OSU’s Black Student-Athletes Take a Stand Against Racial Injustice with Dam Change
Historically, Black student-athletes have been at the forefront of social justice and activism at Oregon State University. In 1969, football player Fred Milton and other members of OSU’s Black Student Union conducted a walk-out, which led to the creation of the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center, and OSU’s Equal Opportunity Office and Educational Opportunities Program.
Now, Black student-athletes have come together to create a new initiative: Dam Change, a platform designed to raise awareness regarding systemic racism, and to educate, empower, and enhance the experience of Black student-athletes and staff.
Nine Black student-athletes are responsible for the creation of Dam Change, including Maddy Ellsworth, a redshirt sophomore on the women’s soccer team; Raheem Taylor-Parkes, a senior on the men’s soccer team; and Niya Mack, a senior on the gymnastics team. Over the past few months, the group has worked to implement four main pillars of the Dam Change platform: awareness, education, engagement, and action.
The Beginnings of Dam Change
Dam Change was initially created in response to the murder of George Floyd by police in May, which sparked Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. Mack said a few athletes met with OSU Senior Associate Athletic Director Kimya Massey and Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Development Lindsey Goodman following Floyd’s death.
“It was a space just to talk about how we feel, and then after that, they were like – ‘so what do you guys want to do? What do you want to do about it?’” Mack said. “That’s kind of how it started, because everyone just started throwing in ideas of what they wanted to do, and then it slowly developed into Dam Change.”
Ellsworth said that after the killing of Floyd, she and her fellow Black student-athletes felt sad and frustrated, which sparked a need for change.
“I talked to my younger teammates who are Black, and then I would also talk with some football players, and they were saying how they don’t even want to play anymore, because they feel like their life doesn’t matter,” Ellsworth said.
Now, the group meets frequently over Zoom, outlining plans and actions for the coming year and striving to educate the OSU community.
“We felt like as student-athletes we should use our platform to be more than just athletes, and try to create some sort of change, even if it’s as small as Corvallis,” Ellsworth said. “I think a lot of people just assume that Corvallis is this small town that doesn’t have any issues, but I think there’s a lot of racial injustice in Oregon history that a lot of people are not aware about, or know about.”
Experiences as a Black Student-Athlete
One goal of Dam Change is to raise awareness regarding the stereotypes, microaggressions, and experiences Black student-athletes face on a daily basis.
For example, Mack said she was always used to being the only Black kid on her gymnastic teams growing up, and didn’t have her first Black teammate until she was around 17. She said she’s faced microaggressions throughout her youth career, including coaches drawing attention to her race and telling her Black kids ‘have an advantage’ over white teammates.
“Since my time here in Corvallis, I’ve had a few [microaggressions], but one that I will not forget was at a community service event,” Mack said. “A booster came up to me and she grabbed my hair, and said that it wasn’t mine, and asked me how long my real hair was. Then she proceeded to examine my scalp and walked away. I’ll never forget that.”
Prior to attending OSU, Taylor-Parkes was a student-athlete at the University of Virginia, and was in Charlottesville during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. While there, he personally witnessed the vehicular attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others. One of those injured, according to Taylor-Parkes, was a classmate.
“She missed two terms of the semester. She was one of the victims of the guy who ran the car over in the huge crowd. Seeing a person in my class that I’d talked to, that I was familiar with, and seeing one girl die right in front of my eyes … seeing people with bats. It looked like people were getting ready for warfare,” Taylor-Parkes said. “When I saw that, I knew I wanted to make change, but I didn’t know how.”
Taylor-Parkes said part of the reason he got involved in Dam Change was because he wanted to ensure none of OSU’s student-athletes, and none of the people living in Corvallis, ever have to witness something like what occurred in Charlottesville.
“Coming to Oregon State, seeing how small this town is, how white it is … this college town isn’t that far off from what I witnessed in Charlottesville,” Taylor-Parkes said.
Since she was raised in a predominantly white town, Ellsworth said she normalized the racism she faced growing up. Her mother, a Black woman, was often stereotyped, particularly because she was darker.
“Now looking back, she was just being an amazing mom, and she was being labeled as this crazy person – this mean, intense person,” Ellsworth said. “But if she was white, she would be seen just as a mom who cared for her kids.”
Ellsworth said she was encouraged to launch Dam Change, to speak out and support others largely because of her mother, who passed in 2018.
“My mom was always someone who really pushed for people that had less than her, or didn’t have a voice to speak up for themselves,” Ellsworth said. “So, I felt like this was exactly what she would be so passionate about, so it felt so right for me to be involved with it.”
Pillars of the Platform: Awareness & Education
Taylor-Parkes said part of Dam Change’s awareness goal is to help community members recognize what’s going on in the country currently, what they can do to help, and how they can better support OSU’s Black student-athletes.
“Educating others in regards to what we face on a daily basis as Black student-athletes, or just Black people in general – whether that be microaggressions faced every day, whether that be Black history, and how we’ve gotten to this point with police brutality and its beginning and the history of the U.S.,” Taylor-Parkes said. “Some events like the Tulsa Massacre, and things like that in history that a lot of people just don’t know about.”
Mack said the group had planned for much of the education to come from competitions and games, where Dam Change could present information to fans and community members via pamphlets, gear, and sponsorships. Now, due to COVID-19 and the delay of sports, the group is focusing on holding Black student-athlete forums to discuss topics relating to race and racism.
Recent forums have included guest speakers, like Black doctors who have discussed racial injustice in the workplace and the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 among communities of color, and student-athletes who attended the recent March on Washington. Coaches, staff, administrators, and teammates are all encouraged to attend.
“I think the understanding from coaches is important, because if the coaches understand what’s going on and how we feel, then players will be able to better perform on the pitch, because they just know that their coach understands what they’re going through, and that they’re there for them,” Taylor-Parkes said.
Dam Change is also striving to develop partnerships in the community and across campus, particularly with the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center.
“I think reaching out to other organizations, to educate others who may not be student-athletes, or may not be Black but still want to learn about what’s going on and how we feel, is the most important thing,” Taylor-Parkes said.
Pillars of the Platform: Engagement & Action
Other plans for Dam Change for after the coronavirus outbreak include community initiatives like reaching out and mentoring Black students at elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools in Corvallis and inner-city areas.
“Some things are still trying to be worked out,” Mack said. “But that was one thing I was really looking forward to, because I would love to see more Black kids out in our meets, because our sport – gymnastics – is predominantly white.”
Ellsworth is also looking forward to the opportunity to mentor local students and connect them with Black student-athletes at OSU.
“Just getting more students of color on campus, and showing them that they can be students here, and it’s so doable,” Ellsworth said. “Just giving them that little ounce of encouragement, and just having them come watch the game, meet the student-athletes. Stuff like that I think would be so great for them.”
Dam Change is working to develop a podcast, and plans to appear on ‘Chew on This’ – a live Facebook show run by Beaver Athletics. More recently, one area of action the group has focused on is getting OSU student-athletes to vote.
“Make sure you’re a part of this election, because it matters. It really does. Your vote really does matter,” Taylor-Parkes said. “There were millions of people who didn’t vote in the last election, and a lot of people aren’t satisfied with what’s going on currently. So, if you aren’t [satisfied], just go out there and vote.”
Black Lives Matter
In late August, Beaver Athletics posted a #BlackLivesMatter post to their Instagram page, which led to heated discussions from community members and fans, including “All Lives Matter” comments and hate towards the BLM movement and Beaver Athletics. To many of the Black student-athletes, including Ellsworth, Taylor-Parkes, and Mack, the feedback from the community was discouraging.
“It was honestly the most degrading thing ever, because I was so happy [Beaver Athletics] posted it, and I just decided to look at the comments thinking it would be like, ‘yay, this is exciting.’ And it was so negative, and weirdly personal,” Ellsworth said. “I think it affected all the Black students, and I also think it affected some white allies.”
According to Ellsworth, other Pac-12 schools that posted similar content also received hateful comments, which shows the pressing need for education among college communities.
“It weirdly hit me really hard … I was super emotional. All the Black student-athletes the next day were on campus, and everyone was like, this just feels so wrong for us to even be here, because the amount of people that support us playing – it’s almost the biggest slap in the face to Black student-athletes,” Ellsworth said. “I don’t know what the ratio is of Black student-athletes, but there’s a lot of us, and for people to be following the page, to see that post, and then to be commenting on it shows they support us when we’re playing, but then don’t support us as humans.”
Taylor-Parkes agreed. “You’re there to support us and cheer for us in our face, but then online, you guys aren’t there for us,” he said. “So, I feel like Corvallis as a community has a lot of growing up to do, and a lot of learning to do in regards to how they treat their Black student-athletes. We’re not just a product on the field. We’re actual human beings.”
The Importance of Dam Change
According to Taylor-Parkes, Dam Change is particularly important in the OSU community, which is predominantly white and doesn’t have many Black students or staff.
“It’s easy to just ignore what’s going on in the world, just stay in your own bubble – you’re living, you’re fine, you’re going to school. Your family is okay, nothing is affecting you,” Taylor-Parkes said. “It’s very easy to go through life without seeing what’s really going on if you don’t open your eyes, and I feel like Dam Change can be the organization that little by little opens people’s eyes to what’s going on. There’s a lot of people that just go through life not understanding what we face on a daily basis, and why it’s so difficult.”
Ellsworth, who is in her third year at OSU, said she would have been encouraged by a program like this as a freshman, and shared a story of a recruit who considered attending OSU but decided not to because of the university’s lack of diversity.
“In general, Corvallis is a fairly white area, and I know a lot of times my freshman year I felt extremely lonely and isolated, because being one of the only Black teammates – it’s just kind of this weird experience that you really can’t explain, but you notice it,” Ellsworth said. “So, I think having a support system for those student-athletes to feel like okay, I have other Black students around me that maybe have experienced the same thing as me, but are still being successful. I think that can go a long way.”
Looking forward, Mack said she hopes Dam Change will continue to grow, regardless of whether or not the Black Lives Matter movement is in the headlines.
“I think it’s important to keep the momentum going, and for people to realize that this is not just a trend, that we actually have an issue that we all need to work on,” Mack said. “For Dam Change, we wanted to start in our own community of Corvallis, because we can’t change the world. We wanted to do everything we could to change Corvallis and make it better for incoming Black student-athletes.”
Taylor-Parkes, who plans to graduate this year, said he hopes to see the torch passed to younger athletes in the coming years who can develop Dam Change further, in order to make both the community and the world a better place.
“I don’t want Dam Change to just be a thing that was there for like 2-3 years, and we forget about it,” he said. “I want it to be something that stays in the OSU community for years to come, so that I could come back here and say, ‘oh, Dam Change – it’s so much better than when we first started it. Look at it now.’”