Most players ask their coaches for a lot of things: playing time, different practice schedules, new offensive schemes. Stars like junior forward Naz Hillmon don’t usually have to ask coaches for much. Except, after the murder of George Floyd in May, Hillmon found herself asking a lot of questions — and one in particular to Kim Barnes Arico.
What can I do?
In response to this summer’s racial tensions, the Big Ten created an Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism committee to help educate its student-athletes about racial issues in the country. Hillmon was influenced, angered, motivated and changed by witnessing Floyd’s killing, and the protests and riots in its wake. Not initially chosen to be part of the committee, she begged her coach to let her join.
“I definitely had the platform to be able to reach a large audience,” Hillmon said. “I felt very passionate about it. I went to a couple of protests and had been watching the news a lot. I really felt like this was an opportunity for me to voice how strongly I believed in going in the right direction in terms of (anti-homophobia), anti-racism and in the climate of everything that we are in.”
Now, Hillmon and other Big Ten student-athletes work together to educate others on their campuses about anti-racism and anti-hate movements beyond the surface level. The committee also broke up into subcommittees. Hillmon is part of the education committee — working to educate others on topics surrounding racial discrimination and inequity that are rarely taught in schools.
“A lot of times during this climate, people are saying, ‘I don’t know or I don’t understand it,’ ” Hillmon said. “You try to promote ways to get people to understand and get people out of their comfort zone and understand their bias.”
Athletes are frequently criticized about using their platform to educate others and talk about social or political issues. Except they have one very important thing: a platform. Hillmon immediately recognized this.
As one of the best players on the Michigan women’s basketball team, she knows she had the platform. But, more importantly, she knew she needed to use it. And use it for good.
“I haven’t always been one to talk about social issues, but I know how important it is,” Hillmon said. “I really wanted to be a part of something of this magnitude. Go beyond just my circle, but into the Big Ten and hopefully into the United States and the world.”
Hillmon, like many across the country, was particularly affected by the murder of George Floyd. Stuck inside all day during quarantine, she was glued to the TV day after day gathering as much information as she could to educate herself. These events re-ignited her desire to act.
“(I was) thinking how can we do something in our community?” Hillmon said. “So when an opportunity came up, I obviously wanted to be a part of it.”
While Hillmon looks to influence the school and community in a broader range, she has also been looking inward to herself and to her teammates. Barnes Arico has taken a particular interest in making sure that her team is educated and is comfortable with and aware of what is going on around it.
“She’s sitting there asking questions and wanted everybody else to know that they could ask the same questions,” Hillmon said. “It’s an open space and she gives us the opportunity (to learn and talk). She just really wanted everybody to feel a part of something and make sure that nobody’s uncomfortable.”
Making sure everyone is comfortable and able to ask these questions is important to Hillmon. She wasn’t always comfortable with speaking out to others about social justice herself. She has known she has a larger platform than most college students for a while, but she hasn’t always known how to use it.
Everything changed this summer. She couldn’t just have these thoughts and questions internally and within her family anymore.
“I’ve always had a strong opinion to myself,” Hillmon said. “But more recently, I have been able to outwardly speak about these issues. Really being comfortable talking to people of my groups. I always talk about this with my family, but now I am able to talk to friends and even people that I don’t know about these issues.”
You wouldn’t be able to tell that Hillmon just recently became comfortable with speaking outwardly against social injustice and racial discriminiation. She speaks with confidence about getting her whole team to register to vote. Hillmon places a strong emphasis on education, especially for young people who, through no fault of their own, might not be as educated on some of these issues.
One of the things that Hillmon looks forward to is being able to voice her opinions during press conferences. Professional athletes of all types, especially NBA and WNBA players, have devoted entire press conferences to talking about social justice issues. Whether or not they were asked questions about these issues, they found it more important to talk about police reform or the Black Lives Matter movement than what happened in their game.
Hillmon will be the first to tell you she has a lot to learn. A national discourse about many of these issues is relatively recent and Hillmon is learning new things everyday, just like everyone else. All of these issues are relatively recent and Hillmon is learning new things everyday, just like everyone else.
It remains to be seen exactly what will come of this committee and Hillmon’s work, but she is certain that it will create change for the good for everyone. Whatever it is, Hillmon knows it will be effective.
However, she knows she can always do more. She can always amplify her voice more, learn more, and influence more.
“We do have a voice and we do have a platform,” Hillmon said. “We have to use our voice to put up information that we find fit. Tell everybody to register to vote. Your voice matters. Your vote matters. (You are not) just voting for president. You’re also voting for the Supreme Court. You’re voting for everything that trickles down through that.
“This is our first time voting and some of us, it's about making sure we take it seriously. (It's about making sure) we do go out and vote so that our voices can be heard.”
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