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“Lift up and elevate all BIPOC athletes”: BIPOC Varsity Association combats racism in the Varsity Blues

In conversation with the organization’s co-founders
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The Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport.MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY
The Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport.MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY

Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) student athletes and alumni have come together to address the racism they experience within the Varsity Blues by creating the BIPOC Varsity Association (BVA). 

The Varsity contacted two of the BVA’s co-founders, Devon Bowyer, Chair, and Sarah Kwajafa, an alumni relations, engagement, and advisory board member, to discuss the formation and future of the organization. Bowyer and Kwajafa are alumni of the Varsity Blues.

The Varsity: How did you come to be a part of the organization?  

Sarah Kwajafa: There were so many traumatic events that everyone witnessed around the world, highlighting the severity of the need for the Black Lives Matter movement. From the perspective of a lot of people in the BIPOC, and specifically Black, community, these triggering events really signified a breaking point. Amongst these events of oppression and racism, past and present Varsity athletes came together. We’re now the cofounders of the BVA. 

We met with Ira Jacobs, the Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, and Beth Ali, who is the Executive Director of Athletics & Physical Activity, to discuss anti-Black racism and diversity within the Varsity program. 

In this, a lot of us were coming together as athletes and teammates just sharing our stories. We realized that we were so alone dealing with these things; we didn’t realize that our teammates were going through a lot of these issues of subtle and overt racism. People don’t realize that this is happening within our own community. 

We knew it was really important to emphasize that with the administrative level so that theyʼre clear on whatʼs happening and why it’s so important for us to create change.

Devon Bowyer: We wrote a letter to Ali and Jacobs after the Varsity Blues administration put out a public statement. We were happy that they put a statement out, but we thought, ‘Okay, this is great, but what are the protocols, tools, and supports that are available for BIPOC athletes?’ And currently, we don’t have any. 

After we wrote the letter, we created that small group of 11 current and former BIPOC athletes. We all experienced subtle forms of discrimination or racism. It didn’t really matter if I graduated in 2018 or was still there; we all experienced the same thing.

TV: What are the BVA’s short-term and long-term plans?  

SK: All of these goals and a lot of the initiatives that we’re working toward, we’re hoping to share at our information session on October 30 from 5:00–7:00 pm. All the details have been posted on the Varsity Blues social media.

One goal is to help with education — educating the Varsity Blues’ governing bodies about anti-racism and anti-oppression and also Varsity athletes, both allies and BIPOC individuals as well. Another is representation. There are not many BIPOC coaches or BIPOC individuals at the administrative and institutional levels. Also, at the athlete level, we’re hoping to help increase representation on that front. 

And then our final goal is just to help create opportunities. Systemic racism is really present everywhere, but, especially, it’s here, embedded at U of T. We really want to help lift up and elevate all BIPOC athletes and create opportunities for them.

TV: Underneath the “Introducing the BIPOC Varsity Association” video on the Varsity Bluesʼ YouTube channel, the description reads that one of the BVAʼs initiatives is “ensuring mandatory anti-racism training for student-athletes, coaches and staff.” How exactly does this anti-racism training manifest in practice? 

SK: Anti-oppression training is being developed by one of our staff advisors within the Diversity & Equity department. All of the BVA executives have actually been a part of that training, and whatʼs really exciting is that itʼs not just about race. It encompasses so much within the diversity, equity, and inclusion realm. 

This is definitely in the early stages and weʼre working our very best to make sure that everything is done thoroughly and properly so that this training can occur for years to come.

TV: Does the BVA have plans to diversify or collaborate with other organizations within or beyond U of T? 

DB: We have been contacted by a couple of places and events, but we want to work in baby steps. We’re brand new. Just having a clear idea of who we are and what weʼre about is our priority right now. 

TV: Has the BVA experienced any obstacles? 

DB: We had a whole list of golden objectives, but it became too much. The majority of the team are still Varsity athletes, so they are still training. Then, obviously, COVID-19 just makes things that much more difficult because we can’t come together. 

Yes, weʼre at home, but our schedules end up packed. Sarah works full time. I’m in school. I have two jobs. There are other people that are working multiple jobs as well. So, with all that, I think we need to realize, based on our circumstances, having two or three goals out of our larger list to prioritize in the next year is more doable. 

TV: How can someone become a BVA ally or member?  

SK: If you’re a BIPOC individual in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education program or the Varsity program, you are a member of the BVA. But of course, adding yourself on the contact list on the Varsity Blues website — as a member or ally — is really important because when we have events or when we need support, we will definitely be reaching out that way.

A first step, of course, is just to attend our information session. We’d love the support of allies as well. There will definitely be a space for allies to participate and to help in the work that we’re doing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.