The UCLA Bruins hadn’t yet recovered from losing the chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
Instead of hosting as a third seed last March, Bruin players quickly found their way home just days after the Pac-12 Tournament, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down collegiate play for the rest of the 2019-2020 season.
They were still processing the loss, trying to become home workout experts, taking online classes and getting used to twice-weekly team Zoom meetings, when life was again flipped upside down.
George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis Police, and video of the incident sparked nationwide shock and outrage that lead to protests around the world. UCLA players and staff were deeply affected.
“For the country as a whole, we’re in a pandemic and all you could do was sit and see what’s in front of you on the TV,” assistant coach Tasha Brown said. “You witnessed a man’s life being taken from him. It creeped into everybody’s home.”
“For the young people who saw that, it was their brother, their nephew, their father. And it was the same for us. That got the ball rolling for so many things.”
Those beginnings evolved into a team social justice and advocacy group called More Than a D.R.E.A.M.: Diversify, Reveal, Educate, Advocate and Motivate. Before they even got back together on campus, the Bruins were representing the group by peacefully protesting, raising awareness about social injustice and encouraging voter registration in their home cities.
Since reconvening in September, they have united in their efforts. Last weekend they released a video decrying the fact that a Louisville grand jury failed to indict the officers who shot Breonna Taylor. It is one of many endeavors the team plans to take on this year as they focus on the Black Lives Matter movement.
“They really want to be active in the African-American community,” assistant coach Shannon Perry LeBeauf said. “They want to work with schools and Zoom with African-American kids to tell them, ‘you can do it.’ They are thinking about the children.”
Other ideas the team has include reaching out to Black-owned businesses, bringing in Black speakers to talk to students, donating shoes and clothes to people in need, and bringing kids from urban areas to games.
“They have a lot of ideas, and they’re trying to figure out how to make them happen with COVID in play,” Perry LeBeauf said.
UCLA players are taking on their mission with confidence and zeal because of the transformations each of them made in deciding to be advocates. It was a growth process that came from a total team effort.
Floyd’s death came after the violent ends of several African-Americans this year – most notably Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while out jogging, and Taylor, who was shot by police in her own bed. The video of Floyd pleading for his life shocked Bruin players, coaches and staff. Perry LeBeauf called it “a slap on the head.”
“Tasha and I woke up even that much more: enough is enough,” Perry LeBeauf said. “I asked her, how do we approach our kids when we haven’t even processed this ourselves?”
But the day after Floyd’s death, coaches and staff hosted a voluntary Zoom call for players. All but one showed up, and they had what Perry LeBeauf called “the hard conversation, with tears and anger.”
“We have a saying in our program that all of you is welcome here, whatever you show up with, it’s welcome here and safe in this space,” she said. “That allowed us to go to our team and have this hard conversation that no one wanted to have. It allowed them to speak their hearts.”
It quickly became apparent to Perry LeBeauf and Brown that they needed to help athletes find a channel for their emotion, so the Zoom calls continued. Eventually, the team decided they wanted to form an activist group.
“It’s not about what we wanted to do, it’s about what they wanted to do,” Brown said. “And we have a team full of very intelligent, passionate young women.”
Both Perry LeBeauf, who has been with head coach Cori Close since she came to Westwood in 2011, and Brown, who is in her third season, said they would serve as advisors. Close was on board.
“We have great leadership in Cori – there was no hesitation,” Perry LeBeauf said. “Before I could even say I wanted to be working with this group, she had already sent a two-page email of ideas around how are we going to attack this. It was ideas and ideas.”
“She’s always been very much aware that ‘I’m white, and I know I have white privilege, so show me where I have blind spots.”
Perry LeBeauf said she and Brown wanted players to be thoughtful and serious about their mission.
“It was really important for us (to make sure) it wasn’t emotional or temporal,” Perry LeBeauf said. “If you’re going to want to do something, it can’t be in the moment, and then as soon as it’s not as popular or people aren’t as vocal on social media, it dies. If we’re going to do it, let’s have some longevity to it.”
The coaches asked the team to come up with a mission statement that would not only embody the Black Lives Matter movement, but would also work for other issues as the group is inherited by new players throughout the years. The acronym was berthed first, and eventually they settled on a mission statement:
We’re striving to be at the cornerstone of change as we advance towards a world that embodies true equality. We are committed to sculpting a new culture in which everyone feels safe, seen and heard regardless of race, identity or background.
After laying out their purpose, athletes began fleshing out their plan of attack.
“The next steps were figuring out, ‘what does that look like when we roll this out?’” Brown said. “They had to create a calendar figure out what they wanted it to look like on social media, think about their platform. They’ve put in an enormous amount of time into this.”
The coaches also checked in with senior Michaela Onyenwere, who is expected to be chosen in the first round of next year’s WNBA draft, to make sure she understood her decision to be an activist.
“It’s been great to come up alongside them and try to guide them, but not manipulate them,” Perry LeBeauf said. “We want to let their voices be heard and let it be theirs, and not have our stamp on it.”
“They are different. They’re a generation that wants to be heard, and they’re like renegades; they want to go for it. But we reminded them, ‘have you thought about this?’”
Some of Perry LeBeauf and Brown’s mentorship resulted in constructive growing pains.
“We’ve had some rub – there’s been a little tension between us and them,” Perry LeBeauf said. “We had to say, ‘we’re on the same team – I’m Black too!’ We’ve got trauma too, and we’re trying to help you.”
One of those instances occurred when athletes were trying to formalize the logistics of the organization.
“We told them, ‘that logo doesn’t match what you’re saying,’” Perry LeBeauf said. “It was about having those hard conversations. They’re athletes, so they want to get it right, and sending them back to the drawing board, that didn’t feel good.”
Their work in the group has yielded some fruitful discussions. When Perry LeBeauf and Brown asked them what they wanted Black Lives Matter allies to know, sophomore guard Charisma Osborne came up with a 20-item list. The team chose five, and then broke into groups where each presented the answers with slides or videos.
On another occasion, athletes spent some time talking in depth about racism that is displayed with microaggressions.
“Their work together has really spurred dialogue,” Perry LeBeauf said.
That activism has also inspired some Bruins even further. Onyenwere joined the national organization Advancement of Blacks In Sports, Inc., and the newly-formed Black Student-Athlete Alliance at UCLA. Senior forward Lauryn Miller has decided to be a diversity and inclusion trainer.
Players deeply appreciate the guidance they’ve received.
“Coach Shannon and Coach Tasha’s leadership has been so integral as we’ve built up MTAD,” Miller said. “I’ve already seen the impact their wisdom and experiences have on my personal development, but hearing them provide us guidance as Black women, especially, is another level.”
“They’ve helped push us, challenge our perspective, and just refined our vision and goal that much more. Having their support and belief backed with their own knowledge on the social injustices we’re combatting has made all the difference in MTAD and the changes we plan to make with it. Definitely grateful they choose to work with us on it and make it better.”
Onyenwere said being a part of the group has helped expand her perspective.
“It’s been really cool to have Black women like Coach Tasha and Coach Shannon who have become such a big part of my life stand alongside us in our journey with MTAD. They’ve helped by providing us with insightful suggestions and advice, support, and motivation to keep pushing forward in the crazy climate of the world right now.”
“I’ve learned that there’s so much that can be improved in this world, but I’m really excited that we can be a small part in creating change and I’m happy we have leaders like Coach T & Shannon to be a part of it.”
Brown said it was important to the coaching staff to address social justice issues with athletes.
“It’s a big endeavor, and if not handled right, it could split your team apart, because the team is like a family,” she said. “We’ve been willing to have the hard conversations, and dive into something where the wound is open.”
“A lot of people don’t want to enter the space, but change can’t happen until we’re willing to…be uncomfortable and hear hard things, figure out things about ourselves and move the needle. It’s great to be part of a program where we’re doing that. It can be exhausting emotionally, but you’ve got to keep doing it.”
Brown said she is excited, as she sees that Bruin players have been transformed by their experiences working together.
“It’s not a moment – it’s a movement to them,” she said. “They’re awake, and this is a part of them now – this generation. Seeing them emerge with a passion – this is not going to die – we’re doing this, and we’re going to leave a legacy.”
“It’s neat to see, and for us as well, it’s not a moment. This is life, the new normal.”