Editor’s Note Episode 7: Black athletes foster community and change

| Multimedia Editor

From Greek Life to campus policing, this semester we’ve seen students grapple with the ways systemic racism permeates Washington University. In this episode, we focus on how Black student-athletes are pushing for change. Multimedia Editor Jaden Satenstein talks to Associate Editor Matthew Friedman and Senior Sports Editor Dorian DeBose about WU BLAC, a new organization fostering community within and advocating for the needs of Black student-athletes.

Editor’s Note Episode 7: Black athletes foster community and change can be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Soundcloud.

Graphic by Christine Watridge

Music by Copy Chief JJ Coley

The transcript of the episode can be found below. It has been lightly edited for clarity:

JADEN SATENSTEIN (0:10-1:14) From Greek Life to campus policing, this semester we’ve seen students grapple with the ways systemic racism permeates Washington University. Today, we focus on how Black student athletes are pushing for change.

I’m Multimedia Editor Jaden Satenstein, and you’re listening to Editor’s Note, Student Life’s weekly podcast breaking down our biggest stories with the reporters and editors that covered them. 

In an effort to create a greater sense of community for Black students within the Wash. U. Athletics Department and advocate for their needs, a group of Black student-athletes formed the Washington University Black Letterwinning Athletes Coalition, or WU BLAC. Associate Editor junior Matthew Friedman featured the group in a two-part series in Student Life this month. I talked to Friedman and Senior Sports Editor Senior Dorian DeBose to get more insight into the group’s founding and work so far. 

Matthew, could you first provide us with some context about how WU BLAC was formed?

MATTHEW FRIEDMAN (1:15-1:58) Yeah, Jaden, it started in the summer, but its roots go back a lot further. So Caira Watson-Haynes and Eka Jose are two seniors in the Track & Field team and they’ve been doing a lot of the work to better the experience of Wash. U.’s Black student athletes for some time now. Last fall, they organized a social event for students of color–student-athletes of color, generally, rather, working with the Athletic Department. And then in February they did a social media takeover on a lot of the Athletic Department social media channels for Black History Month. So their work has gone back a lot farther than the last couple months, but then over the summer Kameron Mack, who’s a junior on the Wash. U. Men’s Basketball team approached Caira and Eka and was like, ‘Hey, let’s make this into an organization.’

JS  (1:59-2:05) In what ways have WU BLAC members experienced systemic racism manifest itself within Wash. U. Athletics?

DORIAN DEBOSE (2:06-2:38) A lot of it’s representation. So, I know that when I would be talking to Caira one thing she would point out is that there was one Black coach for the entire Track team. And, throughout her time doing track before she got to Wash. U., she’d always seen a lot more Black people represented in track. She thought it was bizarre that there wasn’t that many people within the Wash. U. athletic community who really could speak to the Black and experience, despite the fact that, like, there were a number of Black athletes.

MF (2:39-2:59) One of the things that Kameron Mack told me was that the Black student-athlete experience at Wash. U. is the product of the sum–– It’s like the sum of microaggressions. So each individual rule or each individual time where a Black student-athlete doesn’t see someone else who shares their experience, that all adds up.

JS (2:40-3:16) Many of these microaggressions were outlined in a letter to the department signed by almost 250 recent alumni of Wash. U.’s athletic programs. The letter documented dozens of racist and homophobic offenses committed by students and staff. How do you think this alumni support has impacted WU BLAC’s efforts?

MF (3:17-3:58) This is something that Samantha Weaver, who’s a junior on the Women’s Basketball team and is the WU BLAC communications chair, talked a lot about, is how, I think that those experiences and having them all in one place demonstrated that this is not one specific issue, but that it is everything. But that it is systemic. That it is not the kind of thing that one initiative is going to alleviate, but that it goes so much deeper than that. And I think another thing was that having all the experiences out there from the alumni, it was validating for some of the people that I talked to, just in terms of seeing that they were not alone and having had these experiences.

JS (3:59-4:07) WU BLAC members have also found that validation from each other. Jose told Friedman about the overall feeling of the group’s first Zoom meeting on October 4th.

EKA JOSE (4:08-4:43) The common thread was that our athletes were just tired or exhausted. 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

JS (4:44-4:48) In addition to community building, what changes are WU BLAC organizers advocating for?

MF (4:49-5:59) So there are a lot of things that they’ve been talking about with the administration, some of which have already gone into place. So one of the things that we talked about was how Black student athletes are being included in the hiring discussions now for various positions throughout the Athletic Department….It sounded like in the past, based on those experiences in the letter to the administration that I was talking about, Black students hadn’t always felt heard by the athletic trainers, where their complaints were passed off. They were just told to get over it, or things like that. So I think that that is, in hiring, one of the big things that they focused on. 

One of the things that the athletic director, Anthony Azama, told me was that they’re trying to put more money into recruitment of student-athletes. So giving coaches bigger budgets, so that they can diversify the pool. “Take a deeper dive” were the words that he used. He wants the coaches to be able to get off the beaten path and to develop connections in communities that they might not have had connections with in the past. And I think that gets at another big part of what WU BLAC is trying to do. They’re trying to establish a more robust and holistic relationship with the St. Louis community.

JS (6:00-6:13) Going off of WU BLAC’s discussions with the department, how have members’ experiences been working with the athletic administration on this, and how has that been similar or different to the experiences of other groups advocating for change within the University?

DD (6:14-7:16) It seems like their experience with WU BLAC has been a lot more productive than a lot of other groups around Wash. U.’s experiences have been. I think working with Anthony Azama has probably been a big part of that. I think he, in particular, seemed really receptive to a lot of the things that we’re talking about. And I think that when they first approached the Athletic Department to start having these conversations, I think they were met with an administration that was more than willing to at least try to understand their perspective on things. 

I think in general, Wash. U. is not all that good about actually acknowledging where it has problems. Whereas I think that the Athletic Department, at least on this issue, seemed gung-ho to change already. Like they seemed like they were ready for this kind of activism, and in a lot of ways, it seems like they’ve embraced it.

MF: (7:17-7:41) I think that Director Azama was very impressed by how organized and efficient WU BLAC was right from the start. One thing that he told me a couple weeks ago when I talked to him was that they didn’t come pointing a finger at the athletic administration from the beginning. They were like, ‘All right, here’s what we want, here’s how we think we might be able to do it, but we want your help to get it done. We want to get this stuff implemented.’ 

JS (7:42-7:48) Going forward, what are some of your biggest questions about the future of WU BLAC?

DD (7:49-8:41) So activism at Wash. U., in my opinion, kind of happens in four-year cycles. Like there will be waves of it where students over the course of their time at Wash. U. become involved with initiatives, and over time as they graduate and move on, a lot of times different things that they push for kind of get cast in the wayside…So, you have the leadership of this organization who will be graduating in the next two years-ish, and I’m curious how the organization will look and how they can sustain this organization. I’m hopeful that they will be able to, and that WU BLAC becomes a fixture within the Athletic Department, but history gives us reasons to be pessimistic about activism at Wash. U. being able to be sustained like that.

JS (8:42-8:49) While Jose acknowledged the long road ahead, she told Friedman that she’s optimistic about WU BLAC’s ability to reach its goals.

EJ (8:50-9:19) Yes, it will take a while to accomplish or even roll out all the initiatives that we propose. It will definitely be beyond the semester and a half left that I have at Wash. U. and even maybe the time that the rest of the athletes on the exec board have at Wash. U. But eventually, I believe that everything will be executed.

JS (9:25-9:31) Editor’s Note will be back in two weeks to break down another developing story. For Student Life Media, I’m Jaden Satenstein. 

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