Why these Black athletes started anti-racism book clubs that transcend international lines

·9 min read

As she laced together her words and prepped for tip, Jocelyn Willoughby eased into a slightly different role than that of New York Liberty guard/forward.

“The really powerful thing about literature is yes, you’re reading about characters, but in some ways you’re also reading about yourself or someone you know,” Willoughby told nearly 60 attendees on a Zoom call at 1 a.m. in Israel.

Willoughby, currently playing for Hapuel Petah Tikua, spent the next hour listening, guiding and calmly connecting ideas to officially launch her book club, “Read What You Sow.” The effort is the latest social justice initiative the Liberty has supported and is one of a handful of clubs run by young, Black female athletes turning to literature as they open conversations on race, inequality and what it means for the future.

A week after Read What You Sow kicked off, Kaiya McCullough, a professional soccer player out of UCLA, guided the seventh meeting of her “BLCK Book Club.” The club, shortened from Book Lovers for Change and Kindness, experienced its own early-hours launch from Germany in October.

For Willoughby, the No. 10 overall pick in the WNBA draft, it’s how she continues the WNBA players efforts in the 2020 bubble season. For McCullough, a 2020 NWSL draft pick, it’s a continuation of the anti-racism work she’s done since first taking a knee during the national anthem in 2017.

These two Black women — both of whom turn 23 in the coming months — are pivoting from actively speaking out against racism to focusing as a larger group on education and analyzation in a time when most are isolated during a pandemic.

“I think we all recognize at this point that certain reform and change is needed,” Willoughby told Yahoo Sports. “I think the question is what that looks like and how it’s achieved. And before we can really answer that we need to really understand where we are and how we got here.”

(Graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
After America's racial reckoning in 2020, Jocelyn Willoughby and Kaiya McCullough found ways to connect with fans via anti-racist literature. (Graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Books provide path to understanding

The book club format has taken off in recent years behind actresses like Reese Witherspoon and Emma Watson, not to mention Oprah’s and even one by retired NFL quarterback Andrew Luck. The benefits are lengthy and most often center around health.

Reading also is shown to improve the “theory of mind,” the capacity to understand others have different beliefs and desires and that it’s OK. Books open a new world of knowledge and breed empathy in a reader by connecting them emotionally to a character, especially in fiction works.

It makes sense, then, that two young graduates fresh out of college turned to the written word during the nation’s sudden front-and-center reckoning with race last summer. Willoughby began thinking of a book club after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor when she was asking questions to understand and to do something.

“I felt like the big thing for me was to educate myself," Willoughby told Yahoo Sports. "I think that’s kind of where the book club idea started. Obviously we can use books as a resource to inform ourselves. But also (to) invite other people to read alongside me and have more in-depth conversations to challenge our current levels of understanding, certain world views and perspectives that we have. And (we can) envision a better future.”

The Virginia graduate chose novels centered on women of color since “Read What You Sow” sets out to explore injustices disproportionately affecting them. It's those narratives that aren't commonly heard.

“A lot of what affects us as marginalized beings affects everyone and if we look at issues through the lens of women of color and address them, it benefits all," she said.

At the same time as Willoughby questioned herself, McCullough was fielding questions from other people about resources to better educate themselves. Her choices, voted on by members, have focused on nonfiction.

“I found myself doing the same thing, like looking out for resources and looking out for books that I could read," McCullough told Yahoo Sports. "I thought maybe I can just create a space for myself and others to talk about the things we’re learning about. Because I think it’s one thing reading things off of a page and it’s another actually to analyze them and really sit with them. And (to) think about them in the context of the world we’re living in now.”

They separately set out to take an active part in the environments they hold as professional athletes and role models.

Willoughby left with more questions than answers

Jocelyn Willoughby with ball.
Guard Jocelyn Willoughby started a book club with the assistance of the New York Liberty organization. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Willoughby, who turns 23 on March 25, kept the idea of a book club to herself during her rookie season in the “wubble,” where she wore Taylor’s name on her jersey. When she reflected on that time and how to keep the work going, she bounced her idea off of Alesia Howard, the Liberty’s director of communication and public relations.

They brought in Cafe Con Libros, a womxn-of-color-owned intersectional feminist bookstore in Brooklyn, that curated a list of books. Willoughby chose “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett as an accessible opener that provided an inflection point for everyone. The discussion flowed through aspects of colorism, identity, domestic violence, gender and relationships.

“People have been really reflective and vulnerable and insightful,” she said, “not only in how they related the book to topics in their own lives but also [to] questions that aren’t necessarily answered but at least they’re able to think more critically about it. I think that’s really important.”

Layshia Clarendon, an outspoken Liberty teammate, said after attending the first meeting they “had my eyes opened to new perspectives” and Clara Wu Tsai, Governor of the Liberty and founder of the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation, is a participant.

"Our society is at such a critical point in understanding and addressing social injustice in this country today," Wu Tsai said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. "Jocelyn is using her platform, her voice and her network to challenge the status quo and ask us to come together, educate ourselves and dedicate ourselves to being true social justice activists. I am inspired by her and so incredibly proud to be a member of Read What You Sow."

Willoughby closed the first month of her club by speaking with Bennett on an Instagram Live and is now on “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.”

“I think one thing that I've walked away from the book and discussion is the importance of asking questions, but being OK with not necessarily having answers,” said Willoughby, who reads the book three to four times each. “I think the fact that we’re growing more comfortable asking questions in the first place is really important especially when it comes to being more critical of the norms we just adopt."

McCullough finds common space to dive into issues

Kaiya McCullough after being drafted.
Kaiya McCullough, a 2020 NWSL draft pick of UCLA, views her book club as a continuation of anti-racism work. (Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

McCullough, who turns 23 in May, views her book club as a way to continue the activist work that catapulted her into the national conscious. She designed a Google form, shared it to Twitter and received nearly 150 sign-ups.

“This work is really important to me and I think it’s something I also owed to myself having a space to talk about these things outside of the context of the Twitterverse, or outside of social media,” McCullough told Yahoo Sports. “Just having real one-on-one conversations with people. Really personal conversations, as much as Zoom can be personal. It was something that was my passion project.”

In the first meetings, pushed back to October because she didn’t have wifi in Germany, two diverse groups discussed “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson while McCullough stayed up late into the night to facilitate. They’ve focused on non-fiction works in “The New Jim Crow,” “Between the World and Me,” and “Forty Million Dollar Slaves.” Each has left McCullough, and she hopes the fellow readers, with something new to think about. The big thing she's learned is the extent environment and region can impact experience.

“That’s been one thing that I’ve been more surprised by in my book club is just seeing, how can we view anti-racist work as this collective thing? But also how does it need to be adjusted based on where you’re from?” she said. “Because there are different problems, different obstacles that you run into based on your location and your upbringing.”

McCullough, who asked the Washington Spirit to waive her, ended her contract in Germany this winter because of COVID-19 issues and returned to Los Angeles. The next steps in her soccer career are similar to those for her book club: open-ended. She’ll see what happens, but in terms of the book club it continues to meet her goals.

“I feel like part of our duty in anti-racism work is trying to learn something new every day. Something that you might not have known, a different perspective, a different way of looking at things,” she said.

Reading to change the world

To change norms requires thoughtful new approaches. Sports fans saw it over the summer when players walked off in the wake of another Black man shot by police. When the WNBA campaigned against a now-former team owner and helped flip the United States Senate.

Willoughby and McCullough are the next lasting wave in that dialogue. They are reading and discussing for themselves, but also for what happens after the hang-up button.

“My hope is that these conversations aren’t just had in our Zoom meeting, but (that) people are sitting with these questions,” Willoughby said. “Or as you said, sitting with the book and being like, OK, can I talk to my colleague about this? Can I talk to my children about these things?”

In a new age where people are posting black boxes to Instagram in empty visuals of solidarity, McCullough wants people to instead build awareness and realize they have power.

“What will change lives in my opinion is our collective action to be able to hold these institutions accountable for racism,” she said.

What both women understand is that books are windows into enticing worlds a reader might never know in their own lives. Immersing oneself in a different character is a way to plant a perennial seed of change and both Willoughby and McCullough have a platform to provide the initial opening.