Event Recap - Power Players: A Conversation with Black Women In Sports
Written by Tanya Phillipps, Inclusion & Diversity Chair + Board of Director, WISE Toronto and Co-Founder, Canadian Black Standard
On February 24, 2022, Women In Sports & Events Toronto (WISE) hosted our Power Players event honouring Black History Month and on the cusp of women’s History Month, featuring outstanding Black women leaders in sport. The result was a powerful conversation at the intersection of race x gender x sport that was authentic, veracious and herstoric.
Established in 2018, WISE Toronto is the leading voice and resource for women in sport, with a mission to empower women in the business of sports with the tools to reach their career goals. WISE collaborated with The Canadian Black Standard (The Standard) to co-host this conversation. An advocacy and networking organization, The Standard aims to eliminate barriers in advancement for Black women in the marketing space across Canada. Presenting sponsors MLSE and NBA Canada united to bring this special event to life as authentic inclusion partners.
Now, being the first Chair of Inclusion and Diversity for WISE Toronto, and the first Black Board of Director, I am grateful to my fellow board members for being upstanders in selecting me to join this caring community of women leaders in December 2020. As USA VP Kamala Harris said, “I might be the first, but I won’t be the last.”
Like the herstoric NBA all-Black female broadcast by MLSE’s Toronto Raptors in March 2021, this event was also a first for WISE Toronto, hosting an all-Black, female panel. Our speakers knew the incredible significance of this monumental occasion to share their experiences with the WISE Toronto community and shine a light on what it means to be a true inclusion leader, while challenging people to transform their actions from being a bystander to being an upstander for Black women in sport.
I too felt the layered responsibility and tremendous honour to moderate this poignant session featuring esteemed and decorated sports leaders including:
Teri Dennis-Davies: Chief People and Inclusion Officer, MLSE; Board of Directors, WISE and Chair of WISE Within Mentor Program; Board of Directors, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Suzanne Duncan: Managing Director, Integrated Sports Solutions & Partner, Femme Gaming, and Co-Founder, Canadian Black Standard
Kayla Alexander OLY: Olympic, WNBA and professional Basketball Player, Author, Motivational Speaker and Entrepreneur
I too felt the magnitude of this milestone conversation. As a first-generation Black Canadian female with more than two decades in the sports space, this event was a full circle moment from the time when I was ‘the one and the only’ in the room working as a young coordinator for a professional sports charity. It was an exhilarating space to work, but one constructed with systemic barriers with an unlevelled playing field for people who looked like me. But still I rise, we rise and take the time to celebrate our Black Excellence.
Each speaker shared what Black Excellence meant in their own words. Teri, a decorated C-level executive who joined MLSE in the fall of 2020 to lead the organization’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion strategy (since promoted to Chief People & Inclusion Officer) started the conversation by saying, “It’s about what lies beneath the surface. To me it’s a celebration about what led to that milestone that might not have been profiled the way it should. It might not have received the recognition that it should have been along the journey to get to that key milestone. To me Black Excellence really profiles a broader sentiment beyond what might be words on a page, it's really what effort and contribution and sacrifice lead to that moment.”
Suzanne, who has successfully delivered 10 Olympic game programs with premium global brands, agreed with Teri, and added her perspective by saying, “I think of it as 365 days of the year from the time of our birth, baked in a rich history of our people. It is a talk we get told as children that we have to be twice as good, work twice as hard just to be considered equal. It’s the recognition in our early lives that we represent the collective race and as Black women in particular, we are groomed to be excellent, to be high performers.”
I have had the immense pleasure of knowing Kayla Alexander since she was 14 years old. She comes from an amazing family and has truly been a joy to see her grow into a global elite star who is fierce on the court, kind, compassionate and grounded off the field of play. She cares deeply about helping youth and making the world a better place. She understands her God-given gifts and leverages the platform of being a professional basketball player to have a global impact. Kayla Alexander rounded out the topic by sharing her authentic perspective.
“To me Black Excellence means being your authentic self and setting a standard that others strive for. Like Suzanne said, I will never forget when I was a young kid my parents sat down my sister and I and said, ‘Kayla and Keisha because you are Black women you already have two strikes against you. As a result, you are always going to have to work twice as hard to be seen as equal or to get a fraction of the recognition. People will have preconceived notions, ideas about you simply because of the colour of your skin, but as long as you constantly strive for excellence and put your best self forward you will be able to challenge or potentially alter their perceptions of you and allow them to see who you really are.’ That conversation has stayed with me throughout my entire life.”
Statistics prove that Black women earn approximately $0.68 compared to what a non-racialized male earns for doing the same job. White women earn $0.85. It becomes noticeably clear, based on this data, why Black parents are compelled to have ‘The Talk’ with their children before sending them off to follow their dreams.
As WISE women we experience the challenges of working in a male dominated sector like sports, and the struggle to break the proverbial ‘glass ceiling.’ For Black women, it is exacerbated two-fold and can seem insurmountable and why the topic of intersectionality is so important. I asked the panel about their experiences working in a sector that is predominantly white males.
Suzanne shared that the Canadian sports landscape is quite small compared to other countries. “I turned my eyes outward, I call it fishing in bigger ponds, to pursue a career globally in sports where the opportunities were more robust. I experienced a fair degree of success and advancement until I reached the VP level. That’s when the reality of being a woman, and a Black woman, and the scarcity and intersectionality factors showed up as barriers to my professional trajectory. The common denominator in the sport construct is largely Caucasian males, and most recently Caucasian females who frankly have benefitted the most from strides to achieve equity in the space. There is plenty of intention to create gateways and access to entry, but less conversation about intentionality in creating advancement opportunities which is why we created The Standard.”
Suzanne and I are both Co-Founders of The Standard, along with our 12 other dynamic Black female creatives. We came together as virtual strangers in the summer of 2020, during the global social justice reckoning, united in a national sisterhood through shared lived experiences. It is the tie that binds. For us its about our livelihood, to ensure our voices are heard, the truth is honoured, and barriers are eliminated so that we can also build generational wealth for our community.
Teri weighed in and took it to another level, by providing powerful insights on bias. “Breaking the Bias is a theme for IWD this year and that work is near and dear to my heart. Now you are talking about a systematic approach to dealing with systemic barriers. Bias is real, we all have it. While bias may be unconscious, the outcomes are quite clear and explicit. Tackling the outcomes, which in sports & entertainment is predominantly senior roles being held by white males or white females and getting at the systemic reasons why and the bias underpinning those key decisions, is important to me. Bias is so quick and informs the thousands of decisions we make everyday. Trying to interrupt those key moments where you are making decisions that have long lasting impact like recruitment or promotion that impact an individual’s livelihood is so important. I take that to heart and think about how we can insert breakers in those moments of decisions that force us to ask why? Why are we moving in the same direction that we have? Who’s voice are we taking into account and who’s voice is not even at the table because the ecosystem that we have is not diverse.”
As an athlete some of Kayla’s experiences show up differently as in being challenged by males who are usually not even athletes or worse, stereotypes like assuming she can dunk because she is a Black woman. But it has also shown up in her ability to build equity from her career despite limited endorsement and partnership deals for Black women athletes. “Men just have to be the best player, while women must be the best player, the best looking, have the biggest following to even have a seat at the endorsement table.”
Conversations like this encourage us to lean in on Teri’s advice and start asking why? To change the voices at the table so that the narrative and experiences can change. Bias is universal and there is a wide spectrum from affinity bias to gravitate towards people like ourselves to unconscious bias that can create unsafe spaces. As Black women, we must navigate these biases daily from the moment we leave the safety of our homes. It is incredible emotional labour that takes away from us being able to bring our best selves.
Teri, Kayla, and Suzanne shared 10 powerful nuggets of advice for Black and Brown women working in sports.
- Continue to advocate, stand up and use your voice
- If you don’t get a seat at the table build your own table
- Don’t be afraid to ask why: Why is it this way? Why not me? Why do I not see people like me around these tables?
- Be aware of the armour that we all carry because of biases. The advice from our ancestors and parents can be a coat of armour that can get in the way
- To mitigate bias – create space where you can be your authentic self
- Don’t be afraid to be bold – you are already the one and only so use that voice
- Watch the major players and learn their moves
- Maintain your values as you build your own trajectory
- Find a mentor to advance your professional growth
- Send the elevator back down to lift up others
The panel also offered advice for non-racialized folks to be active inclusion champions, especially as we move forward from allyship in 2020. Suzanne shared, “We are moving from allyship to what I call co-conspirators. I challenge everyone to be an upstander as opposed to a bystander. Be that person that makes frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. That’s what is going take to move the needle.”
Teri added that white C-level executives need to “lead with an inclusive lens when making decisions, understanding the impact on the employee experience. It's about thinking with empathy and being intentional on a more consistent basis.”
The responsibility to create a culture of inclusion rests squarely on the organization, not the oppressed employees. With that in mind, Teri shared five ways companies embark on a DEI journey with intention, emphasizing the importance of meeting organizations where they are at, whilst at the same time designing a pathway for transformation.
- Focus first on listening by creating forums to gather feedback
- Craft a universal EDI commitment: a north star mission to anchor priorities and scale horizontally
- Re-imagine systems with an inclusive lens to create a work environment where everyone can be their best most productive
- Build a sustainable channel for employees that create community and encourage involvement like ERG’s (employee resource groups)
- Develop a governance model to create accountability at the top
Looking ahead, I asked Kayla what progress looked like for her 5 years from now in this space. She emphasized the importance of continuing to make great strides, moving the needle forward and seeking out more opportunities. Ever the optimist, Kayla shared, “I am hoping we get to the point that we no longer need to have these conversations because it’s just the norm. I know that takes time but if we keep having these conversations, keep doing the work and keep learning it will happen.”
WISE is committed to continuing the conversations and doing the work, ensuring that the pipeline of accomplished female leaders is diverse, equitable and representative of the mosaic that is Toronto.
What an emotional and authentic conversation. So inspired by these phenomenal women, that I felt the urge to write a love letter to my younger self, lifting from the 2020 Canadian Women’s Olympic Basketball campaign “Mad Love”, and I bravely share it with you.
Dear Young Tanya,
It takes “Mad Love” to be ‘the one and the only” in the sports boardrooms. You will be ignored, you will not be included, and you will have to work twice as hard for half the pay. You were taught to blend in and play small, despite your big crown of curls and mocha brown skin. It’s going to hurt viscerally when fellow womxn in sport do not lift you up, but rather try to keep you down, keep you playing small. This wound is opened more than once during your extensive career and will make you question the very meaning of ‘sisterhood.’
But you are driven by a deeper purpose that exists beyond the boardroom and the assimilated ‘rat race.’ You exist for the greater good of what sport can do, for its innate power to build community. And you will dedicate decades of blood, sweat and tears in this space to remove barriers for underrepresented youth. You will face insurmountable challenges along the way, and persevere to rise above racial injustice, misogyny, hatred, and discrimination. These imprinted lessons form a steadfast conviction that makes you stronger than you can ever imagine. In 2020 there will be a defining moment that will change your life and the lives of Black people around the world. No longer will you tolerate blatant injustice, where humans are denied the ability to be great based on their gender, race, or socio-economic status. You take up that heavy torch to gracefully smash systemic barriers. You build your own table with brilliant Black queens and create a community for us, by us. And you connect with powerful upstanders who innately know that we are all stronger together.
You have MAD LOVE to fight to good fight, not for you, but so that no other Black or Brown girl will ever have to experience what you did - decades of sexism and oppression. It’s about more than sport. This field of play right here – it’s about representation, inclusion and challenging the status quo for womxn of colour. Stay strong, be bold and use that big voice of yours to create change.
Love, 50-year-old Tanya
Grab your notebook and watch the full session below.