Student-driven change: Cal student-athletes create racial justice council

Cal Women's Basketball
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It could have been any other team meeting for Cal women’s basketball. It could have been about the season that had just ended or plans for summer training. It could have been about basketball, but it wasn’t.

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, Cal women’s basketball head coach Charmin Smith organized a team meeting. For Smith, who has emerged as a vocal advocate for racial justice, it was about creating a space where her team, which is majority Black, could discuss their frustrations and their emotions and feel heard.

“That meeting was just really real. It wasn’t fake or phony; it was real,” said sophomore guard Cailyn Crocker. “We were given the space to feel how we felt in that meeting. You didn’t have to put up a mask like you were OK because none of us were OK.”

Black players were talking. They were crying, sad and frustrated at not just this moment and the killing of Floyd, but all of the injustice, oppression and murders of innocent Americans over the course of hundreds of years.

“It was not just George Floyd’s murder that struck this chord in me. It’s not the first. It’s been happening for many, many years,” Crocker said. “I was crying, a lot of other people were crying and we had very vulnerable conversations about how we felt and experiences that we may have had with the police as Black people, or experiences we may have seen within our lives.”

While Black players spoke, other players learned. Student-athletes who didn’t share those experiences lent their support and love to their fellow Bears. Smith applauded the group of allies for listening and backing their teammates. Junior guard Sierra Richey was among those allies.

“I just wanted to support my teammates the best way I could and just give them the platform to talk about how it made them feel and how scary it was and how badly things need to change,” Richey said. “This is definitely a time for white people to sit and listen.”

That conversation was only the beginning. After those initial words, players on the Cal women’s basketball team were ready to take action. Just a day after the meeting, Richey sent a five-page document to Smith with ideas and action items for creating change.

Crocker and Richey began with ideas for change within the team, but after meetings with Smith, on-campus partners and Marissa Nichols, director of the Cameron Institute, their vision expanded to include participation from Cal Athletics as a whole in the form of a racial justice council led by student-athletes.

“You take a representative from the team and train them in having the difficult conversations on power, privilege and implicit bias so they can, in turn, turn around and have these difficult conversations with their team,” Richey explained.

Education and awareness will be two of the racial justice council’s primary goals. The council will create safe spaces for these conversations — for Black and non-Black student-athletes alike to discuss their experiences, understand racism and its history in the United States and learn how to be anti-racist and create long-overdue change.

Crocker and Richey have also spoken with other campus groups, including the Multicultural Community Center, to develop curricula and training sessions that combat racism and implicit bias. The racial justice council will seek to increase community outreach and voter awareness, giving student-athletes the skills and knowledge to research candidates and vote at different levels of government.

The council may also advocate for greater diversity, equity and inclusion within the Cal Athletics staff. Crocker and Smith have discussed the need for greater representation for Black people in coaching and administrative roles, as well as the need for training and commitment from coaches and staff to be anti-racist and create an inclusive community.

“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,” Smith previously told The Daily Californian. “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.”

Those calls to action are being heard by administrators. Crocker, Smith and Director of African American Student Development Takiyah Jackson, who has played a pivotal early role in the council’s development, have all lauded the efforts and actions of officials who have been more than open to having conversations, understanding problems and creating solutions.

“One of the things I thank Cal Athletics for is just being willing to have the conversation of areas that we can continue to grow,” Jackson said. “Thinking through how to grow in the areas that they need to grow to really achieve equity, inclusion and belonging.”

Cal Athletics is now hiring for a new position, an associate athletic director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, who will be dedicated to fostering inclusivity and racial justice within the program. Multiple projects and plans, many of which are student-driven, are being supported by administrators and may soon accompany Richey and Crocker’s work.

That work will come to fruition when the racial justice council initiative is unveiled to Cal student-athletes as part of a racial justice conversation event scheduled for Aug. 20. All student-athletes are required to attend at least one of the three “conversations” to be held over the course of the day, during which they will engage in small group open discussions about a wide variety of topics linked to systemic racism.

After those small group discussions facilitated by Assistant Vice Chancellor for Human Resources Eugene Whitlock, Nichols and other Cameron Institute staff members, Crocker and Richey will present their idea for the racial justice council.

All Cal student-athletes will have the opportunity to apply to be their team’s representative on the racial justice council. Representatives will be selected based on a variety of factors, including demonstrated interest in racial justice activism and endorsements from their respective head coaches. As of now, the plan is to have a student group read and select applications, with some oversight from Nichols and other Cameron Institute staff members.

Crocker and Richey’s efforts, as well as ongoing work from other student-athletes at Cal and across the Pac-12, are setting precedents for student-driven change at universities.

“When it comes to things that are affecting your well-being and your ability to be the best student, those are things we need to partner with students on, and we need to listen to them,” Jackson said of administrative techniques. “I hope that that dynamic and relationship, across universities and across systems, is something that happens, especially at UC Berkeley.”

That student-centered approach could alter the ways athletic programs, and the universities in which they operate, function, as students and student-athletes assume larger roles in building their communities and institutions. Such changes give Mara Rudolph, director of strategic communications at Cal Athletics, hope that this will be a sustained, ongoing effort within the athletic department.

“The fact that you have two student-athletes from one of your higher-revenue teams coming to you saying, ‘Hey, I want to do this, this and this,’ is really important,” Rudolph said. “We have enough student-athletes who support this that we are going to continue moving forward with it.”

Given just how embedded racism is in the United States, Crocker and Richey both stress the importance of making this a permanent effort.

“It can be a lasting change because we don’t want this to be, ‘Wow, it’s me and Sierra here,’ and for it to be gone when we leave,” Crocker said.

Crocker and Jackson both cited the long history of oppression and racism when discussing the need for larger social change, which has been necessary as long as the United States has existed. Permanent change is essential and has been delayed for far too long.

When interviewed, Crocker’s last statement was “Arrest the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor,” a Black woman from Kentucky killed by Louisville police in March.

Crocker’s words are a reminder that the racist system is not unique to any one place or institution. From nations to cities to our own homes to universities and college athletics, change must take place. At Cal, Crocker and Richey are a few of the many student-athletes making their voices heard and fighting for the world they want to see.

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