About halfway through the second meeting of Read What You Sow, a book club founded by New York Liberty forward Jocelyn Willoughby, a member clicks to raise her hand and participate in the virtual discussion. For an hour the topics are manifold, loosely guided by Willoughby’s own questions. One in particular rouses a response: Why is subtle racism so often excused or ignored when committed by someone who doesn’t seem like a white supremacist?
From a small Zoom window, the woman shares a personal story: Shortly after her family moved into the snow-white New Jersey suburb where she ultimately lived for 20 years, they were visited by police officers, summoned by a neighbor who deemed it necessary to report her father for trespassing on his own property. They never learned who placed the call, but it didn’t matter. The family was unwanted by those they regularly interacted with.
“I’ve definitely always considered whether these people who walk by us and smile and wave when we see them on the street are to the same degree as racist as people that we condemn on TV,” she said. “I think the Capitol insurrection also proved to us what Black people have been saying this entire time. These people are truly ordinary. Right? They’re our neighbors, our teachers, our coaches.”
Along with dozens of other faces, the 22-year-old Willoughby nods along before another hand is raised and the conversation shifts to the propagation of racial segregation by homeowners associations, the historic denial of economic opportunity and erasure of upward mobility.
In between apologies about the noisy wind that sirens through her apartment in Israel—Willoughby is currently playing overseas during the WNBA offseason—several attendees ruminate over these and other topics touched on in Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, a bestselling phenomenon about racial passing, the hunt for acceptance and pain of rejection that can tragically define a person’s identity. (Willoughby and Bennett held an Instagram Live conversation in late February.)
The virtual space is filled with about 50 diverse, scattered strangers—a little over 200 signed up to participate before Read What You Sow’s initial meeting on Feb. 2—but it’s intimate and warm, a place for readers to exchange thoughts and experiences that transcend the text they’ve interpreted on their own. “The idea is we’re educating ourselves to inform change,” Willoughby tells the room. In a league flooded with social activism, her desire to contribute fits right in.
Before the 2020 WNBA season began and shortly after George Floyd was killed, Willoughby sat in a virtual meeting with teammates that was originally intended to cover basketball-related items. But the focus quickly turned to real-life events that couldn’t be talked around or ignored.
“Leaving that call I was wondering, like O.K., how do I feel right now, really just trying to understand why is this moment similar but also different from others?” she asked herself. “The biggest thing I’m still trying to figure out is what can we do about it? Like, I think in that moment there was a lot of need to understand and eagerness to learn. But I [didn’t] really know what to do.”
Willoughby—who last July was voted in as the Liberty’s union representative—spent her rookie season pondering how she could best enhance and prolong such an important movement, realizing that in order to help, it “has to be an endeavor that’s done by more than just an individual.”
She thought about that concept and eventually the idea for a book club struck. It would not only provide a chance to educate herself and others who got involved but help clear a path toward tangible solutions. When the season ended, she floated her plan by the Liberty. (In 2020 Willoughby’s former teammate, Amanda Zahui B., started her own book club for 7th- and 8th-grade girls.)
With the organization’s support Willoughby knew her efforts also required insight and involvement from marginalized groups that have long been impacted in a negative way. “When you think about change it starts at a local level,” she said. “But then in terms of really understanding issues, you need local voices from people who are a part of the community.”
Willoughby connected with Cafe con Libros, a feminist bookstore in Brooklyn that aligns with her own inclination to better learn why systemic biases are so deeply entrenched in America, and what, eventually, can be done to soften stiff mindsets, reset priorities and confront the problems head-on. “They’re committed to a lot of the same work, a lot of the same conversations,” she said. “Especially when you think about Black women, women of color and women in general, uplifting those stories.”
With parents who value education but didn’t always want her to limit school as a source of knowledge, Willoughby’s relationship with reading began at a young age. In between elementary and middle school, she remembers her father handing her The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Bluest Eye. “He’d say, ‘I think this is something worthwhile for you; read this,’ ” Willoughby said. “Growing up that was always something that he really imparted to [my brother and me], just the value of books, the value of thinking outside of just the formal education setting.”
Before graduating early from the University of Virginia with a degree in global development studies, Willoughby was named to the All-ACC Academic Team four years in a row. She also won the Kay Yow Award—the Atlantic Coast Conference Women’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year—as a senior. “Being more of a student-athlete, you don’t really have the time to read for pleasure,” she laughs. “You’re reading for school. But now I don’t have that anymore!”
For Read What You Sow, Willoughby wanted an accessible collection that could tap into the stranglehold inequality has on education, criminal justice and any other area where discrimination is the status quo. Willoughby also wanted the books to have “female counterparts to some of the more masculine narratives.” She sifted through options, narrowing in on informative, thought-provoking work that would stimulate the meetings. At least six books were read front to back. Several others were skimmed.
After The Vanishing Half, the group’s second book is Monique Morris’s Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. While she wrote and researched it, Morris had an old African proverb in mind: “Until the lions have their own historian, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” That saying also captures how ventures like Read What You Sow can amplify perspectives that have long lacked empathy and understanding while at once fighting misinformation. Pushout texturizes insidiousness, with facts and characters and scenes that can’t be ignored once they’re absorbed.
“I think that’s the great thing about a book club,” Willoughby said. “You want to get outside your own way of thinking and be introduced to new ideas, new concepts, especially on topics as meaty and complex as identity, as race and other things that we’re going to get into.”
As of today Willoughby still hasn’t settled on what the club’s third and final book will be—Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, a novel about the conflict between religion and science that centers around a Ghanaian immigrant’s family in Alabama, has been considered—but whatever is chosen will place a mirror up against injustice.
Read What You Sow is a form of advocacy but also a vehicle for Willoughby to ride as she surveys different social systems that don’t function as they should for millions of people. It’s step one of a lifelong battle against the various forms of injustice that pervade society.
“I’m feeling like I’m going through a quarter-life crisis trying to figure it out,” she laughs. “But I think part of my hope is that this book club will help me figure out what’s next, between reading more about different issues and getting more knowledge, but also being connected to other people who are invested in these issues. I feel like it’s being in college again. ‘What do you want to study?’ I don’t know. I’m interested by everything.”