Diversity: A New Conversation

Article I wrote featured on ILWomen, the full article can be viewed here.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the great opportunity to sit down with Halley Quilinan and chat all things lacrosse. Out of our conversation, she asked me if I’d be interested in writing for ILWomen. Since I love writing, and especially about lacrosse, my answer was an immediate yes. One of the topics we started discussing was race in the sport, and things I noticed through my time as the program director for the Washington Inner City Lacrosse Foundation (aka WINNERS Lacrosse). WINNERS is a nonprofit organization bringing lacrosse, mentoring, and life skills to D.C. youth in public and charter schools for free.

Last week, she asked if I wanted to talk about it right out the gate. I was slightly apprehensive, knowing at the time I was working on my coming-out story for my blog on LM Lax Training. I realized I couldn’t control timing and this is a really important issue. I’m not writing about potentially controversial topics to try to shove my opinions on others, I’m hoping that through my narrative there might be understanding and through understanding, we can create action to incite change where it is so desperately needed.

So, let’s do it, let’s talk about race. First, let’s get this out of the way and state the obvious – I’m white. I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what being a person of color is like in the sport of lacrosse, or society in general. However, I wanted to share my experiences with you all and hopefully bring to light a significant issue. The problem I’m talking about isn’t that there is a diversity problem, because everyone knows that already and I’ve experienced it firsthand. It’s been talked about a hundred times, most recently by George Mason head coach Jessy Morgan. The problem is that the light shone on it keeps burning out. Maybe that happens because we don’t know how or what to do about, either way, I’m going to talk about it in the hopes to create a way for EVERYONE to be involved.

My work with WINNERS and race were highly intertwined. As the program director, it was my job to make sure the programs succeed. One of the metrics we determine success is by the number of participants in the program. A large portion of my job was to go into D.C. public and charter schools to try to get kids to play lacrosse, and it was a challenge I’m not going to lie. Eventually, we found what worked through videos and demonstrations, and I began to make the most amazing connections with these kids. WINNERS opened my eyes in an entirely new way involving race relations in our country, the education system, and especially why kids might be turned away from the game. There was A LOT that I was processing. I was constantly left with questions and the only thing I could think of to do was to keep doing my job to the best of my ability. Yes, I knew that race was a problem for the sport, but why isn’t this a topic of constant conversation? How is it possible that D.C. sits right in between two lacrosse hotbeds in Maryland and Virginia, and WINNERS is the only organization providing youth lacrosse? Why does it seem that only some in the lacrosse community “get it”? I don’t have all the answers, but I think I know how we can help.

To be able to help, we all need to talk about it. To be white and talk about race is hard, and hard for me because although I am empathetic and I’d like to think “woke,” it’s hard to speak about something you have never experienced. The thing is to discuss topics like race, sexuality, religion, you need all different kinds of people to stand up for what is right to make change and that’s why I’m speaking up. To discuss race in the sport, and to discuss race at all as a white person you must acknowledge your privilege. However, this kind of privilege isn’t always financial, although in many cases it is. I understand the pushback, because I wasn’t privileged in that sense either. My parents worked so hard to get myself and my two siblings to go to private schools, pay for our lacrosse lessons, SAT tutors, everything. My dad is in the restaurant business and my mom is a nurse. One of the reasons I got to where I am today is because they were my example of what hard work looks like, and I work hard now to one day repay them for this.

However, I am privileged when it comes to race, because until college I never once thought about it. I never was in a situation and became aware of my race. I never thought I had to change how I acted or what I wore because of who I was around, not once. Even though I have experience feeling “othered” being gay, I am privileged in the fact that I can choose when or not to show it or to tell people about it. My first and only experience feeling anything similar to this was when I went to a Giant near our storage unit at WINNERS. I was walking around the store, and I’m not sure why but it just hit me that I was only white person in the store. I can’t explain it really, it was just weird, and slightly uncomfortable once I was made aware of it. Children of color in the sport of lacrosse, and many across the country in general, feel this all the time.

When I was at WINNERS, I went to a seminar on program retention. The moderator asked everyone to discuss some of your challenges with getting kids to sign up for the programs. One of the reasons I stated was because lacrosse doesn’t have the best reputation (although, I believe we are improving). The woman looked at me and said, “lacrosse is commonly called the white people sport around here; if I was a parent I wouldn’t want my child to play something that doesn’t include them.” Yes, this is a true story. I give it up to the recent Kohl’s and Under Armour ad for showing girls of color playing the game. Prior to this, people of color in lacrosse advertising were largely missing. It is a problem that kids around this country still don’t feel like this sport is for them, that they are welcome.

So what can we do?

Lacrosse manufacturers, look at the example StringKing is setting. In one year, they donated over 200 sticks to WINNERS Lacrosse alone. I’ve seen the images of them giving to others as well. Thank you for your commitment to grow the game.

Lacrosse media, continue to show diversity in the images and videos you are creating, and stories you share for publication and through advertising.

Lacrosse community, research organizations that are focused on growing the game to every boy and girl they possibly can. These organizations are all over this country and they need help. Really anything helps whether that’s donating money or gear, or even volunteering to coach!

Teammates of players of color, PLEASE avoid what are known as “microaggressions.” These are small, insensitive comments that you might not think are a big deal but to people of color are annoying and only make them feel even more like outsiders. I’ll give you some examples here: “Can I touch your hair?”, “I didn’t think you’d like country music”, “You don’t act like a black/Asian/latino/etc. person”, “You don’t speak Spanish?”, and so on. In the gay community, I assimilate this to questions like “so who’s the guy and who’s the girl in your relationship?” There are a bunch of videos and information about it on the internet if you want to look more up. What you can do to support your teammates of color, is ask them questions about their culture, be cognizant of what's going on in the world around you, let them know you're there and you care, recognize that they are going through a different experience than you, don’t assume they’re just used to everything or completely ignore it. We must show the world that lacrosse is for EVERYONE.

Some might think, who is this 24 year-old telling me what to do? Or maybe, wow it’s easy for her to say all of those things when she doesn’t work there any more or maybe you thought it was easier for me to do everything since it was my full-time job. I worked many hours and weekends to ensure that our programming was the best that it could be, going well beyond what you’d consider “standard” work. I just started a goalie training company and am dedicated to donating a percentage back to WINNERS from that and I will be helping with both the Charm City Youth Lacrosse Organization and Baltimore Lacrosse (of Harlem Lacrosse) when I can.

There is always SOMETHING you can do to help in the effort to grow the game so we are an inclusive sport, and finally rid the bad reputation this amazing sport has unfortunately been given. I clearly am passionate about this topic, and people don’t mean it in an offensive way, but some will ask “why do you care so much?” and my answer is always the same – “why don’t you?”

This isn’t just an issue for people of color, it’s an issue for everyone. I see the big picture; the dream where you are driving across any part of the country and see a lacrosse goal. As the lacrosse community, this is where we must stand together, bring and welcome everyone with open arms. I listened to a podcast recently where they were discussing the “ally safety pin phenomenon” where people say they’re allies and put on a safety pin but don’t act to make anything better. Lacrosse community, I am challenging you today. What will you do today to make the sport more inclusive tomorrow?