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Junior middle blocker Kaya Johnson serves as the academic chair for Black Student-Athletes at Penn.

Credit: Chenyao Liu

Women’s swimming senior Rachel Blackwell always tries to leave places better than she found them. That’s why she helped found Black Student-Athletes at Penn: to cultivate a welcoming community for athletes at Penn who identify as Black.

“I’m the only Black person on the swim team, so I never really saw someone like me throughout my four years,” Blackwell said. “Hopefully, one day, if there’s another African American on the swim team or thinking about competing for any team for Penn, they know that they have a safe space to go to.”

Nearly three years since its inception in 2021, Blackwell presides over the group, which has grown into a multifaceted organization that also pursues service projects in the Greater Philadelphia area.

“This month, we're doing a second round of BSAP Gives Black, where all the Penn Athletics teams buy from and support Black-owned businesses,” Blackwell said. “We've also collaborated with Ase Academy to do a field day to show younger students that there are people who look like them who are competing in athletics and still excelling at an institution.”

Women’s basketball junior Iyanna Rogers, who serves as community outreach director for BSAP, came up with the idea behind BSAP Gives Black last year to counter the performative activism that occurs especially during Black History Month. This year, a prize awaits the winning team, and Rogers is looking into expanding the challenge in the future to include Black student-athlete groups at Drexel and Temple.

Her visions for BSAP’s impact aren’t limited to University City, however: Rogers reached out to a program called The Brotherhood Sister Sol in her grandmother’s community in New York and was able to partner with them to give New York high school students a tour of Penn.

“Since it's still our first couple years, I'm trying to lay the foundations,” she said. “That way, we can be prepared for when we have annual events.”

Most recently, BSAP hosted a Black History celebration on Feb. 11 followed by a Super Bowl watch party.

On Jan. 5, Penn Athletics announced that Taunita Stephenson ​​would become the department’s first ever head of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, making Penn the last Ivy to have a DEI representative in athletics. 

“Something that’s been really important to me throughout my time at BSAP has been pushing for Penn to be held at the same standard as the other Ivy Leagues,” Blackwell said. “Now that [Stephenson] is here, I’m really excited to work with her and continue with all the momentum that we’ve been achieving.” 

BSAP also provides academic support to student-athletes: women’s volleyball junior Kaya Johnson serves as academic chair for BSAP, a position through which she’s been able host course planning meetings to help underclassmen plan their schedules as well as work on BSAP’s various community outreach programs.

As the organization grows, one of its main goals is to amass funding to keep expanding their reach. Last year, BSAP sent a group of students to a Black student-athlete summit in California, and the group hopes to provide even more people with the opportunity this year.

When asked about Penn’s journey from a DEI standpoint over the past years, Blackwell acknowledged that she’s seen an increased willingness to learn and understand differences on campus, referencing initiatives like “A Long Talk About The Uncomfortable Truth,” a program that Penn sports teams underwent recently about systemic racism and how it’s changed over the years.

She added that there’s still work to be done.

“During Black History Month, I always see these posts on the Penn Athletics Instagram,” she said. “But given that there are so many student-athletes whose needs still aren’t being met from a diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint, it was really important to me that we work with the administration to make sure that there’s real meaning and substance to the initiatives that they're putting out.”