Be The Change You Want To See At USAW
“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” I think of that Margaret Mead quote often. Sometimes in inspiration for the incredible change that I see around me. Sometimes in frustration that I don’t know why more people aren’t speaking up and fighting for change.
I think, sometimes, that change feels overwhelming. Or that people think they are small, or their needs are small or that they can’t. Sometimes they can’t. There’s risk of losing jobs, fear of losing friends, actual risk for your life if you piss off the wrong people.
And sometimes I think people don’t see the importance of the small things that we take for granted.
Access to sport is one of those things, for me. And access to competition and teams and training. When I do inclusivity workshops I talk a lot about the true power of what we do as gyms and coaches. It’s not, at all, in the fitness or the winning. It’s in the working together, the bonds, the connections, the patterns, the struggles. Friends made, jobs found, social safety nets woven with sweat, chalk, tears hopes and dreams. And sometimes it’s in the success and the fitness, but truly, that stuff is tertiary at best.
Which is why access is so important. For so many people, you hear “if they were dedicated they’d make it.” “Hard work pays off.” But what if you don’t even have access to what you need to do the work. What if you can’t find a gym where you feel safe. If you can’t afford shoes. If you work hard and qualify for a meet and can’t afford to go? If……
I dunno, there’s a lot of “ifs” and sometimes I wish I could stop thinking about them. God knows, after the last year or so with, well, you know, I wish I could stop caring.
But I can’t.
I’ve known and been part of USA Weightlifting for years now. First as the parent of a very competitive kid, (and a sorta parent of her even more competitive boyfriend who I totally claim as my own.) As a gym owner. As a coach. Eventually as a coach of kids competing at Nationals.
And yes, as a loudmouth working for change in the sport that I love.
USAW isn’t perfect. Phil Andrews isn’t perfect. I don’t even know that perfect is the right thing to be thinking about. But Phil and I have had lots of talks about what inclusivity looks like at USAW. Some of them were casual, but we’ve dug damned deep on things like trans athletes, and trying to figure out how to bust barriers so that everyone has access.
We also talk about all the other barriers to entry.
One time these conversations involved cocktails. I only mention that because if you’ve ever thought that I am un-guarded in my speaking, it’s only because you’ve never had a drink with me. I hold my liquor about as well as a bandana would, I get very chatty, and even more sweary.
Phil knows, very well, how I think and talk.
So I was more than a little surprised to get an email from some people who are working with USAW to do an in depth project reshaping their efforts around inclusivity. Moreover that Phil specifically said they should talk to me.
If you’ve been paying attention in the last year, well….. On the one hand, ya, that’s probably a great idea. I have experience and perspective, and will give you a list of the people who are more important to talk to than me. But, I mean, that’s also pretty much like saying “we want to do this the hardest way possible.” But Oly lifters do hard things, right? The metaphor may be strained, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
USAW has done other efforts around DEI, but none of them necessarily yielded the results they were looking for, and this impresses me. This effort isn’t to look good and make people stop saying mean stuff, this is a “dig deep and make a plan” kind of effort. This is building something better.
So, to give my cynicism some fresh air, USAW could have done what so many orgs have done. Create a DEI board of some sort, largely packed with people who tick the token boxes but are connected to and dependent on the org for their survival, and then hold those tokens up as shields to stop anyone from saying bad things about them. It’s what you see all the time, while more challenging voices are shut out.
It is hard to overstate how drained I am from the events of the last year. My initial response to the email was something along the lines of “as much as I love USAW and Phil, I’m tired, I don’t think you want to talk to me because I will say things you don’t want to hear, and frankly, I’m done doing free consulting.”
Their response was, essentially, “that’s why Phil wants us to talk to you, he wants to hear the hard stuff.”
I know Phil. I know this to be true. So I talked to them.
But you know me, I didn’t go in unprepared. I sat at the kitchen counter with my daughter and her boyfriend, and made a list of things that needed to be discussed and handled. Things that have circulated in the whisper networks for years, we talked about them. Systemic things that seem “innocent,” but obstruct access, we talked about them. Financial things, health things, safety things. We dug deep.
Not because USAW did something wrong or bad, but because it could be better. Because it should be.
I think that’s another thing that people misunderstand about change. It doesn’t have to happen as the result of something being broken. It can – and more easily so – happen when things are just “good enough.”
“Good enough” can be its own problem, because people – and organizations – can get stuck there. With no crisis to catalyze change, stagnation can happen and that’s a slow slide to entropy and decay. But, at the same time, “good enough” can mean that you have a stable foundation and functioning engine with which you can build something better.
Why am I telling you this? A few reasons, really. One, because oh my god, after the last year, it felt so profoundly good to have a seriously meaty discussion with someone about what change can look like in an organization that has the potential to be even better and do so much good.
And because USAW is smart, they outsourced it to a really good team of people, which makes it safe to say anything and everything that needs saying, anonymously, with no repercussions. (Though I would say any of it to Phil directly, and probably have.)
This is me, vouching for the process, because I want YOU to email them and set up a time to tell them what you need from USAW, in order for you to feel safe and involved and valued. To feel included. YOU CAN AND SHOULD BE HEARD.
I was originally going to write about this process for Barbend, but I couldn’t find anyone who had anything “bad” to say about USAW. (Beyond the publicized issues that we know, and I’m not willing to drag anyone’s name into this without their enthusiastic consent.) I think it's true that they're better then most, but they're the first to say that they could be better.
Which gets us back to the idea that change doesn’t have to happen because something is wrong, bad or broken. Change can happen just because something could be so much better.
But no matter how well intentioned any of us are, we can only truly grok things from our own perspectives. I can care enormously about Black athletes or trans athletes or adaptive athletes, but mine isn’t the voice USAW needs to hear on those issues. USAW needs to hear from people speaking on their own behalf.
Speaking up isn’t easy though, if you don’t know who to talk to. Or believe that you are safe and valued. Or that your voice matters.
“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” Your voice is one, in a diverse group of people, who has the power to shape the future of USAW.
That gives me hope. I need hope, after all of this last year which so often felt so hopeless. What USAW is doing here is giving me hope. They’re trying to be better, and doing the hard work, because they can.
They need to hear from you. What are your dreams? What do you wish they did? What would make you feel safe, inspired, included, valued? What are the obstacles that stop you from lifting, competing, trying?
The firm doing the research is Vestry Laight, and I have found them to be great to work with. You can email them directly for the next couple weeks. They really do want to hear from you.
Or, really, you can send it through me and I’ll get it to them. I have no real connection to this, no vested interest except in seeing the world slowly get better. One voice in that small committed group....
With that, it’s time to start packing and head to Detroit for USAW Nationals week and watch “my” kids lift. First time there not as a coach, and first big event since the pandemic and “all that other shit” from last summer. I get to sit and watch. Or talk to you, if you’re there and want to say “hi.” The world is looking better already.
- XO - a
PS..... just in case you're still here, looking for me to dig at CrossFit, I won't be doing that. BUT, there is an opportunity to so something similar for them, though not through them. I was similarly contacted by someone doing research for Augusta University about inclusivity in CrossFit. Not at their behest, and I have no idea if CrossFit will see it or not. But I have spoken with the lead researcher and she is passionate about social change in all the same ways I am. Looking for respondents to talk about how they have felt included - or excluded - by CrossFit's branding and behavior. I think this is an important study, because it's academic and can help build a better athletic future for all athletics. This is an anonymous, online, survey and I urge you all to fill it out. Another way to be the change, to be a voice in a small committed group.