I believe in leading by example. On and off the court, I want my actions to speak for my character. As a professional athlete, I know the power of the platform I have and the significance of the impact I can make. In 2013, I started the Hopey’s Heart Foundation, named after my late aunt Maureen “Hopey” Vaz; it’s an AED grant program that to date has donated more than 200 AED’s worldwide. When my aunt passed away, I was determined to create something reflective of her giving nature, the same values she helped instill in me. In years past, I have donated half of my WNBA salary to my foundation; this year, I donated my entire salary. When I stand for something, I do so with my full conviction.
In July, a series of headline-grabbing fatalities shook me to my core. First was Alton Sterling, the 37-year-old black man who was gunned down by police outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. Then Philando Castille, 32, was shot during a routine traffic stop, a heart-wrenching encounter that was livestreamed on Facebook. After that came the deaths of five Dallas police officers shot by a man who had been recently discharged from the military—during a demonstration meant to honor the memory of Sterling and Castille.
My teammates and I spoke at length about how to pay tribute to the fallen lives in a way that would also contribute to the conversation around race and justice in our country. Then, on July 9, the Minnesota Lynx jogged onto their home floor before a game against the Dallas Wings, wearing black warm-up tshirts emblazoned with the names of Sterling and Castille, the Dallas police shield and the phrases “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “CHANGE STARTS WITH US”. The following night we took the floor at Madison Square Garden in similar attire, with an additional line reading “#_______________” … as in, who is next? The violence has to stop.
On July 20, the league issued fines against the Liberty, Lynx and Phoenix Mercury for violating the uniform code—$5,000 for each team and $500 for each player. This struck me as odd. Our league has always been on the front line in rallying around causes beyond the arena: breast cancer awareness, LGBT rights, reducing gun violence in the wake of the Orlando massacre.
The day after the fines were announced, I accepted my award as conference player of the month, wearing my Liberty warm-up shirt turned inside-out. For me, this protest is personal. I believe I have an obligation to stand up, and it is not in my nature to shy away from using my voice.
Having grown up in Queens, N.Y., I remember well the stories of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, black men who died at the hands of law enforcement in 1999 and 2006, respectively. Their deaths proved why my Caribbean-born parents were always so concerned about me. Anytime I left their sight, I was expected to keep my head on a swivel and be back in my room before the street lights came on.
I’ve been heartened by the support from the Liberty organization and our president, Isiah Thomas, along with our family, friends, WNBA fans and complete strangers on the Internet. Hearing political leaders acknowledge our contribution to the movement has been encouraging, too. But it’s our responsibility as a society to use this momentum and effect real change.
Once it became clear we were using our platform as players to encourage more dialogue, the fines were rescinded. WNBA president Lisa Borders deserves credit for supporting our obligation as role models, to be part of the solution. So does USA Basketball: Before an exhibition game in L.A., they set aside time for us to meet with local community leaders and police officers, for an open conversation to help bridge the divide between the two groups.
Some people have wondered how I will continue my activism at the Olympics; if asked, I won’t hesitate to share my views. But in wearing USA on our chests—12 women from all walks of life, unified in the pursuit of winning a sixth consecutive gold medal for our country—we are already reminders of the diverse, inclusive and celebrated America we should all be striving for together.