Last week, NBA players boycotted games after police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wis. This summer, the Big Ten created a coalition against hate and racism with members from every school in response to the police killing of George Floyd.
But this June, amid the Black Lives Matter protests, Briana Nelson felt she needed to do more than protest.
The senior track athlete created Wolverines Against Racism (WAR), a student-led group within Michigan athletics focused on student-athletes coming together to use their unique platforms to help fight against social injustice.
“My ultimate goal would be for members of WAR to essentially go out and be the change,” Nelson said. “There’s a great variety of people we have. We have coaches, we have student-athletes, we have support staff members and there’s a lot of different members and each person has a unique opportunity to use their platform because everybody has different followers.”
As a track and field athlete at Michigan, Nelson recognized she has a platform that most don’t — and she planned on using it to make lasting change at the University.
After a conversation with a couple members of the administration she, along with fellow track athletes Jeryne Fish and Roland Amarteifio, hosted a “unity call” over Zoom with other Wolverines. Coaches, student-athletes and support staff listened and shared their own experiences as Black student-athletes expressed the many emotions they were feeling at the time. From there, the idea in Nelson’s head grew into a full-on plan.
“After that I felt really good about the community that we had and that space that we had created,” Nelson told The Daily in early August. “I felt that it should be an ongoing effort — not only just have a space to talk, but also a space to act, a space to create movement amongst my peers and staff that want to be involved and just create a continuous ongoing act that I felt was long overdue.”
On Juneteenth, Nelson hosted a second unity call, this time to help educate those on the call who might not know about the holiday and to discuss further ideas for what WAR could be. The positive responses and dialogue that came from that call affirmed both Nelson’s desire to start the organization and the importance of opening a communication among those interested in the cause.
“I think that we’re a lot stronger when we’re united,” Nelson said. “Everyone who’s interested has great ideas and wants to see change and that’s why they’re a part of it, but as we come together the effort will be a lot stronger.”
Nearly every varsity sport at Michigan had an athlete attend one of the unity calls, from water polo to women’s basketball. Going forward, that breadth of involvement will be important for WAR to both continue and have its biggest impact. Because those athletes will have conversations with their teammates, their families, their coaches.
And right now, most Michigan athletes are white. A lot grew up in communities lacking in diversity. Many play in sports with very little diversity at the college level.
So, as the country begins to reckon with racial injustice, white Wolverines will, too. WAR helps bring the issue to a level relatable for those student-athletes by sharing the experiences of Black people in a way they didn’t get growing up.
“Seeing that there’s representatives and there’s people interested from all these different teams,” Nelson said, “and knowing they’re going to go back and be a leader on their team and then educate and lead their teammates and then their teammates are going to go out — it’s a domino effect.”