The North Carolina women’s basketball team mantra, “Strong on Own, Best Together,” doesn’t just apply on the court. The team has dedicated the 2020-21 season to advocating for and bringing awareness to causes that impact marginalized populations and people in need.
The coaches and administrative staff brainstormed a list of potential causes which they then brought to the players. Each player chose a cause that was meaningful to them and each week the team focused on a different player’s cause.
“We wanted them to think about the two arms, which are educate and activate,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “Within the one they chose, they educate the team and staff on not only the national implication or the national reality, but also in-state, because we thought it was an important component for them to know what their environment is locally. And the second is activation, which is the opportunity to serve.”
Even with COVID-19 restrictions, the team found ways to serve communities in need. For the week focusing on Down syndrome awareness, the team interacted with the kids at GiGi's Playhouse Raleigh over Zoom. After learning about pediatric cancer, the team visited UNC Children’s Hospital, where the players stood outside and communicated with the children via walkie-talkies.
“We were all standing outside in the parking lot waving at kids, and it was the cutest thing ever,” first-year Alyssa Ustby said. “We had a walkie-talkie, and we were talking to them, and they were asking one of our teammates to dance. (...) It was so cool, you could hear them laughing over the walkie-talkie.”
After working to fight food insecurity in high school, Ustby chose this as her cause. As part of this, the team put together snack bags for TABLE, a local nonprofit that helps fight childhood hunger in Orange County.
“Delivering that food meant so much to the people that we gave it to, and I wanted to bring that same joy to people here, in my new home, Chapel Hill,” Ustby said.
Sophomore Malu Tshitenge, who grew up in Germantown, Maryland, outside of Washington D.C., focused on homelessness as her cause. Tshitenge said growing up in the city opened her eyes to housing insecurity.
"Just seeing homeless people there and being really confused, I’d ask my parents like, ‘What’s going on? Why are these people just out there in the cold? It’s raining out, why aren’t they in their house?'" Tshitenge said. "And they would just kind of break it down and explain it to me. People everywhere are not as fortunate."
During the week focusing on homelessness, the team made blankets to donate to Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, an organization that operates shelters for homeless people.
“It’s made us a lot more grateful for what we have,” Ustby said. “Obviously as student-athletes, we’re really fortunate to get meals, transportation, just extra money to go buy food for ourselves and stuff like that, and we know that focusing a week on all these causes really makes us a lot more mindful for all the things that we’re given."
Despite the unpredictability of this season, the team found that looking outward also helped them look inward, both personally and as members of a team.
“It’s really something unheard of,” Tshitenge said. “I don’t think any program is really doing that, and the fact that our staff really put emphasis on it and made all of us pick our own topic to do, it really shows how much they care about things other than basketball. They’re really teaching us that there’s a world outside of basketball, and life isn’t just going to always be about basketball.”