Kamani Conteh admitted that in the past, she kept her hands to her sides when a teacher asked for a volunteer to answer a question or a group of students needed a project leader. But the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, while being arrested by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 forced Conteh to break character.
“It’s so easy to just sit back and let people do their thing and just say, ‘Oh, well, they’re starting it. So I’ll join later.’ I feel like I do that with a lot of things,” said Conteh, a sophomore outside hitter for the UMBC volleyball team. “But then with this kind of thing, I was like, ‘You know what? No. I need to step out of my comfort zone and I really need to be a part of this.’ And not that it felt like an obligation, but it kind of felt like a calling, a calling from God. I just really felt that I needed to be a part of this.”
Conteh joined with Caroline Koutsos, a sophomore back for women’s soccer, and Maren Weathersby, a junior backstroker in women’s swimming, to form Retriever CARE (Coalition of Athletes Reaching for Equity), a group dedicated to giving UMBC student-athletes the power to combat social injustice. The organization will sponsor its first presentation on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. with Harford County District Court judge Kerwin A, Miller, Sr., a UMBC faculty member who will discuss criminal justice and social justice.
Other CARE members include three members of the women’s lacrosse program in junior attacker Olivia Docal, a Glenwood resident; junior attacker Lily Kennedy, a Marriottsville resident and Marriotts Ridge graduate; and junior goalkeeper Lexi Roberts, a Baldwin resident and Fallston graduate; junior outfielder Peter Godrick, a Millersville resident and Archbishop Spalding graduate; and junior soccer goalkeeper Quantrell Jones, a Baltimore resident and Kenwood graduate.
The creation of Retriever CARE is especially poignant for Weathersby, who hails from Charlottesville, Virginia, and was about 20 feet away from Heather Heyer when she was struck and killed by a car driven by white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. on Aug. 12, 2017, as they protested a white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.
“When George Floyd happened, I was like, ‘How is this still a problem? How is this problem even worse and why hasn’t anybody done anything to try to stop it?’” Weathersby said. “So I got into this group to try to help force change in society. I know we’re on a smaller scale right now, but if anything we do can make a difference and change what’s going on in society today, that’s what I would like to happen.”
UMBC deputy athletic director and senior woman administrator Jessica Hammond-Graf said athletic director Brian Barrio wanted to give student-athletes a forum. When Conteh, Weathersby and Koutsos expressed their desire to be proactive, the movement was off and running.
“It’s one thing for me to lead a group,” Hammond-Graf said. “But it really is about them and their space and how they’re creating change not only for themselves, but also for their student-athletes and the larger UMBC community. … I think it’s safe to say that we’re kind of transitioning into really having this leadership council take full ownership of the group, and it’s been important to us all along for them to drive the direction of Retriever CARE.”
Koutsos said members of the women’s soccer team have been reading a book this fall called “How to Be an Antiracist,” a nonfiction work by American author and historian Ibram X. Kendi. They meet every Tuesday for what is called “Tough Conversation Tuesday” to discuss each chapter.
Koutsos said she has realized a passivity in the way she had approached life.
“I used to be the kind of person who would say, ‘I don’t like to get into politics,’” she said. “Hearing my past self saying those kinds of things and going through events like this where you see things in the media that completely change the narrative, it kind of was like a wake-up call for me. Instead of being apathetic toward political things and not being civically engaged, I realize that it was privilege that I was using and that it wasn’t right for me to just sit idly by and not do anything in my power to make a change.”
UMBC men’s basketball assistant coach Bryce Crawford, who was invited to join the group, said he has tried to implore the members to be sensitive to hardships experienced by others.
“Very easily, we get caught up into our own little worlds, and we make our worlds so small, and oftentimes the only thing that exists in those worlds is us and what we have going on and our own individual experiences and struggles,” he said. “We want to help expand what that world looks like. One thing that we’ve talked about is, an emergency is still an emergency if it happens to someone else, and so often we forget that.”
Conteh said one objective for the group is to encourage 100% of the student-athletes to get involved with Retriever CARE. She estimated that less than 40% of the athletes are engaged.
“I think inclusivity is one of the most important things with our group, and we’re striving to get new members,” Koutsos said. “But at the same time, it’s all about priorities, and I think for all of us, this is a priority. It’s OK if not everyone has the same schedules, but I know that my coaches will always say, ‘If you’re willing to put in the work, you will. You’ll find time during the day,’ — whether that’s athletics, academics, civic engagement. So I think having a good standard and passion for this subject really has a ripple effect and will in time bring more people in.”
Conteh said she won’t stop trying to recruit new members.