In a year punctuated by all manner of unrest and hardship, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020 was a watershed moment. St. Paul-Minneapolis became the epicenter for the protests that erupted around the globe, demanding that Floyd’s murderers be brought to justice and that the institutions and infrastructure that have enabled white supremacy to proliferate be dismantled. Above all it was clear that passive anti-racism would no longer be tolerated: Either you actively, vocally support equality or you don’t.
It was with this in mind that the Minnesota Gophers intentionally made space for diversity and equity inclusion education as part of their training and started to find ways to put that training into action. “We’ve made [these] conversations much more of a priority than we have in the past,” said head coach Jenny Hansen. “We take time out of practice. We are purposely putting together programming for it—it’s not just reactive.”
The gymnasts have been deliberate in their efforts to continue their education and utilize their platforms to take a stand on social justice issues. “Last year we made the Stronger Together video; that was our team’s effort to raise awareness and show everyone that we are trying to take action,” said sophomore Ella Sirjord, who was the main video creator for the project. “That was the start of everything: We had so many discussions, finally started having these hard conversations and showing everyone we really care, that we want to take action and take a stand.”
Most recently this included joining with UCLA (and Iowa, who joined the meet at the last moment) by hosting a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Monday, Jan. 17—the Gophers’ season opener—to honor and remember the life and legacy of the social activist. Specifically, they focused on reading and analyzing King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“We thought it would be [most] impactful to pick a quote from the letter,” said Sirjord. “We decided to surround this [meet] around ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
The Gophers worked closely with their Diversity and Inclusion officers, Payton Owens III and Quincy Lewis, to help focus the discussion specifically on their role in the social justice movement and to draw parallels from what occurred during Dr. King’s time to what is going on in the world today. The team then recorded some of their responses to those questions, sharing them with their followers across social media and streaming the videos live during the event on Monday.
“With everything that has happened, we still are sad and we still have fear,” said sophomore Mya Hooten in one such video. “Our communities are still enraged about everything that has been going on in the world, and that’s exactly how they felt back then. If we keep ignoring systemic racism, we will never achieve equality.”
For the Gophers, as with many teams, the last two years have illustrated how critically important it is to be intentional about efforts to educate and empower themselves to be agents of change when it comes to matters of racial equity and inclusion. While crucial, this effort has required a level of vulnerability that can be uncomfortable, and Hansen along with the rest of her coaching staff have taken special care to make sure everyone on the team feels safe and respected during difficult conversations.
“The way they feel about it, the emotions it triggers, is very different for everyone. I don’t think you can ever assume that this is going to make an entire group of people feel the same way, and to acknowledge and respect that is really important,” said Hansen.
In addition to the videos and special programming that took place during the meet, Hooten also shared the message of social justice with the debut of a dynamic new floor routine set to Beyonce’s song “Freedom.”
“[This version of the song] actually opens up with Martin Luther King Jr. speaking, so I think that’s perfect,” said Hooten.
Hooten’s routine, which was choreographed by assistant coach Geralen Stack-Eaton, deliberately focuses on Black symbolism and signs of protest, most notably the raised fist. Hooten’s performance was easily the exclamation point to an electric day for the Gophers, drawing a huge reaction from the record-breaking crowd in Maturi Pavilion.
“The energy of the fans really got me going,” said Hooten with a big smile that was almost visible behind her mask.
In addition to the focused messaging at the meet itself, it was important to Minnesota to push the conversation forward and encourage those in attendance to be more aware of the big and small ways racial inequality may be present in their daily lives. There was an emphasis on inclusivity in their sponsors, including Our Colour Athletic Wrap—founded by Minnesota Gopher alumna Mary Korlin-Downs—which provides athletic tape in all different skin tones instead of the standard nude that has been the norm.
The team hopes fans were encouraged and inspired by what they saw and will be motivated to do their own self-reflection and take action in their own ways. “The actual meet will be impactful, but [what] I hope that people take away from it is that we’re doing things outside of the meet,” said Sirjord.
“[Hopefully] they walk away feeling like they learned something or they were inspired by the young women on the team and the actions they are taking,” said Hansen. “They walk away wanting to continue with that: learning more and wanting to help make changes.”
That’s the main goal for the athletes: to encourage their friends, family and fans to recognize the opportunity that they themselves have to take a stand and use their voice for social justice.
“We have a platform, and we can use it, and we can speak on things that matter,” emphasized Sirjord.
Hooten passionately agrees: “Hopefully, fans will realize, ‘Oh, I can stand up.’ When they see injustice, they can stand up [against it]. Take a stand.”
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Article by Kalley Leer with contributions from Claire Billman
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