Women’s basketball player bridges student athleticism, activism

Whitlock speaks at an on-campus BLM march in Fall 2020.

On and off the basketball court, senior guard/forward Zaria Whitlock has made an impact on those around her. Whitlock’s dedication to student athleticism and advocacy has earned her the respect of teammates and internship managers alike. 

Junior shooting guard Mikala Hall said Whitlock takes a reserved type of initiative on the court.

“Zaria is a leader. She won’t say a lot at a time, but she’s very observant and she’ll talk when she needs to,” Hall said. “As time progresses, if she sees that someone’s making mistakes, she’ll be able to correct you — but she’ll make sure she’s correcting you in the right way … so she makes sure she chooses her words wisely.”

This sense of leadership extends off the court as well; Whitlock marched in and spoke at the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee’s Black Lives Matter march in October 2020. She said junior guard Mikia Keith asked her to speak at the march, and she used the opportunity to highlight the reality of social progress — or lack thereof — in the United States.

“[The speech] was just mainly talking about the fact that, as a country, we’ve kind of wanted to hide from the fact that we are not at all where we thought we were as far as social progress goes,” Whitlock said. “And I think in 2020, despite all of the tragedies and atrocities that have happened, especially in the Black community … it has really shown us where we are as a country, and I think we had the wool pulled over our eyes for a very long time.”

Hall said she appreciates Whitlock’s passion for social justice and education.

“She is very vocal about what she cares about,” Hall said. “She was able to teach other people about what was going on in our community, and not be afraid to speak out and teach others … and even teach me. There’s some things I didn’t know about my own history, but she was able to just inform me and let me know.”

During a team-building exercise last fall, Whitlock met Anya Covington, the founder and manager of human2human, an organization which Covington says aims to eliminate the “-isms” that divide us as people — such as racism and sexism. As a philosophy and sociology double-major, Whitlock said she knew she needed a spring internship for graduation and had finally found the right organization for her; Covington said Whitlock made quite an impression on her as well.

“It was interesting, because I think she missed the first hour of our first session, but once she came in, it was just like a light,” Covington said. “The way she’s able to articulate her ideas and her experiences … she’s a very thoughtful person, so when she speaks, it’s well thought out — and she has a strong opinion, but I truly believe it’s based on merit.”

Covington said human2human’s primary focus is their diversity, equity and inclusion trainings, and the organization is building a research platform with credible information, which was part of Whitlock’s work as an intern. Whitlock said Covington allowed her to choose the topics for three different modules: the school to prison pipeline, criminalization of poverty and the privatization of prisons. 

Covington said she praised Whitlock’s ability to both research these topics and think critically. 

“Zaria has done a great job during her internship time of acquiring, I would say, underdeveloped research — so areas where there’s not much to find, she’s put in the work to dig, to connect different entities so we can move forward,” Covington said. “So she’s been influential in terms of her determination, the innovative ways that she thinks … and the humanizing factor that she has to empathize with all people groups.”

Hall said Whitlock has been a steady, positive presence throughout her college life.

“She’s literally been there every step of the way. Everything I’ve accomplished, she’s been there,” Hall said. “We roomed together my sophomore year, and so we always talked every night, just us in our apartment just eating, or just chilling and watching movies and things like that, just bonding over time.”

According to Hall, the strength of this bond means Whitlock’s departure will take some getting used to.

“I was talking to her today, and she was saying how she’s getting ready to leave,” Hall said. “I can’t imagine going through these years without her, because she has literally just been an anchor in my life to keep me grounded through a lot of things, especially with my mental health.”

With the student-athlete march and her internship behind her, Whitlock said she’s looking toward a future somewhat along her father’s path, but intends to continue her own activism wherever she goes.

“My father is actually a criminal defense attorney in Minnesota and I’ve wanted to go to law school for a long time, so my path is kind of set in that direction in general,” Whitlock said “But as things change, and after I graduate this semester, I’m open to anything. But I believe anything that I do in my future will be, in some ways, involved in advocacy or policy reform, something of that nature.”

Covington said Whitlock’s ability to manage all she’s done in her college career makes her a primary contender for any employer after graduation.

“Being a student-athlete … it’s a full-time job — and the fact that her grades are excellent and she’s seeking this type of hard work that is calling her to deal with her emotions, being a Black woman in this country … it’s a huge deal,” Covington said. “If anybody reads this that’s looking to hire, she is a top candidate, seriously. Your time management, your ability to be disciplined in terms of your nutrition, getting the rest you need, studying and still having time to be a human, it’s excellent. She’s the best, in my opinion, that I’ve seen do it.”

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