By Barbara Cossman
Actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes. And while that may be true, in this case words — conversations — are the critical and necessary starting point. That is what University of Michigan women’s track and field graduate student Briana Nelson had in mind as her concept unfolded for what would become Wolverine Against Racism (WAR): conversations, safe spaces, educating, and ultimately, creating a ripple effect that forces change.
WAR is a new student-athlete organization officially recognized by the University, complete with a constitution and an executive board which Briana leads as president while pursuing her master’s in public health and nutritional sciences. As for so many, the killing of George Floyd back in May catapulted her into action.
“After George Floyd, that whole traumatic experience seeing the clips and videos, I really just felt that with sports being such a big part of my life and my teammates’ and friends’ lives, how can we create support and a community within this student-athlete family?” Briana explained. “And have the opportunity to process these events, while also raising awareness and have a platform to speak out against social injustice.”
A track and field teammate of Briana’s, Roland Amarteifio is also now a graduate student at Michigan, getting his master’s in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He wants to be an urban planner in the city of Detroit, to “make our cities work better for people.” A very civic-minded individual, Roland has had first-hand real-life experience in making the world a better place. For him, this is not a passing fancy.
“As everything started happening in terms of the George Floyd murder, racial injustice and systemic racism came to the forefront,” Roland explained. “… A lot of things being talked about in the media were separating individuals and forcing people to choose sides. We wanted an organization to bring people together to have productive conversations.”
So Bri, along with track and field alumna Jeryne Fish, U-M Athletics administrators Abigail Eiler and Jeff Porter, and Roland organized unity calls this summer, including one on Juneteenth. It was as impressive a Zoom call as you’re likely to see, led entirely by Michigan student-athletes expressing what Juneteenth means to them, and providing a unique opportunity for athletic department staff to converse, listen and learn from them. That’s when they announced the concept of WAR.
The key, and sadly the challenge, is keeping systemic racism and social justice front of mind and not letting this summer’s momentum die down. How do you do that though? Through conversations. Similar to former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho’s enlightening “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” (uncomfortableconvos.com), that is at the crux of what these student-athletes are talking about.
“We start with the basics: conversation, communication and support,” Bri explained. “Those first unity calls, that’s exactly what we need more of — those conversations breaking that barrier within athletics. Different teams have different dynamics and demographics.
“At the end of the day,” she continued, “it’s realizing we’re people first. First I’m a human. A lot of this is just about human rights and decency, and that’s more important than anything else — going back to fundamentals and being able to talk about that.”
And then a harsh reality set in, as if the previous statement wasn’t harsh enough. When a young, vibrant, energized, intelligent, engaging young woman states the following, though, it stops you in your tracks.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight. Trends and hashtags are great, they raise awareness but how much of it translates into your daily life?” Bri asked. “People like me, the problem, the issue at hand, doesn’t go away at night like the trend does. I still have to do everything I can to keep my car from breaking down or a headlight going out because I don’t want to be pulled over.”
People like me. The “problem.” I don’t want to be pulled over. That bears repeating — over and over — for the mere fact of what she said, but also because she is far from alone in those sentiments. BIPOC families (black, indigenous and people of color) must have these conversations with their children. Because, as Bri said, it doesn’t go away at night.
“Those are realities for me, those are everyday things for me,” stated Bri, who is also on the Big Ten Anti-Hate Anti-Racism Coalition. “And things that my teammates and my friends who aren’t people of color, they don’t have to face those same realities.”
Briana is one of the rare sixth-year student-athletes, thanks to redshirts and COVID-19. A member of just the second U-M School of Public Health undergraduate class, she first stepped foot on campus back in the fall of 2015, after graduating magna cum laude from East Kentwood (Mich.) High School. In the years since, she says she can sense a difference in the societal climate on campus, though she also admits it could be that she’s merely numb to it, another sadly telling insight.
“Coming in at a time like that, those were really tense times,” she recalled. “It did not feel great to walk through The Diag after the election; there was a lot of racial tension. There is now too, but it’s nice to see the change, the protests, the signs across campus. It makes me feel better just because I feel like if some people get it, that can help the entire campus. Things are slowly changing.
“Going into this (November 2020) election I felt a lot more support from allies and people who aren’t of color. I definitely feel more supported and the climate in general has changed.”
As we all have seen though, there remains much work to be done. With the organization’s mission to support, educate, engage and discuss, Roland explained the importance of being thoughtful and intentional in launching the organization, rather than rushing into it.
“Having a united front to advocate for real change is such an important thing,” said Roland, who has taken on an advisory role in order to allow younger student-athletes to step into leadership roles. “As student-athletes, we have different ideas of what we’d like to see change, but it’s hard to bring up to decision-makers without having a plan to present. It’s easy to talk about change, we’ve been doing that for many years, but it’s much harder to actually initiate and sustain it.”
For these student-athletes, WAR is a big first step. The next step is a mass meeting opportunity with their fellow student-athletes. Continuing conversations remains the focus, but the future includes community engagement and outreach. With two board members committed to that role — Isaiah Livers of men’s basketball and Sydney Whitaker of women’s lacrosse — the expectation has been set that WAR looks to impact more than just those on the Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus.
“As student-athletes we have several identities: an athlete, a student, being part of other things on campus,” Bri explained about being a change agent. “Take it (what you learn) there, take it back to your family, your community at home. Education is a domino effect. The more I know the more I can affect the person next to me.”
This story originally appeared in M Magazine, the official publication for University of Michigan Athletics supporters and student-athete alumni.
• We Are Listening: Social Justice Awareness
• Michigan Athletics Diversity, Equity and Inclusion