Driven By a Constant Pursuit of Equity

In May, our Engage San Francisco Literacy Coordinator, Dresden Smith, graduated with her Master’s in Higher Education. Her thesis, Dual Pandemics: Implications for the Black Athlete, looks at how the pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement impacted the way Black college athletes activism in 2020. Dresden was also recently named a Campus Compact Engaged Scholar, one of only 22 other early-career faculty and staff who lead equity-focused change with their institution and communities. Read on for Dresden’s reflection, and her research’s importance in her future career.

Recently, several Republican legislators have taken aim at Critical Race Theory, arguing for the framework to be banned in public schools, and in many states these lawmakers have been successful. Critical Race Theory can be difficult to nail down in one sentence, but that is what makes it so powerful. It is a theory crafted over time by a number of academics and activists. It is the study and the active transformation of our relationships with race and power. For myself, I define Critical Race Theory as the centering of race. When I utilize Critical Race Theory in my analysis I think, how are race and racism factors here? That is Critical Race Theory. But here in a country founded on the genocide of indeginous peoples and the enslavement of African peoples, we are allowing lawmakers to ban an analysis that centers race, an analysis that would allow us as a nation to address this violent past. People often struggle to make the connection between my work with K-5 literacy and my studies in intercollegiate athletics, but Critical Race Theory is the common tie. I believe Black children deserve a quality equitable education, and I believe Black collegiate athletes deserve a quality equitable education.

As a scholar, I study the experiences of Black athletes, specifically Black athlete activists. Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, Black Lives Matter saw a resurgence in their movement, this time with significant participation by athletes. Given the history, perceptions, and risks of participating in activism as an athlete, it has been surprising in the last few years, particularly so in 2020, that Black athletes have openly and unapologetically participated in the Black Lives Matter movement. I utilized my Master’s Thesis, Dual Pandemics: Implications for the Black Athlete, to interview Black athlete activists, and inquire about their motives and their assessment of the risks in participating in the Black Lives Matter movement.

The participants overwhelmingly agreed that their need to combat systemic racism outweighed the potential of losing their athletic career. The most fascinating finding, however, was that almost all of the participants cited formal and informal education in Black history, oppression, and resistance as a core motivator for their participation in activism. This seems obvious, but, like Critical Race Theory, Ethnic Studies has long been a contentious topic banned by universities, and remains underfunded at the universities that do have it. Students of color have had to fight and protest just to gain access to Ethnic Studies, so for these athletes to describe such forms of knowledge as transformational is pivotal. Black athletes were empowered to make decisions that best suited them and their community, rather than the institution. This is key because the dominance of whiteness in America has taught people of color to only strive to succeed within the thin boundaries provided by white supremacy, but Ethnic Studies allowed these athletes to want more. As they saw themselves in the curriculum, they saw their full potential.

My academic and professional career are both driven by a constant pursuit of equity and prosperity for all Black Americans. It is not possible to have an equitable education system for Black and brown people without Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory allows us to see that Black history is not taught as a part of American History. Critical Race theory allows us to see how our ancestors are sidelined and treated as less than. Civil Rights activist Marian Wright Edelman says it clearly, “you can’t be what you can’t see” and currently Black children are actively prevented from seeing the accomplishments of their ancestors. We know the power and importance of Critical Race theory and Ethnic Studies, and we know that is precisely why they are being targeted. So, we must fight back. We must fight for our children. We must fight to protect the legacy of our ancestors, honoring them in our work and our words. They deserve our recognition and we deserve their truth.

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Leo T. McCarthy Center • June 17, 2021

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