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Preface Contributor: Carrie Spender
This blog came across my desk more than a week ago and I have not been able to stop thinking about it since. The author, Kimberly Ransom, tells the story of her community, shattered by the death of a beloved staff member and her reflections on how to support black athletes and families in your gym.
Antwon Rose II
I’d like to speak to the gym owners and more specifically, white gym owners, today. The ones who are questioning whether or not they should take a public anti-racism stance.
This weekend and the better part of last week have been an intense escalation of events in the name of justice and fighting racism. As people, you probably know where you stand and hopefully, that is in a place of anti-racism. While police brutality and the struggles of the black community aren’t anything new (400 years young, roughly), it might now be catching your attention in a different way for various reasons.
I can't pretend to have a first-hand experience of what it’s like to be black in America. I only know what it's like to be a white female. I know that I can either be part of the problem or part of the change. You can also choose to perpetuate the problem or use your platform to lead change.
As a gym owner, it is important for you to realize that whether you like it or not, there are eyeballs on you. You have an impact on both parents and kids as a teacher and an educator. You placed yourself in the role of “leader” when you opened your gym. Your leadership affects the whole life trajectories of young people. Understand that this is a pivotal point for you to speak up, be an ally, and provide a strong, unwavering source of support for the kids and families in your gym. They need to know where you stand. And if you don’t tell them, they make assumptions and create narratives for you.
Please also understand that I am speaking to you with a unique perspective.
In 2018, I still owned a gym in Pittsburgh. On June 19, 2018, Antwon Rose II was fatally shot running away from a police officer in the next neighborhood over from our gym. He was 17 years old. Some of you may have heard his name but what you probably didn’t know is that he was a Coach in my gymnastics gym. Yes, Antwon Rose II was a junior coach in a gymnastics gym and a favorite one, at that!
He had been out of our gym for a year when the tragedy occurred but he had been a great employee that we counted on for well over a year and a half. The picture you will likely pull up from Google is the one in our red tie-dyed staff t-shirts. That picture was taken in our gym from a birthday party he worked which just happened to be his (white) cousin's.
I’m telling you about him because I want you to understand that your program can be affected both directly and indirectly by racism and other social issues. Maybe the fatal situations aren't as common where you are but location depending, your staff and athletes may be experiencing other forms of micro-aggressions or even overt incidents that you don't even hear about. Right now, you have a responsibility to decide what side of history you're going to be on if not for your own integrity as a human but for your athletes, you have tasked yourself with molding- of all races.
I can’t say Antwon's name without also telling you about him.
He’s an important thread in the fabric of my gym story and of my life. I’m not even sure I’ve ever actually told his family about all of the ways we still involve him in our family life. Here are some fun facts you may not have known about Antwon: he was the preferred Afterschool Program coach by the parents; he loved to chase kids with pool noodles; the only time he called off last minute was to go to a Steven Colbert show; I think he thought I didn't know about the little crush he had on that one other junior staff member; he showed up to his interview in the middle of July in a suit and black patent leather shoes with a leather notebook and a resume - just a few days after his 15th birthday!
I drove him home from work a lot. We had meaningful conversations about what he wanted to do with his life and what school was like for him. He talked about his family every single day and was book smart like you’ve never seen. Antwon also had a bit of naivety to him and it just made him all the more sweet and lovable. You just wanted to squeeze his little face when he smiled…and oh, that smile….
Our gym was a fantastic mix of many races. We were from the day we opened the doors. We were located in a perfect geographic area to pull from many different neighborhoods and cultures and it was magical. But, if you think that racism doesn’t occur in gymnastics, I’m here to tell you otherwise. My gym was called, “the black gym” by other gyms around us. I heard the judges talking about my team kids at travel meets, not knowing I was their coach. And while I have a limited perspective because I myself am not black, I will say it’s dumbfounding to witness the level of comfort some white people have with strangers. There’s this assumed freedom of speech. As in, assuming I would entertain a white stranger's racist or ignorant remarks or excuse it, just because I also have the same lack of melanin in my skin.
The advice I’m giving you today is from the perspective of a gym owner who has already faced the “how do I handle this” internal dialogue. I will always feel like I should have done more for him. I will always feel like I didn’t show up enough for my gym families afterward. I will always regret not knowing his family as well as I do now. I think I could have helped them more than and showed up better at the time. I will always remember the exact moment I found out it was him in that shooting. And, I will definitely always remember where I was when the cop got let off. It wasn’t the verdict that traumatized me, it was the eruption of cheers in the bar I was sitting in. It’s the only time I’ve ever physically exploded or nearly been kicked out of a public establishment. I think there are still pieces of my heart stuck on that bar but I wouldn’t know because I’d never go back there.
So, for what it’s worth, here is my collection of advice to you. This is what I know and what I've learned from my experiences and mistakes. If you are on the fence about publicly supporting your athletes or the black community as a business owner, please consider these points.
Check on your families of color now. Today. Be honest. Acknowledge that this is heavy stuff, you don’t know how to fix it all but that you’re here to support and your gym will publicly support them and are open to suggestions. Remember that you are not the subject matter expert in this.
About #1, the keyword there is “public”. Closed-door support is fake support. Publicly display your support to your gym population so everyone understands where you stand on this issue. I understand it can feel uncomfortable if you are normally an introvert or typically don’t “talk about politics or religion in business”. However, this is bigger than any political or religious issue. This is a human race issue and you coach actual developing humans every day.
Understand that if you do not speak up, that IS speaking up. You will be judged accordingly by your customers and potential customers. It defines your organizational culture in the gym and your reputation in the future. How you treat your athletes is a part of your brand. This is a human issue but if you need to justify it, it will most definitely affect your business as well.
I hope you have employees of color. Check on them too. Have real conversations about how this is affecting them. I can’t imagine dealing with something like this everyday, feeling ignored and then one day you wake up and NOW everyone is concerned? It must be emotionally exhausting. Again, racism isn’t new. It just feels louder to you right now at this moment. Ask them to get real with you about their experience in your gym. If you are showing up in the staff group text as “Karen”, there’s a problem.
I hope your gym has many different races of athletes. And if so, I hope you are representing that well in your staff base. Representation and role modeling is everything. Fix it, if this is not the case.
Take a good hard look at where your privileges have been in your gym story and determine how you can dismantle or, share them. In my case, I know that I was afforded privileges with my original lease. I know that I had privileges with my original business funding. So, while I always ran a tight ship, I set aside money and plans to that allowed me to scholarship kids (both announced and unannounced) and pass on some of that privilege.
Please do not suddenly implement “Sensitivity Training”. Assess your own shortcomings and privileges first and then start fixing your organizational culture ASAP in a REAL way.
This is a big one and perhaps the hardest one to implement. I am committing to ceasing business operations with any vendors, collaborators, or customers that are known racists or are clearly not on the right side of humanity. I have a list of “nopes” that would qualify a person for this list including anything from asking me to consider your experience of racism as a white male to trying to explain to me how all lives matter. I just can't entertain that at this stage in my growth. This is deep and can be initially difficult to cut ties with people who maybe held previous important roles in your life. Still, my Bye Felicia list is growing by the day and I don't feel bad about it.
Lastly, remember that racism was happening before this. It will happen after this week. Please make sure you continue to show up and stay consistent in your efforts as an owner and a human.
I’m not saying I ran a perfect program or even that everyone liked me. I ran a gym whose strength was back-end operations and creating an amazing customer culture of inclusivity. I am proud that we were drastically different than any other gym and widely known for that. There is a place for a gym like mine in every community and there is a hole still seething from where our gym used to be. There is an even bigger hole where Antwon was.
I have been happy to see public displays from national governing sports bodies like USA Weightlifting and some mega cheer programs nationwide. They were posted swiftly and I think that speaks volumes. (Edited: I see just now that USAG has since come out with public support of #blacklivesmatter which is also commendable.) Just as child abuse wasn't a political issue, neither is racism. Racism is a human issue and I'm glad that USAG gets that. However, on the ground level, gymnastics as an industry is pretty tight-lipped and that may be an understatement. We can be slow to speak up about nasty issues but I hope we can use this as an opportunity to do better.
I urge you to go public right now with your support of the black community for your staff, family and athlete's sake. This is a time to proclaim that as an organization, you will be on the right side of humanity. But perhaps most importantly, this is a time to hold yourself accountable for your own privileges and blind spots as a leader and work to develop a gym culture that truly reflects that commitment.