Celebrating Identity: How RUNY Winger Derek Lipscomb is Using Rugby to Promote Diversity in Sports
How RUNY Wing Derek Lipscomb is Using Rugby to Promote Diversity in Sports
RUNY signing Derek Lipscomb is a man of many talents. As well as being a scintillating back 3 player for the blue and orange, Lipscomb also manages to stay on in his role as an educator at ‘The Buckley School’ and has become quite the icon to the people of African heritage in the rugby community. As a founder of Roots Rugby, Lipscomb combines two of his passions, the beautiful game and the diverse history of the Black community in America. In celebration of Black History Month we asked Lipscomb to tell us all about Roots Rugby in his own words:
“When Kyle Granby and I first met, we were playing for Old Blue in 2012. Kyle had finished at Iona College and played a season or so for New York Rugby Club while I had graduated from Columbia University and immediately started playing for Old Blue. There were not many players of African diaspora in the northeast at the time and playing alongside one at a high level was even more rare. Within a few practices we were extremely close friends, it was as if Kyle and I grew up together in New Rochelle. Part of that connection I think had to do with similar experiences growing up and that we both could immediately empathize with each other’s experience being Black and playing rugby. When Kyle eventually left to play with New York Athletic Club – Old Blue’s storied rivals, we still remained connected and made sure to continue to challenge each other, on and off the field. Eventually, as more Black players came to the northeast to play, our shared experiences again gave us a point of connection and allowed us to all become great friends with one another on and off the field. Many players of color found their way to my club Old Blue and in 2018, for the first time, the 7s team was predominantly people of the African diaspora. Whether by design or by chance, both Kyle and I saw a chance to create something special that could help bring the Black, pan-African and Caribbean rugby communities a little closer. From there, ROOTS Rugby was formed.
Roots doubles as an acronym created by Kimo Davis and stands for ‘Rugby Offering Opportunities To Succeed’. Within that acronym the mission statement was clear – to unite the players of African descent and give them a platform to succeed within a space where they could showcase their natural talent. Often times when a player of color joins a team, they can be typecast before they are able to develop or even highlight their strengths. In some ways, their career has already been plotted for them based on where others before them had played. Roles like scrum half or fly half are largely untouched by players of African descent. Part of that decision is based on the idea that a Black rugby player is seen as naturally gifted with athleticism, not the idea that they could have great passing and kicking talents first. The notion that the Black player must be fast, physical and naturally athletic contribute to this entrapment and typecasting. Roots shows these players of color that they are their own players with their own skill sets and lets them pursue their preferred role. By giving them a chance to make the decision about their position we hope to bring a little autonomy back to the player. With Roots, the added feature is that they will be alongside other players that have had similar journeys in life and want to continue to play at the same high level while developing their own unique talents.” – DL
In a similar vein as this, Roots player Greg Voigt backed up the sentiments expressed by Lipscomb, stating:
“Having an opportunity to be a part of Roots Rugby was incredible. There are few times when you realize how big and important something is when you’re in the moment. Roots rugby wasn’t just about bringing people of similar cultures together but about sending a message to young black children as well as the adults in this sport, who don’t see many people that look like them in the same uniform, that they aren’t alone. That’s there’s a large community of us out there experiencing the same things and when we come together, we have an opportunity to create something truly special.” – GV
Roots acts as more than simply a deconstruction of racial notions and a safe space for the City’s players of color, it aims to be the driving force behind a cultural shift in the rugby community by incorporating learning elements. Lipscomb continues:
“Roots also integrates a historical aspect, with concern to the African Diaspora, to player development in the hopes that it helps with their agency as well as brings to light many commonalities of their paths with other teammates. It also helps to serve their community at large and establish a connection. Rugby is its own lifestyle but that lifestyle still has a dominant culture. When there are slight discrepancies between the individual and the dominant culture, there may be conflict when interacting with others who fit the dominant culture. It can be from getting asked to be the automatic rap DJ on a road trip, to having your playing career in jeopardy if you do not play wing well enough.
Understanding the larger picture for a player of color and giving them a chance to talk with other players who share that sentiment is a great way to take their learnings back to their hometown teammates and raise awareness of what is being said. Roots is about learning how to advocate for oneself, while learning more about our own history as a person from the African diaspora. For Black History Month, Roots athletes are currently exploring Black History that remains untold or largely uncovered. This pursuit of knowledge not only helps the Roots community but promotes a value in education while achieving excellence on the rugby pitch.” – DL
After such success amongst the Black community on the adult stage, Roots in the future hopes to spread its message to the youth in their community:
“With rugby taking off in inner-city high schools in New York City, there is an opportunity for mentorship, networking, and general familiarity amongst the students. It also helps those high school students begin to pave a way for themselves because they can visualize in Roots what their own future may look like as they continue to play rugby. Partnerships in schools, fundraisers and volunteer work in the communities, as well as outreach programs are all on the calendar for the Roots board members. In time, Roots hopes to become a legitimate contender in the rugby world and has taken a first step by winning their first championship at the 2018 New York 7s tournament. The team was comprised of New York area players while adding two Jamaican team nationals. Roots has also entered both men’s and women’s teams into the Las Vegas Invitational for 2019 and have since branched out. Soon we hope to bring together players from all over the United States with shared affinity. The goal is always to win but an immediate priority is to continue to bring together players all over the country and continue to unify and educate all players both Black and White.
Where I envision Roots having the most impact is being able to share resources with White allies about cultural competence while they are also able to provide feedback on how we can bring the communities together in understanding one another. A large portion of rugby’s lifestyle is the social aspect – in some ways, you will be closer to your teammates than your own family. In those instances it is important to try and learn more about your teammates, not just the music they listen to but to see the whole person. We have our Roots Family & Friends page on Facebook and through it we hope to have meaningful conversations about rugby when it comes to race and gender. Both of those areas are becoming more prevalent here in the US and the goal shouldn’t be to shy away from the discomfort of discussing it but rather leaning into that discomfort.
Overall, having key members like Tiana and Kyle Granby, Hayden James, Koma Fischbein, Kimani Davis, and Phaidra Knight is the reason for Roots success. The hope is to bring up a new generation of players that are not only stellar athletes on the field, but off as well. Glenn Treacher graciously offered his Liberty team to be the first platform for our Roots Campaign and from there Hayden James has coached the team. Hayden always dedicates the games to his late son who was killed by gunfire in 2010. Hayden’s focus has always been the community and having coached myself back at Columbia, he knew he would be able to help shape the future of rugby for at least one Black player. Hayden and I have been close ever since and winning the NY7s tournament was a great chance to start solidifying all of that hard work that has gone into the Roots Rugby team. The community of Black players has always been there, but Kyle and I realized it was just a matter of knowing they had a place to meet where they could be proud of both the people and rugby players they were and could become.” – DL
We here at RUNY are so incredibly proud of everything our players do for this community. When guys like Derek go out into the community to do great things they exemplify exactly why RUNY signed them. Being a New Yorker and a RUNY Rooster ain’t a description, they’re a way of carrying yourself. Keep up the great work Derek and Roots.
Anyone wanting to learn more about the Roots Rugby Campaign should feel free to reach out to the Roots Rugby Family page on Facebook or follow on Instagram. Both pages are highly active and are always looking to connect with those who may have questions.
This piece was written by Jim Fisher, of PC Mag. A major
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