The Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality nonprofit empowers student-athletes to treat peers with respect on and off the field.
Story and photography by Kirsten Johnson
When the Cass Technical High School volleyball team attends a tournament, the players often notice one major difference between them and the other teams.
“I feel outnumbered,” junior Savannah O’Brien says. “Sometimes we’re the only black team, and they think we can’t play.”
Through the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, O’Brien and her teammates — along with hundreds of athletes and coaches throughout Michigan and the country — are learning how they can approach racism, prejudice, diversity and inclusion to become leaders among their peers. Founded in 2015 by Detroit native and Miami Dolphins majority owner Stephen M. Ross, RISE has developed a curriculum that helps athletes from middle school to university level approach similar situations, educate others and inspire inclusion and leadership.
“The discussion around race tends to be an uncomfortable one for folks, so we want to make sure we are increasing the conversation around it,” RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford says. “The impact we have on youth and the community through this program has been amazing, and it’s growing because there is some clear need. There are some really hard issues communities are dealing with, and this is a really practical way to help them.”
The nonprofit, headquartered in New York with offices in Detroit, initially tested its programming in Metro Detroit high schools with different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. It has since expanded to include middle school athletes, university athletes, coaches, athletic directors and community engagement programs with organizations such as Detroit PAL and Detroit Pistons — reaching over 3,200 Michigan students. Extended programs, workshops and lectures have taken place in over 30 states.
“Our philosophy is that people need to build skills to have better conversations, such as respect, trust, reflection, empathy, conflict resolution, leadership,” says Andrew MacIntosh, RISE senior director of leadership and education. “There’s a lot of research that shows sports is a great way to build character and life skills and to bring about change. People put aside their differences with sports.”
Ramona Cox is head volleyball coach at Cass Tech and serves as associate athletic director for the youth sports organization Detroit PAL, the union of the former Detroit Police Athletic League. She said the RISE curriculum, which includes talking points, worksheets and group activities, is good for the team and players as they go out into the world.
“Every session we do something about identity so they have an understanding — they are more than an athlete, they are more than their race, they are more than their gender,” Cox says. “It gets them thinking about who they really are beyond how others may see them. Oftentimes they’re underestimated because there aren’t a lot of girls of color playing volleyball. It brings us all together as a team. We all develop a trust for each other.”
The former Division I volleyball player is nothing but proud when she sees how her players handle themselves at matches and tournaments where they are the only team of color.
“They’re often able to interact easily with girls from other teams, and they start those interactions,” Cox says. “I encourage my girls to use their voices beyond the program. It’s very important, with us living in such a divisive time, that more and more people feel comfortable to express themselves and accept others for who they really are.”
That sentiment is echoed at the collegiate level. Michigan State is among the universities that use the curriculum for its student athletes. All freshmen athletes and scholarship athletes from any grade are required to participate in the program each year. About 200 freshmen athletes gathered in August at MSU’s Breslin Center to go through the curriculum. MacIntosh said studies show freshmen experience the least amount of racism and it increases over time. That’s why they begin before the athletes even attend their first class.
“Experiences during their college career seem to make them perceive racism more by the time they are seniors,” MacIntosh says. “We realized we needed to do some work with freshmen to help them understand the environment they’re coming to and how they can work together and respect one another around a common goal. That’s what sports does — brings people from different races and different backgrounds together as a team with a common goal.”
Throughout the training, MacIntosh had the athletes examine ways in which people are diverse on the inside and out, from skin and hair color to personality, religion and musical taste. He said, as the NCAA and other organizations study mental health in athletes, findings show a feeling of disconnection at the root of many issues.
“The reason we’re here is to build those bridges with others,” MacIntosh told the student-athletes. “…That impact may begin here at MSU, and we certainly think and hope that leadership will go beyond your time here.”
The athletes also discussed how labels can both help and hinder individuals as they work to stand out as leaders.
“I don’t belong to one group,” said basketball player Moira Joiner, 18, of Saginaw, who is biracial. “You have a really unique opportunity and identity when you come from different cultures.”
Denise Spann, originally from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, experienced the RISE curriculum throughout her four years at MSU as a scholarship athlete in track. The sports management graduate assistant now serves as the organization’s communications and marketing intern.
“RISE does a really good job of putting some tough topics and concepts on a level (students) can understand,” Spann says. “It makes them realize diversity isn’t just what you see on the outside, but what’s on the inside too. When they’re done, they really get it — how understanding diversity of all kinds benefits them as athletes and people. And how they can apply this to their lives beyond MSU.”
To learn more or bring RISE to your school, organization or team, visit risetowin.org.