Layshia Clarendon, Keia Clarke talk New York Liberty 2020 social justice initiatives

Team celebrates Junteenth with star-studded panel focused on the holiday and the "spectrum of voting"

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Graphic courtesy of New York Liberty media relations.

With the official announcement from the WNBA that a season is in our midst that includes a commitment to social justice, all hands are on deck for the Liberty. This dedication doesn’t come only from the entire roster, but is very purposeful on the business side, and the front office.

“You should know this is a part of our DNA and this is a part of our commitment, so regardless of what the greater execution looks like, I know it's incredibly important to all of the players right now,” COO Keia Clarke told The Next in a phone interview.

Even before the global demonstrations in response to the murders of Black lives, the team’s marketing department hatched an idea to put on a virtual Juneteenth celebration. Clarke mentioned that when the team was based in Westchester for two seasons, the organization had a history of getting involved in White Plains’ annual Juneteenth parade.

“It really began as we were new to that community, we wanted to engage in an event that so closely tied to the types of events around this theme of racial equality and representing for Black Americans,” she said.

Hosting a celebration sponsored by the team was the next step, and with most fans sheltering in and continuing to social distance, it only made rational sense to present the event virtually. Hosted by the Breakfast Club’s Angela Yee, the panel includes veteran point guard and activist Layshia Clarendon, along with an appearance from Rapsody, who wrote and performed the Liberty’s 2019 fight song “Liberty Loud,” and the return of advocate Topeka K. Sam.

The star-studded event represents one of the first visible collaborations between the Liberty and the Brooklyn Nets, as small forward Garret Temple will also be featured. In assembling this group, Clarke wanted to make sure she had panelists from different aspects of public life including leaders from popular culture, entertainment, and the nonprofit world who were all willing to get political while also operating in a way that brings the Liberty’s internal and external communities together.

We’re about to turn Juneteenth into a National Holiday! How it already isn’t...I digress. Something that was once only talked about within small circles of black folks is now becoming a part of the national conversation. Google Juneteenth if you don’t know what it is. Take a second to let what you read sink in. Slavery was abolished, yet literal armed soldiers had to go free the last slaves in Texas years later to enforce the emancipation proclamation. We’re also talking voting, black political power and how it’s about more than the primary elections every 4 years. Can’t wait! Link in bio to register! #Juneteenth #WeTakingOver #BlackFourthOfJuly
June 18, 2020

Clarke mentioned that Temple’s intent to get a legal degree after basketball and his reasons for that pursuit contributed to inviting him to be a part of the virtual event. According to her, his story is unique and he has a perspective that ought to be heard.

“You don't often see an organization recognizing this day or holiday like it's not even something all teams or organizations post about,” Clarendon said. “You know it's [usually] just like another day, and all the super woke Black people post on their social media, and our team did, and I think it's really cool to be a part of it.”

The event will begin by introducing Juneteenth to the audience and then followed by a more in-depth discussion as to how voting is more complex and extensive than just this fall’s presidential race.

Clarendon said she hopes that whoever listens in will be ready to learn, as the history involving Juneteenth’s significance has been largely ignored in the “normal school system.”

“I hope education comes from this first and foremost,” she said. “People understanding why this holiday exists, and then understanding that it took two more years for all the slaves to even get free after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. And to kind of get a deeper glimpse into the history of this country and the work we have left...a lot of work left to do.”

Another goal of Clarendon’s is to be able to communicate clearly what the full spectrum of voting looks like in this country. She wants citizens to find value in the local elections which include council members and prosecutors, as those are the officials that can directly advocate and enact appropriate change for all Black and brown people.

They also want to further discuss voter suppression, shining light on WNBPA advocate Stacy Abrams’ organization Fair Fight, which conducts litigation, legislation and advocacy to challenge “poor election management and systematic voter suppression.”

“There's just so many layers that go into voting from the suppression to the education to the local politics to who are our prosecutors that are the ones sending these Black people to jail,” Clarendon said. “It's trying to get people to understand and educate them across all of these. The spectrum of voting, it's not as simple as show up to the polls and vote.” 

Clarke views the event similarly to Clarendon, citing the vital education piece, but she hopes that the panel serves as a catapult for further action, giving folks who are watching the program and are a part of it, the tools they need to make a difference in their own communities.

“This is a conversation for the listeners, for the participants, for the people who signed up,” she said. “I'm sure that they are focused on  learning and figuring out ways to make a difference.”

Social Justice centered events will continue with Virtual Pride

Looking ahead to next week, Clarke previewed what is on the horizon for the team’s virtual pride celebration. Commencing during the last full week of June, the programming will focus on action, awareness, advocacy, and education within the LGBTQ+ community. And like all of the Liberty’s social justice and unity oriented programming, the pride-themed events will all be intersectional.

Clarke mentioned that there will be a panel led by BIPOC (Black and indigenous people) sharing their experiences along with an event centered around LGBTQ+ inclusion within corporate culture. The question: how can businesses engage and what strategies can they use internally and externally to support their queer employees?

On Tuesday, June 23, Clarke promised a Liberty-only event that will feature members of the front office, coaching staff and players. Expect a video conference happy hour as well that will include a DJ and some music, similar to how the team curated its own draft party on Facebook live in April.

Pride programming historically has been some of the Liberty’s most popular, and Clarke didn’t want to deprive fans. “This is always one of our biggest nights in arena, so we just wanted to provide something for everyone,” she said.

Organizing and Advocating in Florida

While there is now some certainty surrounding a 2020 WNBA season, there are still a myriad of unknowns. How does an organization grow women’s basketball and promote an Olympic-style isolated season in COVID-infested Florida? How do the players intend to use their platform when they are in the bubble and without the ability to do community outreach?

While the Liberty COO is up for the challenge, she noted some disappointment when it came to the team’s reintroduction to the city of the New York.

“At the beginning of COVID-19, I would often talk about this as a delayed gratification or when we finally play at the Barclays so I'll say… that a half step toward a little bit of that satisfaction in that we will see the New York Liberty play this summer,” she said. “We will have to have WNBA basketball, so I have to look at the silver linings and that we have to remain flexible.”

The execution of a virtual draft party and pride celebration, along with the launching of Kickin’ it with Kia, has prepared Clarke and her staff for this moment and its potential to help propel the franchise. She noted that there are other players who have expressed a willingness in lending their personalities and interests to further engage with a growing Liberty fanbase.

Once the front office understands logistics in Bradenton, Florida, a goal will be to find a way to make sure the organization and its players “reach back” to Brooklyn. Clarke expressed the importance of on-site staff being able to assist with engagement and fan interaction.

“What we've heard directly from the players in terms of their commitment to being there and wanting to do these things is all the more important right now, so I couldn't be happier about the opportunity,” she said. “Now, you know, just got to put things into action.”

For Clarendon, while the WNBPA First Vice President acknowledges the potential difficulties, she remains motivated and energized by the opportunity that 2020 presents the league. It’s unprecedented but presents advantages. During a travel-heavy regular season, bonds that usually don’t form will.

Clarendon thinks about the “bubble” in terms of how activists organize. Instead of having to get player representatives from WNBPA to coordinate messaging to their teammates, being all in the same place creates opportunities to have in-person meetings, which makes scheduling less of a concern. Clarendon noted that having roundtable discussions and recording podcasts will be other methods that the women of the WNBA will use to their disposal.

“So I think with the collective power we have the opportunity to amplify the message of Black Lives Matter and our messaging around voting,” the guard said. “And organizing is what I think is gonna be really powerful and people are kind of sleeping on.”

Now how exactly are the New York Liberty players looking to use their platform? Clarendon alluded to the team brainstorming some phrases for their shooting shirts that call out social injustice, reminiscent of the 2016 WNBA protests. The former Cal Bear also told The Next that the players had a discussion about what they all understand defunding the police to be. Also, Clarendon mentioned that Kiah Stokes spoke to the group about her experience marching in Minnesota. Clarendon expressed the importance of giving her teammates a “space to say how they feel.”

What Clarendon has found the most interesting, however, about discussing racial injustices with her teammates is how the focus has expanded. The Liberty are a global team, and racism around the world is very much part of the discussion.

And then we had some great conversations with Kia Nurse also about Canada, and there's racism in that country. Of course, talking about the US then obviously with the league our league that is in the US but, what's really interesting about our team is that they take it global. The things Amanda [Zahui B.] has talked about with us that I've never thought about as her experience as a Black European.  And as someone who lives in Sweden, because again we only contextualize racism [in] America because this is where we live… and so our team has a really unique perspective… and that's been really interesting for me to learn. I think it will be really interesting that as they start to talk, more that fans will learn also.

While the Liberty won’t be in Brooklyn in July, that doesn’t mean they won’t be #LibertyLoud.