Written by: Sam Cohn // Photo by: Jackie Terpak
Owls for Justice, an organization of 130 Temple University student-athletes, has created tangible change by fighting against racial injustice, even amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Communicating virtually on a weekly basis, Owls for Justice has provided students with a space to have important conversations about race, even when it is uncomfortable. The organization has not had a chance to meet in-person since holding a peaceful protest near Temple’s campus on June 6.
The name “Owls for Justice” was created by Dr. Stephany Coakley, the Mental Health Specialist in Temple’s Athletics Department who serves on the organization’s committee of advisors.
“My role has predominantly been giving them an opportunity to talk about what the issues were and how the issues were making them feel,” Coakley said in a phone interview Wednesday. “And then guiding them to the next step, which is formulating a plan, what are we going to do about it? What kind of actions do you want to take?”
The advisory committee has supported Owls for Justice in championing reform from within. In addition to Coakley, the advisory committee includes leaders in Temple’s Athletics Department like Justin Miller, who oversees student academic affairs in the Resnick Center, and Olivia Wynn, Assistant Director of Compliance & Student-Athlete Affairs.
“That group helps to support Owls for Justice because they’re still student-athletes with limited resources for a lot of things,” Coakley said. “And in order for change to take place you need to have a lot of people involved, so coaches and staff are getting involved with Owls for Justice.”
The committee is currently writing an inclusion statement to post in campus facilities, which will state that Temple University and Temple Athletics value diversity and foster an inclusive environment. Additionally, athletic staff are in the process of receiving training on inclusion and how to be social justice allies, Coakley said.
That statement is currently in the works but a majority of the work the advisory committee does is to support the work of student-athletes by offering guidance and providing resources when needed.
Coakley, an alumna of Temple University with a degree in Psychology references her expertise in mental health, years of experience working with athletes, and her familiarity with protesting racial injustice to offer guidance to student-athletes involved with the movement.
Her first protesting experience was in May of 1990 when she joined 500 students and community members in shutting down Broad Street in response to Temple’s mishandling of a racially charged incident. This protest is the reason why Temple students today are required to take a Race and Diversity GenEd, Coakley said.
Since peacefully protesting on Saturday, June 6, Owls for Justice hasn’t had the ability to have the necessary uncomfortable and important conversations face-to-face, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Rather, it’s just been weekly virtual communication.
Owls for Justice has used social media to share information and amplify its work with voter registration, education reform and criminal justice reform. Social media platforms like Instagram (@owlsforjustice) have enabled the group to share progress updates and future goals with a wide audience, even though the pandemic has infringed on the group’s ability to meet in-person.
Many members of Owls for Justice are using their own social media accounts as well as the group account to create and share content with resources that promote a more accepting community, embracing its diversity. The account also serves as a space to update followers on the group’s progress and explain future goals.
“I don’t know if it would be easier to do it in person,” Coakley said. “But I can say that everybody involved has taken the opportunity to reflect and figure out what each individual and then Athletics collectively, can do to make things better.”
She explained that from her perspective working in mental health, this is such an important time for student-athletes to develop other aspects of their identity, showing they are more than just athletes.
Sports take up such a large portion of their college experience so being able to do something meaningful outside of their respective sports during a time when sports aren’t so dominant in their lives can be extremely beneficial to their well being.
“It’s given them something that is absolutely transformative to do in this period when sport is not as prominent,” Coakley said. “And another aspect is related to identity development, when you’re able to tap into other interests … those are things that help sustain somebody’s mental health and well-being because they’re not suppressing or ignoring things that are important to them.”
She added that the way Owls for Justice has been able to organize and take action so swiftly has been extremely impressive, in reference to the group’s lengthy Zoom call, releasing their first statement, and mobilizing a peaceful protest all within a three-day period.
Civil unrest on top of a pandemic has made the work to create change all the more challenging for student-athletes but having Temple’s Athletics Department in their corner has been instrumental in their fight for racial equality.