name to include a phrase that described how they felt. “The common thread was that our athletes were just tired or exhausted,” Jose said. “And that’s to be expected with everything that’s going on, both COVID and the injustices of the world. It was a very eye-opening and sobering experience to be able to share those emotions with other athletes instead of always keeping them in or just talking to one other person about it.”
Having that space, even if it was purely digital, provided an opportunity that Black student-athletes had not experienced much before. Weaver described the meeting as having a “chill, family vibe.” Despite the students’ exhaustion, they were still able to share emotions and then have a good time, as they also played a game during the meeting.
“To have everyone in a single space and be able to congregate and network in that space, I felt powerful,” Mack said. “I get the sense that for our other members, it was quite powerful for them as well.”
Jose was worried that people would not show up to the general body meeting or that they would not be as interested in creating a community of Black student-athletes on campus. The meeting quickly assuaged those feelings. “Checking in with people during that call, it was very evident that we were all basically on the same page,” she said. “Practically every athlete that was on that call expressed that they were so grateful to have an organization like this.”