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Turning learning into action: Kaiya McCullough talks Anti Racist Soccer Club

When it’s time for listening and learning to become action.

Whenever the topic of racial justice comes up, there’s a very predictable and inevitable question: what next? We’ve listened and learned, so what do we do next? Sometimes it’s a genuine question and sometimes it’s a way to throw up one’s hands and say, we did our piece. If you won’t tell us where to go next, we can’t be blamed. That’s no longer an acceptable mindset, though, because Anti Racist Soccer Club is here to help everyone do the work.

ARSC launched this April to do exactly what it says on the tin, fight racism in American soccer. A bold header on their website reads: “Performative statements must be replaced with impactful action.” In their launch announcement, the group named USL Black Players Alliance co-founders Hugh Roberts and Brandon Miller, AFC Ann Arbor Chair Bilal Saeed, The Sporting Justice Collective, and Kaiya McCullough as forming the initial coalition. Shortly thereafter, they announced the first club to join their coalition would be Maryland Bobcats FC, who play in NISA.

McCullough, who is chairwoman of the ARSC, needs no introduction to women’s soccer fans. She has been a consistent and vocal advocate for racial justice in soccer. In a call with AfXI from her home in California, she discussed her hopes for the coalition, both realistic and idealistic. “Ultimately, I think it’s clear that there is not a safe space right now in soccer for [BIPOC players],” she said, “And I myself, having gone through a lot of what’s happening right now, is something that I want to prevent in the future. So that’s the most idealistic goal that I can have, is that everybody has equal opportunity to play the sport, without fear of repercussion, without fear of harm. But there’s a long way to go with that.”

We were speaking after a weekend of negative incidents in NWSL: a poorly-worded tweet from the Portland Thorns after an on-field altercation between Kristen Edmonds, who is Black, and Morgan Weaver, who is white; an accusation from Red Stars player Sarah Gorden that she and her boyfriend were racially profiled by Houston Dash stadium security (which the league is currently investigating); and a callout for the league itself for promoting international games featuring North American and European countries, but not Estelle Johnson’s game with Cameroon.

“I genuinely don’t feel like fans and casual observers and, you know even journalists, I don’t feel like they recognize the extent to which players feel unsafe,” McCullough said.

Enter Anti Racist Soccer Club. Their website contains key resources for any soccer club looking to learn and then, crucially, to act, primarily through ARSC’s 10-point plan. This is a selection of action items that clubs can learn from and then tailor to meet their specific resources, communities, and needs, a necessity when you’re hoping for buy-in from many different kinds of leagues at different levels of the soccer pyramid. McCullough called it “programmable.”

“I think that was important for us,” she said, “Just because if you’re sitting, or you’re just telling people what to do, a lot of times that’ll get some pushback, but by creating something that can be designed specifically for your community, I think is really powerful. And I think it creates incentives for people to get creative with some of the ways that they’re tackling these issues.”

It’s not just for clubs, either. ARSC is calling for supporters groups to join the coalition too. McCullough said they’ve already had conversations with the Independent Supporters Council. “My perspective of that is, supporter groups are so powerful,” she said. “They hold so much pull on these clubs in every level. You see how powerful fans can be after this past weekend. So I think it was really important to have them included in people who can be holding both themselves accountable and the clubs that they’re supporting accountable.”

Part of that accountability is a quarterly review conducted by an ARSC panel. “We all are committed to antiracist work and we all have different lenses that we’re viewing this work through. And so, I think accountability for me might look different from somebody else but I think it really is just gonna be a holistic approach,” said McCullough. Different needs, different approaches, different results. Some clubs may set fundraising goals; others may want to increase participation numbers; yet others may want to do restructuring to improve accessibility or develop education programs.

McCullough was clear, though, that groups requesting to join ARSC shouldn’t be doing this for a stamp of approval. “We haven’t set a numerical goal because that just don’t feel right, because I do want this to be something where we’re not just trying to meet a quota,” she said. This shouldn’t be a label that clubs can slap on, a “certified antiracist” stamp that lets fans consume a product guilt-free. For any group wanting to join ARSC, McCullough encourages them to ask themselves some key questions.

“What are you doing this for? Are you doing this because, you know, it’s good PR, it’s good publicity, it’s what fans are expecting. Or are you doing it because you actually want to protect your Black players and your players of color,” she said.

McCullough and the Anti Racist Soccer Club are aware that this is a tremendous project, to the point that McCullough said things sometimes feel intangible because of the sheer amount of work to be done. But she knows what she hopes the outcome of all this is. “It would look like a place where we didn’t have the incidents of this past weekend [in NWSL] happening, where clubs were actually committed to doing antiracist work,” she said. “And whether or not that features our framework I think it’s irrelevant, because ultimately our goal is to make it so that Anti Racist Soccer Club isn’t even needed because clubs are already so committed to being antiracist. In my most ideal world, clubs would be doing the work for the sake of doing it and not for PR, not for publicity, and not to get a stamp of approval.”

“I’m just excited to be a part of this process because I do think this organization is a reflection of the fact that antiracist work is constant, it is a cycle,” said McCullough. “You constantly need to learn and adapt from what you’re seeing, and if something one way doesn’t work then, you know, you can try a different way.” ARSC are now doing their best to enable everyone to at least try, in whatever way they can.