aerial shot of football field

Teaming Up

Social justice and the student-athlete experience

Aaron Todd ’00 M’06

Led by the Black Laurentian Athlete Coalition (BLAC) and the Saints Social Justice Action Committee, student-athletes and athletic department staff are working to open up constructive dialogue on race and racism and the student-athlete experience at St. Lawrence. 

In the wake of nationwide protests for racial justice sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, one of a number of high-profile murders of Black Americans, Saints Football Defensive Coordinator Jacob Lees started reaching out to the Black players on the St. Lawrence football team to check in and see how they were doing.

Coach Jacob Lees and athletes doing drills

Coach Jacob Lees and athletes during a small group practice in the fall.

“Obviously, everyone was handling it differently,” says Lees. “I’d dealt with racial issues in the past, but not to the extent that you were seeing on TV and in the news. It definitely opened my eyes.” The string of violent and disturbing incidents, often accompanied by graphic video documentation, that Lees and others around the country were confronted with occurred mainly during the summer while students were at home. However, it soon became clear that Black student-athletes and athletes from underrepresented communities needed more ways to be able to talk about issues of racial justice with their peers at St. Lawrence once they returned to campus.

Lees is now trying to help cultivate those conversations through BLAC, which came from the Black Laurentian Initiative, a grassroots student coalition that was founded over the summer to coordinate student influence on anti-racism strategies at St. Lawrence. Along with his co-advisor, Men’s Basketball Coach Chris Downs, Lees hopes to give all St. Lawrence student-athletes a safe space to have conversations about race and racism and carry that dialogue back to their teams and locker rooms.

“In the beginning, we all shared our stories and then, we built on that,” says Makyla Kelley ’22, a junior on the women’s squash team, who knows talking about race is not easy. “A lot of people are just trying to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in these types of conversations,” she says.

While the discourse on race and racism is uncomfortable for many, coaches recognize the importance of having these discussions with their players, even if it means giving up a little bit of time each practice to do it.

“What’s five more minutes off the warmup if I allow them space to have conversation or split them up and get strategic?” says Sinead McSharry, head women’s soccer coach and co-chair with Mare MacDougall Bari, assistant women’s hockey coach, of the Saints Social Justice Action Committee. Five minutes may seem like an insignificant amount of time to some; however, McSharry sees the value in giving students multiple opportunities to reflect and work through issues as they come up. “It might only be a small amount of time, but the impact is huge,” she says.

While BLAC is a student-athlete-led organization, the Saints Social Justice Action Committee was formed over the summer by Senior Associate Vice President for Athletics Bob Durocher, who recruited staff to head up the division’s collaboration on issues of racial equity and inclusion. Despite the fact that the pandemic has prevented in-person meetings, the committee has organized virtual workshops with Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Kimberly Flint-Hamilton and Jill Kochanek, a coaching facilitator and Ph.D. candidate in kinesiology and the psychosocial aspects of sport at Michigan State, with the entire athletic department taking part.

“Through the Saints Social Justice Action Committee, St. Lawrence’s Athletics Department has taken some very critical steps in understanding racism, racial justice, and anti-racism,” says Flint-Hamilton. “One or two meetings alone can’t do much to change a culture, but the action committee has been meeting weekly since the summer. These meetings raise awareness of the challenges, provide training, and prompt important discussions. By including members of the Black Laurentian Initiative in their meetings, they are providing opportunities to connect across differences and share experiences. They’ve dedicated themselves to doing this work, and it is truly a model of what it means to foster inclusion across differences.”

Conversations with student-athletes of color have led to some difficult, but important, revelations. “It’s so very important to consider the experiences of our coaches, staff members, and student-athletes of color in a way that takes the onus off of them to be our tutors on race,” says MacDougall Bari. “We have to facilitate necessary conversations, no matter how uncomfortable, about what their experiences say about the ways in which Saints Athletics need to be more inclusive and committed to equity.”

As a predominantly white institution located in a predominantly white rural region of New York state, there are recruiting challenges. When Lees was interviewing at St. Lawrence two years ago, one of his concerns was whether the North Country would be a safe place to raise his family. Lees, who is Black, and his wife, Becky, who is white, were parents of a newborn baby boy, Amari.

“Those were some of the questions I asked in the interview, about what it was like in the area,” says Lees. “Everyone said it’s a great place to raise a family, and every day, we’re glad we made the decision to move here, but we had questions for sure.”

Beyond diversifying coaching staff, members of BLAC are working on ways they can help St. Lawrence’s recruit a more diverse cohort of student-athletes. Both Kelley and Kaleb Davis ’22, a junior on the football team, say that staying with a Black host during their overnight recruiting visit played a huge role in their decision to come to St. Lawrence, because they could ask questions about what it was really like to be Black at St. Lawrence.

“(Recruits) want to know what it’s like in the dorm, in the classroom, and in day-to-day life on campus,” says Lees. “Coaches, we’re not living that life. We’re only seeing them for meetings or on the field, but we’re not in the dorms. We don’t know what it’s like in the dining hall and what the social aspect of things are like, so I think having the opportunity to interact (with other Black students) to answer any questions is key.”

“I think BLAC could also be a resource in recruiting,” says Davis. “If you don’t have people of color on your team, (recruits) could meet with members of BLAC and we could tell them about the resources that we offer, how we have support, and how the school is still a great place for us.”

In the fall, BLAC partnered with the entire athletic department to raise money for continuing education and programming on issues of racial justice for athletes and coaches. “We’re asking for support,” says Kelley. “We’re asking for someone to be right there beside us. Learn and educate yourself. That’s all we can do. We can’t really force anybody to do anything, but learning is the first stepping-stone to what we’re trying to do.”

“We are committed to keeping our work rooted in hope,” says MacDougall Bari. “We are working hard so that students who feel or have felt marginalized at St. Lawrence can find hope in the work our committee is doing to make our community a better place for everyone.”