Theresa Grace Mbanefo fights for racial equality at Cornell

Theresa Grace Mbanefo is a rising Cornell women’s basketball junior. (Cornell Athletics)

As the country continues to grapple with a deadly pandemic and a growing protest movement against police brutality and centuries-old racial inequalities, Cornell women’s basketball rising junior Theresa Grace Mbanefo and her organization, Women of Color Cornell Athletics (WOCCA) are looking to make structural changes on the East Hill of Ithaca.

On June 1, WOCCA initiated the “Hear Us Now” photo campaign to “demand informed allyship from the Cornell athletic community and beyond.”

The posts of the various female and male student-athletes of color show each holding up a sign describing times when they heard the crowds cheering for them.  The last shows all of the athletes holding posters with “But do you see us? #BLM”.

#BLM is shorthand for the Black Lives Matter movement, founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer. According to its website, the Black Lives Matter Foundation is a global organization, “whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”

WOCCA was formed this past March by rising junior Jay Matthews, a member of the women’s soccer team. The group aims to “provide women of color within Cornell Athletics a support network and space to share experiences.”

In this urgent moment, the organization felt the need to expand the its message and reached out to as many Cornell student-athletes of color as possible.

“I think it’s important that we have these conversations about allyship and advocacy within athletic spaces because Black athletes are helping win games, we’re helping win races, helping win matches,” Mbanefo, WOCCA’s head of public relations, told the Cornell Daily Sun. “At the very least, it should be recognized that because of our identity, we move differently within all-white spaces, we move differently within the world.”

Mbanefo lives in Otsego, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, the epicenter of today’s fight for civil and human rights for people of color following the killing of George Floyd on May 25 by police during an arrest on a charge of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store,

Floyd’s death, occurring after a white police officer pressed his knee on the unarmed and handcuffed Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, was captured on video by a high school student.

Cornell Athletics announced Thursday that it will cancel all mandatory athletics activities on Election Day, Tues., Nov. 3, to encourage student-athletes, coaches and staff members to exercise their constitutional right to vote, part of a burgeoning movement in the wake of protests sparked by Floyd’s killing at the hands of police to bolster dismal voter participation among the young adult contingent that includes NCAA athletes.

But on a personal level, Mbanefo expressed disappointment about head coach Dayna Smith and the Cornell program.

“I was witnessing all the mayhem. I was going to the protests,” Mbanefo told the Daily Sun. “And the fact that my coach failed to reach out to me to say, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ was just really disheartening to me … In all honesty, I think it’s shown how there has been a culture of ignorance on my basketball team.”

While Mbanefo and Matthews told the Daily Sun they were pleased with the response of head football coach Dave Archer, they hoped to get in touch with Director of Athletics Andy Noel.

“We want to know what [Noel] is doing about diversity and inclusion, because it’s so easy … to say, ‘we are aware of the racial injustices that are occurring, ‘we are aware of disparities,'” Mbanefo told the student paper.  “But it’s like, what are you doing afterwards?  We want to make sure that all of these [statements] they release aren’t performative.”

Noel, who was Cornell’s head wrestling coach from 1974 to 1988 and its athletic director since 1999, had not spoken to WOCCA by the time he discussed recent events during a video conference call at the Cornell Virtual Reunion last Friday afternoon.

“I just want to initiate this call to let you know that I personally am extremely upset by what I’ve been seeing,” said Noel to the audience. “I need to understand it better.  I need to be better at being able to articulate the atrocities that are happening day to day.”

Ivy Hoops Online reached out to Cornell Athletics on Wednesday to find out if Noel contacted WOCCA and coach Smith reached out to Mbanefo. While there were no answers to the inquiries, a statement was provided.

“The department has met with the leadership of WOCCA and is excited to collaborate on ways we can use our collective voices to make change.  Along with the department’s strong message of support, we’re focused on creating a concrete action plan that will make a difference in our community – in athletics, at the University and beyond.”

In Thursday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Johnathan Charles Flowers, a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Worcester State University, noted these types of statements are often benign comments to make an institution appear welcoming and diverse – something feminist writer and independent scholar Sara Ahmed describes as the reduction of diversity to “image work.”

“We won’t accept ‘listening sessions,’ ‘open forums,’ meetings with the president, or the other mechanisms that are deployed to disempower us,” writes Flowers. “We will expect and demand meaningful change. And activist students and faculty and staff members will be bolstered by their recent experiences. They will take action to ensure that our institutions live up to their statements.”

For protesters, it is long past time for corporate-speak, condescension and empty promises from well-intentioned white-dominated institutions.  If these groups, who claim to be allies, do not make quick and meaningful changes, their leaders should not be surprised when individuals like the members of WOCCA push to have new people put in charge.

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