Malcolm Jenkins and Student Panel Discuss Athletes and Activism

Every year, Swarthmore College celebrates Black History month with a series of events ranging from faculty talks to book signings to film screenings. In this series, the Athletics Department Inclusion and Diversity Initiative hosted a Black Excellence Celebration event featuring Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins that addressed topics of activism, athletics, and empowerment. The event was supported by the Cooper Grant, Swarthmore College, the Center for Innovation and Leadership, and the Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

In 2010, Jenkins established the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation. Its mission is to be a “nonprofit public charity with a mission to effectuate positive change in the lives of youth by providing resources, innovative opportunities, and experiences that will help them succeed in life and become contributing members of their communities,” the website says.

Aside from the work on his foundation, Jenkins has collaborated with local police departments and has met with members of Congress in the White House to discuss race relations and criminal justice reform. On Sept. 19, 2016, Jenkins raised his fist during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. He continued to do this every game through the 2017 season

On Feb. 22, Emma Morgan-Bennett ’20 opened the night by introducing a panel of Swarthmore students including Sydney Covitz ’20 (women’s soccer and track and field), Lelosa Aimufua ’20 (women’s volleyball), Luke Pietrantonio ’21 (men’s lacrosse), and Joy George ’20. The conversation was moderated by Belle Andrews ’20 (women’s volleyball). Their discussion touched on what it means to be a student athlete as it pertains to community engagement and activism, the role of journalism in examining activism on campus, and advice to students and athletes on how to become engaged activists. 

Following their conversation, Nina Johnson, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Black Studies, moderated a conversation with Malcolm Jenkins which touched on the Malcolm Jenkins foundation, mass incarceration and policing, the difficulties of being an athlete-activist, and how to inspire young athletes to get involved with social change. Jenkins explained how athletes can use their platform to empower others through positive change. Jenkins went on to touch on his identity and how the current situation of the country motivates him to effectuate positive change.

“I think, at any point in time when you become conscious as a Black person in this country, activism has to come as a sense of survival, right?” Jenkins said. “There’s no way to know what’s going on and not be involved. And so I can’t turn off on Blackness, [but] I can take off my helmet…  When I take my helmet off, I’m still a black man. And I go home to my family, I go visit my family that’s in these areas that have high crime rates [and] poor schools.”

The idea for the event dates back to 2018 when Morgan-Bennett came across Jenkins as she reflected on the roles athletes of color have in facilitating political conversations. 

“I became especially interested in Malcolm Jenkins because of his demonstrated ability to utilize his position within the NFL to advocate for policy change surrounding mass incarceration and racial justice,” Morgan-Bennet said. “[This] resulted in a 90 million contract that his organization, the Players Coalition, bargained for from the NFL to use for social justice initiatives.”

The night of the deadline for Cooper Grant applications, Morgan-Bennett submitted a proposal for the event, and much to her surprise and delight the proposal was accepted. In the course of the next year, a steering committee comprised of women’s volleyball players, including Morgan-Bennett, Andrews, Aimufua, and Lucy Fetterman ’22, helped guide the development of the event from its conception. 

According to Aimufua, the event was a continuation of their efforts to promote a dialogue about the intersection of race and sports, which began in 2017 when Morgan-Bennett and Aimufua took a knee during the national anthem of their volleyball game.  

“The steering committee was made up of me, Belle Andrews, Emma Morgan-Bennett, and Lucy Fetterman,” Aimufua said. “I know for the seniors in the group, it was a very important event for us to put on because of our experiences as Black female athletes at Swat, especially [after] our protests in 2017. Beyond the Field was one of the few times I felt like all parts of my identity were seen, and I’m thankful to everyone who came out and supported the event!”

During the organization of the event, the steering committee collaborated with community organizations like different prison abolition groups and youth football teams.

“For me, [these collaborations] reflect how this event is about bridging together communities within Swarthmore’s campus, but also seriously considering how we can better engage the many communities that live and operate outside our school,” Morgan-Bennett said. 

The student panel discussion revolved around several themes. While Andrews moderated the discussion, she made several connections between panelist responses and the goal of the panel, stressing several key points.

“The biggest takeways from the event for me were [one], activism can and should look different from person to person,” she said. “[Two], know when you should be in the front leading the crowd or being on camera but also know when it’s not your place and how to lift up those who should be leading the charge. [Three], athletes have a platform and they should use it to promote change and equity.”

Aimufua shared similar sentiments when reflecting on the discussion.

“It was really nerve wracking!” she said. “The panel portion was something we, as a steering committee, pushed to have included in our event. I really wanted to be able to give students a space to air their thoughts and have constructive conversation. I really felt heard by my fellow panelists and the people in the audience, which was important to me because, as I mentioned on the panel, I often feel like my voice is marginalized and ignored as a Black woman and especially as a Black female athlete.”

Through the respectful discourse between panel members, the group reached several important takeaways, which Aimufua reflected on.

“Community can’t be community unless it includes everyone,” she said. “And if your politics don’t match your everyday actions, they’re performative. Everyone has the ability and duty to do their part in creating a world that we all can enjoy living in, and it’s a privilege to be able to disengage and not hold yourself and others accountable. Holding each other in love and diving deep into transformative work and healing are critical to being able to imagine beloved community.”

Overall, the event addressed important societal issues and promoted discussion on the ways in which we should approach racial inequality, attacks on athletes of color, and other similar issues. Through their positionality, athletes are able to be more effective activists and may be able to support the efforts of Jenkins and other activist-athletes.

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