Penn women’s basketball senior guard Michae Jones wants everyone to understand one thing, if nothing else. Penn Athletics’ Plan of Action, which was released in June in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and ensuing protests against racial injustice and police brutality, would not have come into being without the initiative and direction of Penn’s Black athletes.
According to Penn Athletics’ statement from Athletics Director M. Grace Calhoun, approximately 30 Black athletes from Penn met with the athletics administration to construct a concrete plan to move forward.
“That Plan of Action, I do want to give props to [Penn volleyball senior] Raven Sulaimon, because she really did give the majority of those ideas,” Jones said. “Marvin Morgan and Demetri Whitsett, both [senior] track athletes, and [Penn men’s basketball senior] Jelani Williams, they were huge advocates for that Plan of Action, and they’re really the ones who initiated it.”
Williams in particular has been a particularly outspoken advocate of the movement and for change on Penn's behalf in the Philadelphia community. He has had pieces outlining his activism written in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Penn Gazette, among others. Frustrated after over a week of radio silence and inaction from Penn Athletics after George Floyd's death, Williams, along with Sulaimon, Morgan, and Whitsett, reached out to Penn Athletics to talk about what could be done.
"Different teams had spoken about it on their social media platforms, but as an Athletics Department, Penn Athletics had not made a statement, and so that's where the initial meeting stems from," Williams said. "They didn't really have anything in place, but we brought a lot to them in that meeting as far as a plan of action, and they've been very receptive. There's a task force now within the department dedicated to combating racism."
"But — complete honesty — they weren't super ahead of the issue," Williams said. "Their response to us was like, '[We] hadn't put out a statement because [we] realized it was a delicate topic,' which was valid. They didn't know what to say, and they didn't know how to say it, and they didn't want to say the wrong thing, which I understand."
The Plan of Action’s stated goal is to take first steps toward combating racism and becoming what Calhoun described as a “truly anti-racist” organization. Among other things, the plan outlined concrete measures like expanded implicit bias and microaggression training, continued efforts to diversify the athletic administration and coach staffs, and the appointment of a chief diversity officer tasked with “[coordinating] Penn Athletics’ efforts against racism.”
“I think it’s an awesome plan of action — I think [Sulaimon] did an amazing job with those ideas,” Jones said. “Penn Athletics is trying to understand where its Black athletes are coming from. We [the 30 Black student-athletes who worked with Penn Athletics] had Zoom calls with them, but it doesn’t mean anything if there’s no action to follow it, so that’s what we’re hoping for right now.”
Like Jones and Williams, Penn men’s basketball sophomore guard Lucas Monroe learned about Black Lives Matter shortly after its 2013 founding, which came in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17 year-old Black high schooler Trayvon Martin.
Even so, neither Jones nor Monroe truly understood all that the Black Lives Matter movement encompassed at the time — after all, they were hardly teenagers — but both were already intimately familiar with systemic racism. Jones recalled painful memories not only of the mistreatment that she has experienced, but also of her father’s struggles losing and being removed from consideration for jobs because he is Black.
Similarly, Monroe recalled the harrowing experience of being questioned and accused by police officers at the basketball court next to his home in Abington, Pa. simply for having been at the court when a boy his age had been bullied. They even threatened to take him — a nine year-old — to the local police station.
“At the time, I didn’t really comprehend that maybe if I’d looked a little differently [the officers] wouldn’t have been so aggressive,” Monroe said. “I was always a little bit bigger [for a nine-year-old], so I probably looked a bit older than I was ... but also I was just scared.”
Monroe explained that Penn men’s basketball had internally agreed to pursue the creation of tutoring and mentoring programs for underprivileged youth in West Philadelphia, as well as becoming more engaged in the communities that surround Penn by inviting area students to shadow the players on campus.
“That was something that we hope comes into fruition throughout this school year,” Monroe said. “We know it’s tough because of COVID. ... We’re definitely trying to do some things virtually.”
“The main thing is that we were frustrated by how Penn and Penn Athletics had a bit of a late response to what is going on,” Monroe added, noting that he felt too few people in West Philadelphia saw Penn as the resource that it ought to be.
In addition to the changes that Penn’s athletes are pursuing, the sports teams have met individually to have conversations about the experience of systemic racism in the United States. For men's and women's basketball, those meetings came together organically at the urging of both players and coaches.
Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin was clear that while he found the meetings constructive, progress to combat racism at individual, group, and societal levels needs to be an ongoing process that isn’t satisfied by conversations about racial issues.
“I think you should ask the players,” McLaughlin said when asked if he personally found the meetings to be productive. “When you talk to the players — particularly the Black athletes — they’ll tell you a story. One, two, three, many, many, many more, and that’s where the listening piece has been powerful.”
Monroe echoed the positive sentiment regarding the productivity of the meetings. He saw them as a good outlet for players to share what was on their minds, and for others to listen and absorb.
Both he and Jones engage — and have been doing so for a while — in these things often, albeit in more informal settings than organized team meetings. Whether it’s a group chat discussing current events with friends or family members, or attending a rally or protest, they have found that there is always a way to be actively anti-racist on a number of scales.
As for moving forward, Jones highlighted a number of concrete steps that the University could take to make Penn a more supportive environment for Black people, particularly the athletes from whom it monetarily benefits.
“Penn can start by hiring more Black head coaches and more Black assistant coaches,” Jones said. “We have our cultural center, Makuu, which is one of the few places we have to talk with administrators who’ve experienced what we’ve experienced. Penn could even just hire more Black professors that aren’t just part of the Africana [Studies] department.”
Williams echoed Jones' call for increased representation among coaches, administrative officials, and professors, clarifying that it is not enough to hire Black professors only to teach subject matter that primarily concerns Black people. That representation, he said, is crucial to Black students being able to grow as individuals while at Penn.
Beyond seeing better Black representation in positions of power around Penn, Williams also wants to see the University do a better job of making itself a legitimately accessible academic option for more students from Philadelphia public schools.
"Opening [Penn's] doors and making it work financially for those kids to be able to come and take advantage of everything that Penn has to offer is a big part of it," Williams said. "Outside of just accepting more kids from the community, I think there probably needs to be more support put in place, whether that be tutoring, more financial aid money for them to keep up with everybody else, or a bigger space for Black and brown students."
In describing his recruiting strategy, McLaughlin said that he aims to find athletes who will be a good fit for Penn and his program, no matter what kind of background they come from.
"We're trying to go out every year and get the best fit for Penn, athletically and academically," McLaughlin said. "We have kids from public schools, we have kids from private schools, and we have kids from Catholic schools. We don't have any boundaries."
That said, Jones thinks that Penn could do more to make itself more accessible to a wider range of people.
"Just making this campus an open environment to welcome Black students from hard communities or communities where they haven’t had the resources [that others have had] and making them feel welcome [would be beneficial],” Jones said. “Making Penn a good fit for these students would be a good starting point.”
Jones sees this kind of role reversal and shifting of expectations as necessary for Penn to convert itself into the anti-racist institution that it has set out to become with the consultation and work of its Black student body.