Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Jasper Kenzo Sundeen, senior staff writer for The Daily Californian, and Charmin Smith, head coach of the Cal women’s basketball team. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen: You’ve been relatively active on social media, in the media and out there on the streets, making your voice heard and being a part of these protests and the latest chapter in this long-standing movement. What are your thoughts about what you’re protesting for, what you think other people are protesting for and what this is about?
Charmin Smith: For me, and for a lot of Americans right now, this is really about calling attention to systemic racism in our country and trying to get people to be committed to addressing, really dismantling, the structure which this country was founded on, and helping to create a society and a country that is actually built on the things we say it is, which is freedom and justice for all. If we look at things honestly and truthfully, we know that that’s not how this country operates.
JKS: You talked about changing this system and changing the way this country operates to more fully realize some of those ideals. What are some of those changes you’d like to see, at any level, from national to local to even the sport you coach?
CS: It’s really overwhelming to think about changing a nation. What a lot of us are doing is focusing in on our own bubbles and the people we come into contact with daily and the institutions and organizations in which we operate. That definitely does bring me to athletics and this Bay Area community. I’d say the No. 1 thing is trying to use my platform to help promote the sense of urgency around voting, being that this is an election year and a lot of change that is made happens at the local level. With my team and Cal as a whole, there are a lot of people doing a lot of great things right now. From a team standpoint, Cailyn Crocker and Sierra Richey are really taking a lead in terms of being the voice for our program. They recently submitted a call to action to our administration. They want to work with other sports and our administration as a whole to kind of attack racial injustice as it exists in athletics. Hopefully, that continues out to other portions and other communities and such. (Athletic Director) Jim Knowlton and Chancellor (Carol) Christ have been phenomenal at this time and have also been committed to action at this time and have had their own call to action that they’ve been very vocal about. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. I don’t know all of the things that have to happen right now, but I know that it’s important that Jim and Chancellor Christ are on board and are committed to sitting down and listening to people and figuring out what things can get better for our institution and our athletics department.
JKS: Are there any changes you see at Cal or in your sport in general that you feel like are either critical or fundamental?
CS: It really is about attacking the system. When you look at athletics, a big thing is a lack of representation in terms of people in leadership positions. Yes, we have Black student-athletes, but how many Black people do those student-athletes get to see in positions of power? We have two head coaches who are Black here at Cal. I don’t know that you could name a Black person in senior leadership positions for athletic administration. Those are things that aren’t unique to Cal — this is how our country operates. So, we talk about attacking things in our own little bubble. I know these are things Jim and the chancellor are really serious about addressing. You look at the lack of representation of student population on our campus. That’s something that really took a hit with Proposition 209, and we haven’t been able to rectify it. It’s a serious issue and we need to continue to try to attack that issue. And I do want to make clear, this is not unique to Cal. You look at the Pac-12 conference, and there are two Black head coaches in basketball. Two in basketball, and I don’t mean in just women’s basketball, I mean in women’s and men’s basketball, meaning that there are zero Black coaches for men’s basketball. Out of the 12 institutions that have men’s basketball, there’s no Black coach. We understand the challenges we have at the professional level, when you look at head coaching opportunities and leadership opportunities at the professional level. Sports hasn’t been immune to racial injustice, and it definitely needs to change.
JKS: You’re obviously one of the few coaches in the Pac-12 and at Cal who are Black. How is that experience for you?
CS: It’s something that Black people are used to and put in this position a lot in our lives — when we are the only one or one of few. It is a ton of pressure. You often find that if you don’t do it well, the next person hired probably won’t be Black. At the same time, gosh, this is an amazing opportunity for me, and I’m just so grateful that I am the head coach of the women’s basketball team at the No. 1 public institution. It’s amazing. I want to do a great job because I want to be that role model, not just for young Black kids, but for young kids in general to just see someone in a position of power who doesn’t look like everyone else. I take that responsibility very seriously, and there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not extremely grateful to Jim Knowlton for giving me this opportunity to lead at this institution.
JKS: You talked about making systemic change. What do people need to change?
CS: It’s a long road ahead of really serious, important work. The first step is acknowledging that systemic racism does exist. You’d think that that’s easy, but it’s not for a lot of people because people choose to look away, pretend they didn’t see it, pretend the privilege doesn’t exist. And that’s really challenging because you can’t change something that people aren’t acknowledging to be there. With the killing of George Floyd, everyone saw it. Everyone saw that his life had less value than anyone else’s or else there’s no reason why that cop has his knee on his neck for that long when he was not a threat. Now it’s pretty clear to a lot of people, and that’s why this movement, this moment in time, feels different than after Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or any of the countless others. It feels different because you can’t ignore it. After the acknowledgement, a huge part of this is really being intentional in how we go about doing things. When people are inviting people into rooms of power, when people are going through their hiring practices, when people are looking for their interns or whatever it is, whatever power it is that they have, they must be intentional about diversity and inclusion if anything is to change.
JKS: You talked about Cailyn Crocker and Sierra Richey. Can you expand on their work?
CS: We had a team meeting right after the murder of George Floyd, in which I gave space for our players to say whatever, do whatever they needed. Cailyn was pretty emotional and frustrated and sad, and she shared a lot with our team. It’s just great that we have such an inclusive team, that the frustration and anger and fear was expressed by our Black student-athletes, and our white student-athletes followed up with, “Hey, we got you. We love you. What do you need?” We just have a great group of allies, and Sierra Richey is one of those allies. A day later, I had a five-page Google document from her with a list of all types of action items that she wanted to try to pursue. She and Cailyn had been working through that document, and we’ve met with campus leaders, and they sent an email to Jim Knowlton earlier this week. I’m just excited to have such motivated and driven people on our team, who understand how serious this is and the fact that they can actually make a difference.
JKS: Is there anything else you would like to add?
CS: The point is, I still love Cal and all that it can be. I want to be a part of helping this institution develop into everything that I think it can be because I do really appreciate the space that I have, the platform that I have and the opportunities that I have to impact the lives of young women.