Girls-women’s athletics has come far since the passage of 1972 Title IX legislation prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools, and education programs receiving federal government funds. Parity gains from K-12 through college are real but gaps persist despite Title IX, whose implementation varies. Club, AAU, Olympic, and pro sports have no explicit protections outside of courts of law. Gaps are magnified when it comes to inner-city racial minorities. For girls from households with lower income and limited transportation, entry into pay-to-play select travel programs is unrealistic. Not being able to travel to compete against elite competition can hamper athletes’ development and deny them opportunities to be noticed by college coaches. “
People say, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Well, the bootstraps aren’t the same for everyone,” said Kimberly Thomas, executive director of EPIC for Girls, an Omaha nonprofit that attempts to level the playing field for BIPOC student-athletes.
Kimberly Thomas, Executive Director of EPIC for Girls
On its website, EPIC for Girls says it “amplifies programs serving BIPOC girls,” thus making participation and travel more affordable, all while calling attention to persistent inequities that keep some girls on the sideline or begging for scraps, not due to lack of interest or talent, but lack of opportunity. “ Girls of color are impacted the most by the pay-to-play model sports has evolved to,” Thomas said. “It’s really created a gap between the haves and have-nots. The gap between those with access and those without has increased. We’re here to close that gap.” EPIC stands in the gap as a funder, advocate, facilitator, and bridge for programs serving girls. “We’re building connections and mentorships. Kids are building roots in their communities. We care about how kids do in school and meeting their intersectionality as they walk through the door. Coaches become a part of their life. EPIC is here to make sure programs stay versus leave when a season is over, or a coach is done coaching their own team. We want programs to be there for the long run. It’s about providing the girls they serve the same access and resources as their peers in the suburbs. Being part of a team or any activity bigger than yourself does change your life. It teaches leadership skills, it builds confidence. We believe all kids should have access to that.” EPIC also celebrates athletes, teams, and coaches. Several will be feted at its inaugural Sept. 14th, 2023, gala, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at College of Saint Mary, highlighted by keynote speaker and living hoops legend Dawn Staley. During her playing days, Staley won All-American honors, Olympic gold medals, and WNBA Hall of Fame props. As a coach, she’s twice led South Carolina to the NCAA Final Four, leading the Lady Gamecocks to the national title in 2022. Awards will honor the community coach, EPIC collegiate athlete, EPIC high school athlete, and EPIC advocates of the year. EPIC partners will be highlighted in an opening act and participate in a mini sports clinic. Landing Staley is big for EPIC, which Thomas hopes can be a national model. “ Dawn is a shining example of someone who has worked her way through the ranks of women’s basketball. She doesn’t shy away from the difficult conversations that will ultimately pave the way for future athletes’ experiences. She recruits girls from communities of color and ensures they have access and resources to take their game to the next level and that collegiate sports serve as a positive addition to their lives. We hope she shares some of her stories and experiences that will ultimately inspire attendees to support women-girls sports. Latrell Wrightsell Sr., executive director of EPIC partner Nebraska Hoops Elite, will have his girls there “to see a woman who looks like them because it reinforces Black girls can achieve at the highest level and they can use that as motivation, encouragement,” Added Wrightsell, “They might not get to her level, but they can still find a next level to achieve. That will put them in that mindset we preach all the time – yes, you can.” Staley’s Omaha visit comes as the leadership of Creighton University (CU) and University of Nebraska at Omaha athletics is more diverse than ever. CU athletic director Marcus Blossom is African American as are UNO athletic director Adrian Dowell, head men’s basketball coach Chris Crutchfield and head women’s basketball coach Carrie Banks. That representation at the top, Thomas said, is encouraging. Nationally, more BIPOC professionals are moving into leadership positions in athletics, but the overall numbers are small and the disparities large, particularly for women, she added. While diversity gains on and the off the playing field have accelerated in this Black Lives Matter-woke era, she said, gender equity remains a work in progress, especially when it comes to girls-women of color.
“The National Women’s Sports Foundation,” she said, “focuses on women and girls but it’s not BIPOC focused.” Other organizations tasked with fostering greater engagement by females in sports don’t have the evaluation or sustainability focus of EPIC, she said.Evidence-based research and evaluation are at the heart of what EPIC does in making the case for the effects of sports participation in the lives of girls as well as in holding partners accountable and showing sponsors-donors results. “EPIC evaluates the impact of sports on the communities being served and lives being changed.
We provide partners with resources they wouldn’t typically have – strategic planning, budgeting, fundraising. Resources create long-term sustainability. It doesn’t do anybody good for you to come and go. We not only want ourselves to be sustainable, but we also want our partners to be sustainable.” She believes EPIC may be replicable, noting it’s needed because equikaylaty issues around girls and women in sports she said are everywhere.” EPIC’s work is predicated on the notion that organized athletics instills skills participants carry wherever they go and whatever they do in life. Denying girls of color those personal development opportunities, Thomas said, risks them not finding those same building blocks of character elsewhere. “Self-esteem, confidence, leadership, teamwork are all things that come with participating,” said Thomas, who added she “owes a lot” to her participation in sports growing up in Hershey Neb. “I know that is the reason I am who I am. I know that’s why I have so much confidence to move about and enter different activities and spaces as an adult.” EPIC boasts an all-women board of directors. Many played or coached or worked in the sports industry. Thus, Thomas said, “EPIC exemplifies what is core to its value system – putting women in spaces where women and girls are being discussed.” She knows the value of sport, too, from coaching her bi-racial daughters. “I knew that was something I wanted them to do. I can see how that changed them. The same when I coached other people’s girls. I would see them grow in confidence. I saw the difference it made. Going from not being sure about themselves to being able to look people in the eye and speak in public spaces. Several girls went on to college.” Nebraska Hoops Elite is one of a few inner-city basketball-centric programs EPIC supports. Several of its athletes – boys, and girls – have earned college scholarships. Former Elite player Inia Jones, who now plays at Omaha Central, is weighing scholarship offers to play in college. She appreciates EPIC’s work. “I think their biggest thing is getting us out there more. Just to see women’s sports in the spotlight – I love that. I’m all for it. It’s females. We’ve got to support each other. I’m excited to see what they (EPIC) do in the future.” Playing for Elite against advanced girls out of state is what got her noticed and let her know how much work she had to do. She came back determined to get better. She did and more offers followed. “I’m still working,” she said. “I’m far from satisfied.”
Wrightsell said by EPIC making travel opportunities possible his girls” get the exposure they need because they’re not getting it anywhere else.” “We try to prepare our young ladies to compete at the highest level athletically and academically. We wouldn’t have these opportunities if EPIC wasn’t a major partner. Without that help, it wouldn’t be possible for a lot of our girls who come from lower-income households. On their own, it’s very challenging for families to come up with the amount of money it costs to travel to major tournaments. EPIC plays a huge role in helping subsidize those costs to enable those opportunities. It’s a blessing to get these young ladies in front of these coaches.” Inia appreciates the lessons she’s learned. “Something I can preach to the upcoming generation is to stay focused. Distractions are real. You must ignore distractions, fight through challenges, battles, and use your resources. When you have genuine people in your life like Coach Wrightsell and Coach Rachelle Tucker, use them. When you have older players like Dariauna Lewis, (a former Hoops Elite and North High baller who achieved college success and now plays professionally), use them, they’re there to help you.” Wrightsell said it’s an each-one-to-teach-one thing.“When they see that the ones that came before them have succeeded, they believe they can do it, too.” Inia feels she and Lewis are part of the new wave of women athlete trailblazers. “No doubt. I feel like every wave faces its own battles.” She said the opportunity to meet Staley would be “a dream come true.” When her playing days were over, Inia said, “I want to give back, give what I know. I want the next generation to be better than my generation.” Unlike basketball, where diversity’s omnipresent, volleyball’s still trying to attract more representation. Omaha Starlings works to bring it, said co-director Erin Golden, by making participation “very affordable.” She said the cost for a Starlings season, $400, is a fraction of what suburban programs charge. The high cost of pay-to-play “limits a lot of families and girls,” she said. “There need to be more affordable programs to allow more girls of color the opportunity to be somewhere to learn. That’s where it starts. Our goal has always been to shrink the divide. It’s all about experience and access.” Kaya Kelly-Craigs has become a Starling standout and appreciates all that it’s given her. “It’s checked every box. I’ve gotten so much better every year because of everyone’s support, the team bonding, and the people who’ve stood by my side. I’ve grown every year. It does feel like a second family. I come to practice excited because I’m able to be my full self. I don’t have to hold back for fear of being judged.” It helps that Kaya, who’s mixed, can see herself in the racially diverse Starlings’ roster. The girls are all relatively beginners like her, too. Elsewhere, she said, “I kind of felt out of place at times because the girls had so much more experience. But with Starlings it’s an equal playing field for everyone. Everyone is welcome. It’s all about making us better. It’s helped me to be more disciplined and motivated.”
“Most girls in select programs and camps started at five-six years old,” said Golden. “They’ve been playing for years. We get these girls like Kaya that start at 12, 13, or later that can’t make another program because they’re just learning. They come to us and get those basics and then in a year or two or three, they’ve closed some of that gap. Kaya is a walking example of that. She’s now one of the best players in our program and in the state. That’s what our program is here to do – bridge that gap. Our goal is to start younger and younger. Nobody’s going to learn if nobody’s going to teach them.” Golden said EPIC’s support has allowed Starlings to grow its reach and impact. “EPIC has made a huge difference in what our program can do, especially bringing on additional coaches, which has allowed us to serve more girls.” In addition to adding teams, each team now has two coaches, which she said allows “more player development because there are more eyes on players at practice – we can get more specific skill work in during practices.” While she said the national success of the NU, CU, and UNO volleyball programs and various high school and club programs helps boost the sport’s visibility locally, “girls of color are still not often seeing anybody that looks like them – on some of the biggest stages it’s still not very equal.” “There’s still plenty of work to be done on that front.” Before EPIC, Thomas served as ED at Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA, Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative site coordinator with Douglas County Commissioners, and director of Community Services for Lutheran Family Services.Her EPIC work continues her career of both raising awareness of inequality and addressing it. Part of her job is educating potential sponsors and donors about the empowering role athletics plays in the lives of girls. “The sports programs we support are not just sports programs. We are an equal play initiative centered on ensuring girls of color have access to the benefits of sports. We are changing life outcomes for girls.” Coaching her girls opened Thomas’ eyes to not only the benefits of athletic participation but the difficulties they face. “It’s hard on girls of color. My daughter was the only brown girl on her collegiate team, her high school team, and her club team. And it was difficult.” Girls of color struggle to be themselves versus conforming. “It’s challenging to juggle those things.”Not every coach, she said, is equipped to help. “You can be the best coach but being able to make people feel safe in a space is quite different. It’s not necessarily a coaching skill, it’s a human skill. And if you’re not exposed to that and not constantly getting that refined, it’s tough. It creates a space where girls may not want to come. “We work with coaches. It’s about how can you be the best coach, how you coach girls, how you coach girls of color. We ask what they need access to. We want them to do personal coaching – making sure coaches show up the best for their team.” EPIC hopes its financial support encourages more coaches, many of whom are part-time volunteers, to devote themselves full-time to coaching.
As part of making sure programs do what they say they do, she said, “We vet potential partners – we want to make sure they are serving that population and they have their act together as a nonprofit.” She added, “We require they do background checks on all their coaches and that they record that.” As EPIC wants to ensure girls of color have safe spaces to pursue sports and educational endeavors, it has a confidential online platform for student-athletes, coaches, parents, et cetera, to report incidents of bullying, shaming, abuse, or violence. Many programs EPIC assists struggle with ready access to adequate facilities and resources. “They have to go out of their neighborhood, maybe travel 20 miles just to practice and play,” said Thomas. “So many programs use schools, which is fine, but they’re at the mercy of school schedules. Inner city club programs don’t have priority in those spaces. You don’t have the right equipment in those spaces. It’s much more work to bring in everything players need versus having an established space with those things already there.” “The mere fact Title IX exists,” she said, “does not mean resources get allocated the same way. Girls always get the ‘secondary gym’ and worse practice times. They often don’t get preference for lifting and conditioning times. The promotion of sports within the school setting is often geared toward men-boys sports (‘Friday Night Lights’). When looking for coaching staff, they are often more concerned with the quality of coaches for the boys’ teams.” She is trying to coalesce support around public funds for a proposed northeast Omaha sports facility to serve the community, especially girls of color, when a competing sports complex proposal envisioned for northwest Omaha and another for Carter Lake surfaces that are designed to host national tournaments.” Kids living in the heart of north and south Omaha need these facilities. Thomas understands that economic drivers are important but the communities who have been most negatively impacted by redlining and COVID-19 should have priority access inside their communities. A healthy community contributes positively across the board. The issue is even larger when considering the barriers women face attempting to break into coaching, officiating, sports management and administration, and other athletics-related careers. “Girls often can’t even see themselves represented,” Thomas said. “That’s a big gap. If we can get folks started early than their opportunity to be present in those spaces is greater.” EPIC is developing an officiating clinic as well as paid sports marketing internships to expose more girls to athletics careers. “We’re offering paid internships to learn a job skill. Offering a paid internship removes potential barriers so that students don’t have to choose between a part-time job and attending the internship. There are a lot of benefits we’re trying to create in these spaces. These are skills they can take with them and transfer to living wage-salaried jobs. “ She said it’s about “giving opportunities to girls to become influencers in all the professions in the multi-billion-dollar sports industry. “They don’t have to be an athlete or if they are they don’t have to be the star who gets the collegiate scholarship. They can do a lot of other things if they’re supported in that. That’s where we want to see EPIC go. We want folks to understand that this is an issue everywhere, including Omaha, and by becoming allies in the work, they become part of the solution. We hope to continue working with the community to shed light and create solutions moving forward.” Thomas has taken her advocacy before CEOs, schools, and elected government bodies. Her passion is deep-seated. “My desire to do this just emerged out of experience. Besides. I’m wired this way. I am a helper. I am a social justice junkie. I love finding solutions to problems. My role is as a facilitator who opens doors. It is not just a job for me, I believe in our partners and what we are trying to accomplish.” In less than four years EPIC secured about $1.8 million for its work, redistributing most of that to the programs it supports. “Last year we put about $360,000 back into the community.” Latrell Wrightsell Sr. formed Nebraska Hoops Elite for his prodigy son Latrell Jr. and some of his equally talented peers to have a traveling AAU team. He did the same for his promising daughter Jaden and her cohort. Just as Latrell Jr. and some teammates earned college scholarships, so did Jaden and Co. “The most rewarding thing is seeing these young ladies compete on a national scale and gain the confidence and belief they can, and then garner scholarships they thought they never could attain.It’s just trying to change their trajectory. Then they’re able to reach back into their families and say, hey, you can do this, because I did it.” Wrightsell said EPIC support “helps our young ladies with sports equipment, feminine hygiene products, et cetera,” adding, “Their financial assistance is crucial for us to be able to go play in high-level exposure tournaments in front of coaches.” Another way EPIC advocates are helping fund an in-progress documentary by filmmaker and wrestling enthusiast Charles Fairbanks entitled “She Wrestles” about the sport’s positive impact on girls, particularly black and brown, immigrant, migrant, and refugee girls across the state. “We want people to know how Wrestling is now America’s fastest-growing sport,” Thomas said. “It’s a low barrier sport that seems to resonate in communities of new arrivals” in the same way grappling, boxing has historically appealed to poor, ethnic, inner-city populations. “They’re seeing their lives change because they find new connections in their communities and support from their families.” Among EPIC’s newest partners is B&B Sports Academy, owned by undisputed world welterweight champion Terence “Bud” Crawford of Omaha. The academy serves girls, but EPIC is encouraging it to set aside more time and space for them. B&B’s plans to build a new, larger facility may help it accommodate more youth. “Some of our partners are already established and some are struggling along,” Thomas said. “We help, as needed, financially and with infrastructure. In their programming, some partners don’t have a special place carved out for girls.” A hoped-for partnership with the professional volleyball team, Omaha Supernovas, would expose girls to enhanced skills building and mentoring. As women’s sports have gained more of a foothold in schools and beyond, particularly in soccer, volleyball, basketball, and softball, in-person attendance and televised viewership have increased, though lag far behind that of men’s sports. “I actually don’t think we are close to the peak of viewership and attendance for women’s sports,” Thomas said. “I think as more resources are poured into women’s sports; you will continue to see that increase. Women’s sports may be getting more televised games, but they are often on limited cable access channels or where folks must pay more to watch. We are just seeing the beginning. Women got started in this game of Monopoly a lot later than men, but we are here to take what is rightfully ours.” EPIC’s intentional focus on girls, Thomas said, is about inclusion, not exclusion, but that nuance, she adds, sometimes gets lost by critics who don’t understand the need to protect girls. “We’re not saying you can’t serve boys if you serve girls. People get really terrified about how narrow our focus is. But we have a very clear line of sight for what needs to change. It doesn’t mean we’re taking anything away from anyone. We just want them to have what you have.” While rarely directly confronted by critics, there have been occasions when EPIC materials have been defaced in public places. Thomas said if gender and other forms of equity are to take hold, uncomfortable conversations need to happen and while some people are not prepared to go there, she and EPIC are always ready to have those discussions. An EPIC Facebook post captures the mission: “We’re here at EPIC proving day after day we’re more than what meets the eye. It’s not about your size, your race, or your age – it’s about the fire in your heart and the drive in your soul. It’s about breaking barriers, shattering glass ceilings, and rewriting the rules. We are empowering girls of color to unleash their potential in sports. We’re not just playing the game; we’re changing the game!” Visit https://www.epicforgirls.org/.