'The work doesn't end' when the season does

The Liberty understand that fighting for social change is a long game

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The New York Liberty gather on center court wearing shirts that say: “Arrest the Cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” Photo via the New York Liberty’s twitter account.

Layshia Clarendon’s past few days have been a whirlwind. What began on Wednesday, August 26th as a well deserved off day at the beach for the New York Liberty transformed into a period of reckoning and reflection. In less than 24 hours, Clarendon went from playing Spike Ball to planing a league-wide vigil through WhatsApp.

After Clarendon returned to their room after participating in a Liberty sponsored panel, STAY LOUD: WHY WE #SAYHERNAME, which was designated as part of the team’s fourth annual UNITY day programing, she was met with a text from team trainer Terri Acosta: “now’s the time for the vigil.”

Acosta hatched the idea when the team first arrived in Bradenton, but the idea got lost in the shuffle when preparing for the season and getting back into game shape. But on Wednesday afternoon, Acosta knew it was time, and she, Clarendon, and Director of Basketball operations Ohemaa Nyanin sprung into action. Candles were ordered from Target. Clarendon got on the phone with WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike and Vice President Sue Bird.

It wasn’t a question of whether or not it should be done, but rather could it be done. “What do you need?,” Ogwumike asked Clarendon.

The seven-year veteran has a boatload of responsibility in this league, not only on the executive committee of the WNBPA, the league’s newly formed social justice council but also on the Liberty, a team that’s half stacked with first years. They are leading all the time, and that’s exhausting.

“It's something that we really talked a lot about, Layshia and I, off the court,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said. “[I] talked a lot about her being able to keep her tank full and rest and we're trying to… I'm trying to keep as much stuff away from her as I can because I know how much she carries on a daily basis.”

Clarendon was asked by Holly Rowe on Thursday how he has navigated emotionally throughout the aftermath of another shooting to a Black body. “It’s been tough Holly, it’s been really hard,” they told Rowe.

Clarendon contended that the league needed a pause or a “moment of healing” or reflection. “It's been heavy and it's been really difficult to carry every single day, so we're just trying to figure out how to have that self-care for ourselves.”

Before the vigil and the discussion on ESPN when the executive council announced their decision not to play on Thursday, Clarendon explained on the Liberty’s unity day pannel how difficult social action organizing is. “I'm learning the difference between being an activist and an organizer and how freakin hard organizing work is, it is draining and exhausting,” they said. “And I think that is where a lot of these conversations I've had is at the root level of like how do we organize strategically.”

Striving for social change isn’t a game that finishes after 40 minutes. This game is long, draining, and frustrating. The realities behind social justice work aren’t just what we see on the outside but rather what occurs in meetings and Zoom calls behind closed doors.

When asked about the stoppage of play, Clarendon’s teammate Jocelyn Willoughby clarified first that this wasn’t a boycott but rather was a “demonstration of solidarity.” A moment for self-care, to step back, reflect, connect with the outside world, and “refocus on the purpose of this season.”

“There hasn’t been substantial change overnight,” she told reporters.

And how can there be? And while the players understand that supporting their NBA brethren in strike was symbolic and brought more attention to the causes and movements that the players of the WNBA have been closely attuned to, they understand that this isn’t the end, but rather is a springboard.

“It brought a lot of attention to what's going on or, you know, even more attention, and there's work to continue to be done,” Willoughby said. “And so now we're, I think positioned to figure out what we're going to continue to do.”

So what’s on the docket? On Monday, the league’s social justice council was scheduled to speak with Raquel Willis, a trans activist, and writer. And the league will continue its close partnership with the Say Her Name campaign and the African American Policy Forum. Each week, the entire league honors a different Black woman who was victimized by racist police violence. Led by the social justice council, the players have had calls with the Mother’s Network to make sure that the women of the W are honoring the wishes of the victims’ families.

And in the following weeks even once the regular season concludes in mid-September, an actionable goal is to finalize a strategy to get the vote out. “The work doesn't end, we don't want it to end just like the WNBA [season] is over,” Clarendon told reporters on Friday. “It's what now? How do we continue that work, so we'll use this couple of weeks to really keep pivoting off of how we can get ready for the offseason as well.”

A consideration of Willoughby’s is not only getting folks to register but also is encouraging people to put together a voting plan. In addition to citizens around the country, she’s also thought of the WNBA rookies or even younger players in general who come November will be overseas. How will they make sure that they have a plan in place?

Continuing to be Intentional

Before WNBA players returned to play on Friday, the WNBPA Executive Committee reaffirmed its commitment to actionable items moving forward. But since the beginning of June, the formation of the social justice council has provided the players and the league with a group that intentionally is responsible for organizing, rather than just taking on performative activism. The strike taken by the NBA led some WNBA players to question really how much their work had accomplished in the past month and a half. With a smaller platform, what sizable impact were they making?

Willoughby has felt that pressure. She went through the middle of this past week feeling like she hadn’t done enough. She realized that while the change she’d like to see hasn’t arrived, it doesn’t mean that the work she and her WNBA sisters have put toward social justice isn’t without any value. It’s all valuable.

“Even though it hasn't necessarily resulted in all the changes we'd like at this point, we have to continue and it's not like we're not doing enough, there's just more to be done,” she said. “And I think coming to that realization that you know, we're not there yet but to not feel like what we're doing isn't counting was a big part of just taking care mentally and emotionally with everything that's been going on.”

Clarendon explained that living by this idea of “the big one thing” that’s going to “change the world overnight” is naive. “That's not how social justice works and that's not how organizing works,” they said.

Team members of the New York Liberty honoring the memory of Breonna Taylor prior to the game against the Seattle Storm on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images.

How does this work, work? According to Clarendon, performative acts don’t really lead to policy change. In 2020, it’s a safer space to publicly knee, but Clarendon contends that the substantive social justice work happens behind closed doors. What does the work look like behind the scenes of the protests and the kneeling?

“Don't be fooled by what you see on the outside, it's what happened behind closed doors and once you are in the organizing spaces, you really see who shows up for you and who doesn't,” they said during the Liberty’s Unity Day Panel.

On Friday, it was announced that with President Barack Obama’s counsel, the NBA and the NBPA formed their own “social justice coalition.” Clarendon was notified that afternoon by the press and appeared smug when asked if the WNBPA was spoken to before the decision and the announcement.

“No, I hadn't heard about it, that's awesome that they're doing that,” Clarendon said. “But I haven't, I haven't heard anybody from their side of the group you know just, lean like we do, just one step at a time.”

The Liberty guard did give the NBA and other sports leagues who intend to form a social justice council some advice: “be intentional.”

For a council to work, the initiatives, goals, and strategies should be calculated. The who, what, when, where, and why ought to be established. There are actionable items that can impact change sooner than others. For example, the Liberty and the Nets’ governors Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai have committed to donating $50 Million to social justice initiatives and community investments within the next 10 years. But advocating and organizing around policy change and voting might be more difficult initiatives to feel immediately and internally.

“So I would be really intentional about why you're doing it, and then I would know that organizing takes time and that's not an excuse, I think it's knowing that it's a long game,” Clarendon said regarding advice she’d give to other leagues.

Before the Liberty took on the Las Vegas Aces on Sunday, head coach Walt Hopkins noted that patience is just as essential for social justice work as it is for the development of the New York Liberty on the court.

“I think that patience in both of those spheres is essential because the types of changes that the players are fighting for that we all know are needed in the country, in the world,” he said. “And I think that the most important part is that we continue to fight for what we know is right.”

Nothing stops the resilience of Black people

Back to Wednesday evening, once the word got out and the supplies were purchased, Clarendon had a moment. They were caught up in the pace of the logistics and hadn’t considered the structure and lineup of the vigil. Who would speak, what would be said and how would it be said?

“You know you can’t force the vigil to be something you want it to be, but you want to give it some level structure,” they said.

Clarendon’s wife Jessica centered Clarendon and recommended that she read Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” to provide the group with a beacon of hope amid so much pain.

“It helped both uplift and address the gravity of where we are right now in our country, world, and where we are as a league, and the power we have to continue to rise,” Hopkins said of Clarendon’s reading.

What spoke to Clarendon about “Still I Rise” in addition to its somber tone and hopeful undertone was how it lends a reminder to its audience about the everlong journey ahead. The power of the WNBA collective is like air as well. It will continue to rise. “There's nothing that can stop the resilience of us as Black people and the work that we've done,” they said.

In the past week, Jocelyn Willoughby had thought hard about how she pushed through the voice inside her head that tells her that she hasn’t done enough. During her two days of rest and reflection, she thought about how she can persevere and push through her inner critic. In learning how to be resilient, she had to accept that her participation in the social justice programming has value, even if at the current moment she can’t quantify it.

Resilience and its power is nothing new for the New York Liberty in 2020. Amanda Zahui B. has said time and time again how tough and relentless her teammates are on and off the court. But what about Zahui B.? On Sunday, her own mental and emotional fortitude came on full display during and after New York’s loss to Las Vegas.

She helped the Liberty outrebound the best rebounding team in the league and set a franchise record with 21 rebounds in a game. But that wasn’t the most impressive accolade of the day for the Liberty’s center. During the team’s postgame presser, Zahui B. couldn’t bring herself to talk about how she and her team contained A’ja Wilson for three quarters.

Zahui B. broke a franchise record with a broken heart. She played her heart out for her uncle who is being deported from Stockholm, Sweden back to the Ivory Coast. “I’m tired of White people having so much power and then just being evil and cruel with it,” she said.

Zahui B. wanted to be vulnerable and honest about what had been on her mind all day and that entire week. She was tired but she also wasn’t afraid of making people around her at that moment feel uncomfortable so that they could in turn learn alongside her.

For New York, neither the work nor the conversation ends after 40 minutes or even in four months. The Liberty still rise.