Welcome to my blog! Because of my background in journalism and communications, I’ve always had a particular interest in how the media works, and I enjoy focusing on the sports media industry. Some of my posts celebrate female trailblazers in sports, while others critique the media’s coverage of women’s issues in sports (domestic violence, comments regarding female athletes’ appearances, sexist remarks towards female journalists and broadcasters, etc.). I have also profiled members of sports media, such as Mina Kimes, Shea Serrano and Melissa Ludtke.
A few weeks ago, I pushed “send” on a tweet about the WNBA, not thinking much of it because I tweet about the WNBA and women’s issue fairly regularly. ESPN had tweeted out a funny video of a blow-up dinosaur race, and — don’t get me wrong — I love silly content like that, but it seemed like a good opportunity to make a tongue-in-cheek comment about WNBA coverage:
I hadn’t meant for it to be so divisive, but before I knew it, the tweet was gaining traction — both in positive and negative ways. The sexist responses came flooding in right away, with people claiming that they’d rather watch the dinosaur video than a single minute of WNBA action. It was pretty disheartening, but on the flip side, I took it as a good sign that the tweet ended up receiving about 4,000 retweets and 11,500 likes. The likes and retweets far outweighed the replies, so that seemed to show that there are a lot of people out there that agreed with what I said to some extent.
In no way did I want it to seem like I was trashing ESPN. Although I believe ESPN could always do better when it comes to women’s sports, it does provide more coverage than a lot of other outlets, which I appreciate.
One thing I noted: at this point, I tend to expect negative responses about the WNBA coming from men. There’s a status quo when it comes to gender in society, and it benefits men to keep it that way. However, when I see that negativity coming from other women — of which there was a fair amount in response to my tweet — it can be frustrating. No matter if it’s sports or health care or sexual harassment, if women aren’t uniting to make a change, there’s no way men will follow suit.
A few years ago, I had a discussion with Ginny Gilder, who has fought for women’s rights in sports since the implementation of Title IX and is a co-owner of the Seattle Storm. She had some really thought-provoking insights, especially when it came to how we talk about women’s sports and how we can move the needle.
“It’s the majority power group that really needs to take the lead, because, after all they are the ones with power,” she said. “Having said that, at some point, we really do have to get more comfortable advocating for ourselves. If we just waited around for the guys to notice something was off, my goodness, we’d still be waiting.”
I’ve thought about what she said quite a bit, and it makes sense. We definitely need men to jump on board because they control so much of the sports conversation, but it’s also crucial for women to speak up and advocate for women’s sports, even though it may put us in a vulnerable position. If my mentions were any indication, simply asking for more WNBA coverage is controversial, and it puts us in a position to be targeted by angry internet trolls, but sometimes we just have to bite the bullet.
The whole Twitter experience was actually pretty valuable. I read through just about every reply (which was maybe a mistake), but even though it was exhausting and a bit of a bummer, it gave me a strange sense of hope. The fact that people feel so strongly one way or another about the WNBA is a good sign. I’d be a lot more worried for the league if it was met with apathy and disregard. Right now, the WNBA is in a great spot, and the passionate response on Twitter only proved that further.
The topic of the pay discrepancy between NBA and WNBA players has been coursing through Twitter lately, so I thought it merited some words. I think the biggest thing that bothers me about the whole debate is the “logic” that’s being used by a lot of people. There is certainly a fair argument about how the NBA generates much more revenue than the WNBA, and that’s why WNBA players make so much less. I’m far from an economy expert, but I obviously understand that higher revenue = higher salaries. However, the dismissive tone of those arguing the absolute improbability of higher wages for female athletes is beyond frustrating. They clearly haven’t done their research or listened to what the WNBA players are actually saying. Nobody is denying that the WNBA generates less revenue or saying that WNBA players should make more than NBA players — they’re pointing out a discrepancy in the relative payout based on revenue (while NBA players receive 50 percent of their league’s revenue, WNBA players earn just 30 percent). It’s about the proportion of revenue, not the actual amount of money.
WNBA players who speak out about the disparity in profit sharing are often met with condescending, matter-of-fact replies, as if these women are incapable of doing their own research and educating themselves on their own league (which is consistent with the general trend of underestimating the intelligence of athletes — a larger discussion for another day). Vegas Aces rookie A’ja Wilson has been outspoken about this topic on Twitter, speaking with passion and reason, yet her replies are full of contrarians who think they know everything about the topic, when in fact, they’re merely using the discussion as a means to dismiss women’s sports. Anyone who feels like criticizing WNBA players for wanting more money should start by educating themselves on what changes the players are actually calling for before chiming in, because this belief that WNBA players are naive for wanting higher salaries is just ignorant and uninformed. I’m confident that most people who offer up their two cents on the state of the WNBA have never watched a game, nor are they doing anything to help further the progress of the WNBA. Everyone is suddenly an expert on what the WNBA needs to do to thrive, but no one is willing to actually support the league.
I think it’s absolutely possible to have a reasonable discussion about the league’s revenue issues, but not if it just becomes an avenue to criticize the sport itself. There are constructive ways to discuss the state of the league and options for growth, but if the argument always ends in, “WNBA players make less because nobody wants to watch women’s sports,” then, clearly, no progress is being made. I can’t pretend to have an easy solution for the wage gap in professional basketball, but I do know that a lot of the people who are participating in the discussion are simply revealing their pent-up prejudices against female athletes. I look forward to the day when we can talk about this important issue in a way that doesn’t involve mocking women’s basketball.
As far as mainstream media coverage of the WNBA goes, Bleacher Report offers up some of the best content out there. The platform shows genuine support of the league, both on its website and social media, and recently tweeted out this graphic:
My initial response was delight for Deandre Ayton’s enthusiasm, but then I scrolled down to the replies, as I usually do when I see a popular WNBA tweet. As expected, the tweet was met with aggressive trolling. At this point, the typical “Get back to the kitchen” jokes targeted toward female athletes have become so commonplace that they feel more cliched and unoriginal than truly offensive. Seeing comments like those used to make my blood boil, but after reading countless of them, they rarely elicit more than an eye roll these days. Getting worked up over every sexist internet comment is exhausting, especially because there is seemingly no end in sight. The most basic “kitchen” comments receive thousands of likes, so it’s obvious that it’s not just a select few users who are problematic, but an entire community of misogynistic trolls that feed off each other and build each other up. These trolls are, at best, a mere annoyance to be brushed off, and, at worst, emblematic of a universal disregard for women that has led to institutionalized sexism in society that plays a part in issues like the wage gap, inadequate health care, sexual harassment and rape culture.
In considering all of that, I am reminded of how crucial it is to keep fighting. It’s so easy to roll my eyes and continue scrolling when I see these comments, especially when it sometimes feels like we’re fighting a losing fight and men aren’t putting in the same effort to speak up. But if Bleacher Report’s post reminded me of anything, it’s that male athletes have consistently been some of the best allies. There’s some comfort in knowing that the ones telling women to stay in the kitchen are hiding behind their computer screens, while the the men with real influence are using their platforms to show respect and reverence toward their female counterparts. If young boys see their idols displaying basic respect, they’re likely to follow suit, and that fact alone gives me some hope for the future.
After a bit of a hiatus, I’m thrilled to be back writing about women in sports. I’ve always followed the NBA more than any other league, so I usually get a little sad at the end of the season. This year, however, I didn’t have those same feelings because I’ve decided to follow the WNBA more than ever before, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I’ve always watched the games and kept up with the players, but there’s a whole world of amazing WNBA content on the internet beyond the mainstream media’s basic coverage that I’m excited to continue to explore. The season is already a month in, but it’s never too late to start following. WNBA League Pass is only $17 for EVERY GAME (compared to the NBA’s $200 rate).
For a league that is so inclusive and community-focused, it’s no surprise that the WNBA is on the up and up. Lisa Borders, president of the WNBA as of 2016, has a business background and knows the importance of strategic marketing and reaching consumers. The league has also succeeded in marketing its biggest stars, like Maya Moore, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith. The rivalry between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks has created genuine buzz, particularly around the playoffs. The WNBA teams themselves are stepping up their social games (see the Lynx Twitter for great GIFs and solid clap-backs).
But for the league to grow even more, it has to continue to expand its fanbase. The WNBA has always been popular among young girls and their families — the athletes are at the top of their field, and they’re the ideal figures for young athletes to look up to. Now, though, it’s time for the WNBA to focus on older, more knowledgable consumers that can help spread the product via social media and word of mouth. The WNBA has fascinating storylines and competitiveness like the NBA, so in theory, the league just needs to capture that audience. The Ringer’s Shea Serrano has recently been promoting the WNBA on Twitter, and although some criticized him for showing superficial support, I’d argue that any level of support for the WNBA is crucial, particularly from well-respected, popular internet presences like Serrano. If it takes a few corny-but-enthusiastic tweets like his for NBA fans to get excited about the WNBA, I think it’s worth it. When it comes to women’s sports, mainstream coverage is so lacking that some sports fans just need a little nudge in order to find quality coverage. If Serrano’s tweets encourage even a few of his 240K followers to purchase WNBA League Pass and lead them to talented, dedicated WNBA writers, I’d consider that a step in the right direction.
There will always be the overtly sexist people who have no interest in watching women’s sports — the endless kitchen jokes on Twitter have proved that much. But I’m confident that there’s a huge cohort of sports fans out there that would join the WNBA train if enough of their friends were doing it. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that nobody likes to feel left out of the discussion. If enough people are talking about the WNBA with excitement and reverence rather than dismissal and condescension, league interest will grow exponentially, and I can’t wait to see it happen.
I wrote this a few months ago for a sports writing class, and it’s one of the more in-depth pieces of journalism I’ve done. Everyone I talked to had really interesting insight into the state of women’s sports coverage. Doing this deep dive made me realize how far we still have to go, but speaking to so many talented writers and advocates also proved how promising the future of women’s sports media is.
Sitting atop the throne of elite athletes are women like Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Candace Parker. They have reached the peak of their respective sports and are among the most decorated athletes of all-time. Furthermore, they transcend sports and are prevalent in pop culture, with appearances on programs like Dancing with the Stars, the Ellen Show, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and in the case of Williams, a Beyonce music video. However, below that top tier of female athlete popularity, a disparity remains. There exists an entire community of female athletes that, in the eyes of the average sports fan, may as well not exist at all. A recent study, titled, “It’s Dude Time! A Quarter Century of Excluding Women’s Sports in Televised News and Highlight Shows,” showed that only 4 percent of sports coverage focuses on women’s sports, despite the fact that 40 percent of athletes are female. Although the Olympics tend to be an outlier, women’s sports leagues in the U.S. generally receive significantly less viewership and coverage than their male counterparts. So, unless a female athlete has reached peak fame like Williams, Biles and Parker, the landscape of women’s sports isn’t so glamorous, for both the athletes and those that advocate for them.
Media Relations in the CWHL: A One-Woman Job
On any given Boston Blades game day, Merisa Boyd arrives at Lawrence Larsen Rink in Winthrop, Mass., hours before puck drop. As the media relations manager of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s Boston-based team, Boyd wears a variety of hats. She is in charge of writing game recaps, taking photographs, recording and transcribing quotes from the players and coaches, running the team website, communicating with the media and working with the league to promote the CWHL brand.
“I didn’t even know about a professional women’s league until about two years ago,” Boyd said. “Now, it’s something I’m passionate about and want build my career around.”
It’s no surprise that Boyd was unfamiliar with the CWHL. Although the players receive extensive coverage during the Olympics, they tend to fade into obscurity back in CWHL action — 17 CWHL players were chosen to compete in the PyeongChang Winter Games, but the media resumed its paltry coverage of female hockey players once they returned to normal league play. Because of this lack of coverage, women’s teams like the Blades have modest PR departments. While most professional men’s teams employ a department full of media relations staffers, Boyd is a team of one.
“Working in women’s hockey has really opened my eyes to the inequalities woman athletes face,” she said.
The NHL and CWHL: An Extreme Disparity
For proof of the disparity in the quantity of news coverage, a comparison can be made between the NHL’s Boston Bruins and the Blades. Bruins games are broadcast on the New England Sports Network (NESN), with around 15 of their games televised nationally on NBC each season. Although Blades games can be streamed online, the team doesn’t have a TV deal, and only three regular-season CWHL games were broadcast on television in 2017-18. Bruins games also feature a press box packed with reporters, photographers and broadcast crews — more than 100 media members per game. At any given Blades game, Boyd said there may be one photographer and up to three journalists, often from niche publications and blogs like the Ice Garden and FanSided. Regardless of the media platform, the team is appreciative of any amount of coverage.
“As pro athletes, we’re grateful for the faithful reporters that don’t worry about getting as many likes, but they still know that our sports and these athletes deserve to get covered,” said Lauren Dahm, goaltender of the Blades.
Jordon Hall, communications supervisor for the CWHL, admitted that the league aims to work with more established media outlets with a wider reach than the blogs that currently cover the teams.
“Our passionate fan base lends itself to a strong presence throughout hockey blogs, but we are continuously working with more formal media outlets to showcase the incredible athletes and stories throughout the league,” said Hall, who added that this year’s CWHL championship game coverage was an improvement from past seasons, with stories by outlets like CBC, the Toronto Star and The Athletic.
Until that formal media coverage is a constant in the CWHL, though, Hall said the league must depend on its own creativity to generate content.
“As women’s hockey and women’s professional sports grow in the sports landscape, formal media coverage will become more connected to that growth and will be important in that growth,” she said. “However, as a grass-roots operation with a not-for-profit structure, we’re limited in the creation of our own marketing campaigns to create a draw from those media outlets.”
According to the athletes, improved game broadcasts should be a top priority, in addition to the general press coverage that Hall described.
“With college games, or even our games, usually it’s one camera in the middle of the ice, panning,” said Dahm. “There’s not much replay or in-depth analysis, which you see in the NHL. That’s a bigger deal than people might think because people just assume those big plays don’t happen in women’s hockey, but they definitely do. People should know that it’s happening every weekend in the CWHL, and if the coverage was there, they’d know.”
Regardless of the medium, though, those who work in the CWHL know the importance of coverage to the league’s success.
“Probably one of the most important things we can do is build our brand and educate fans that don’t know there’s a professional women’s league,” said Jessica Martino, Boston Blades coach and general manager. “Media coverage is the way to educate them.”
The Disappointing State of Coverage
The CWHL has set out clear and ambitious goals for expanding media coverage, but the league is fighting an uphill battle. The researchers that analyzed the 4 percent of women’s sports coverage also looked at its quality, discussing the tone and word choice that is used when women’s sports are covered.
“Frequently absent from such women’s sports stories were the commentators’ voluminous vocal inflections, exclamatory descriptions of athletic successes, and heartfelt laments of failures that saturate the commentary in men’s coverage,” the study stated. “The general lack of an excited tone and agentic language in most of the reporting on women’s sports helps to mark women’s sports as less interesting and, in many instances, even boring.”
Michael Messner, one of the authors of the study, noted that there are some outliers when it comes to women’s sports coverage.
“Coverage during the recent Olympic games for women athletes was high in quantity,” said Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at USC. “This often happens, though, during Olympics and then the mass media returns to mostly ignoring or presenting women’s sports in boring, gender-bland ways. I think of this as a case of nationalism…temporarily trumping sexism.”
One positive note that the study mentioned was that, in recent years, “portrayal of women athletes has become increasingly respectful, and news and highlights commentators have become far less likely to joke about women or portray women as sexual objects.”
However, despite improvements in the last few years, there is still a disparity in the how female athletes are covered. Shira Springer, who covers women’s sports for the Boston Globe and NPR, said that female athletes are still held to a higher standard by the media than their male counterparts.
“My gut reaction is, too often, we focus on female athletes as role models, as inspirational, not as much as athletes,” Springer said. “That’s changing, but slowly. Oftentimes female athletes have to be something more than athletes to get attention, whereas a guy can just be a really good athlete, but a female athlete has to be a really good athlete and something else.”
espnW writer Marisa Ingemi added that women’s sports coverage too often focuses on the gender, rather than portraying the participants purely as athletes.
“When coverage of professional and college teams is there, it should be more about what’s happening on the ice or the court or the field instead of, ‘Oh my God, look! Girls are doing things!’ which it tends to be a lot of the time, which can be really frustrating,” Ingemi said.
One person who was particularly disappointed by the disparity in news coverage was Kim Donaldson, so in 2016, she founded a media site called Excelle Sports.
“We were covering all women’s sports, not just a few like basketball and tennis, but lacrosse to volleyball to swimming to squash,” Donaldson said. “We were covering college, pro and Olympic levels, and our goal was to tell the stories of athletes, coaches, teams, on and off the field.”
Over the span of nearly two years, Excelle Sports published 5,745 articles and brought in 2.6 million visitors to the site, but the success wouldn’t last. In December of 2017, the site was discontinued because of a lack of revenue.
“We could never get enough investment,” Donaldson said. “The investors just weren’t there and, frankly, the sponsors weren’t either. There are companies within the sports world and outside who say they support women’s sports, but they really don’t. They’re really not too concerned about helping women’s sports grow, and it’s very disappointing.”
The Media’s Responsibility, and a Realist’s View
Some proponents of women’s sports believe that the media has a duty to cover women’s teams, regardless of how much traffic those stories will generate.
“Women’s sports, coverage-wise, is seen as a stepping stone, but I kind of think that female reporters have an obligation to cover women’s sports and make sure they are properly covered because if we don’t, nobody will,” Springer said. “Well, maybe not an obligation, but I did feel like it was my responsibility that women were well-represented. If I’m going to push for equality and more coverage, I’m going to walk the walk.”
Not everyone agrees that more coverage of women’s sports is feasible — editors and producers, like Jason Lisk, often believe that generating traffic is media’s main role. Lisk, managing editor of the Big Lead, wrote a column denying the media’s role in a lack of interest in women’s sports.
“If only the dang media would talk about women’s basketball more, people would be interested and watch!” he wrote sarcastically. “The more likely causation flows the other way. The consumer interest is relatively low in news articles and analysis of women’s basketball, and thus there is less coverage.”
As alluded to by Lisk, the debate comes down to the question of whether media coverage generates fan interest, or if fan interest drives media coverage.
“We put things out there that people read and consume,” he said. “You’ve got to decide how much to push something that, right now, the public doesn’t show much interest in.”
Some people, like Springer, believe it’s a two-way street between the readers and the media.
“It depends on what marketplace you’re in, but it’s difficult to compete with men’s teams,” she said. “I think fan interest drives it a bit, but sometimes you should just cover a team just because. I don’t think it should be pity coverage. These women deserve coverage because of they’re interesting stories, and they’re interesting people.”
After studying the issue for over three decades, Messner argued that the media has the power to create interest and could increase the popularity of women’s sports if it chose to.
“This is a classic chicken-and-egg question,” he said. “Leaders in media say they just give audiences what we want, what we are interested in, but mass media marketing folks know that when they promote and cross-promote their products, they generate higher audience interest. They do this systematically with men’s sports, so, yes, more coverage would generate more interest in women’s sports.”
Donaldson agreed, saying that an audience for women’s sports exists, but that audience needs more convenient access to news on women’s teams.
“In my opinion, it’s 100 percent got to be the coverage that happens first,” Donaldson said. “The interest is out there. There’s a massive audience out there, even if you just start with the girls who play sports, former athletes, coaches and families. Half our audience on our site was always men, so it’s not only women who like women’s sports.”
Lisk, however, had a different take, writing that content is driven by what the majority of readers show interest in.
“The truth is that a large segment of the sports-consuming public doesn’t care about women’s sports,” he wrote in his column. “I would gladly write a women’s bracketology column like I do for the men’s tournament if I thought anyone would read it…The media is not a monolith. People can cover what they want, and what will pay the bills. If the interest is there, coverage will follow.”
Despite receiving backlash for his column on social media, Lisk was firm in his stance.
“Maybe I wasn’t sensitive or clear enough,” he said. “But I was trying to be a realist in how it is.”
“People always want to say that it’s because there’s not the interest there, but why is there not the interest there? It’s because people aren’t aware of it,” Ingemi said in response to Lisk’s column. “People like to say it won’t get the views, but my NWHL [National Women’s Hockey League] stories at espnW were getting more views [than stories on men’s sports]. It’s all about the exposure, and I just don’t think guys are paying attention because they don’t know why they should care quite yet.”
Considering the Solutions
Outside the sports world, researchers say the subpar coverage of women’s teams has larger ramifications and plays a role in gender relations and stereotypes in society.
“Wall-to-wall celebrations of men’s sports, and poor and lower coverage of women’s sports serves to reinforce shared ideological beliefs in male superiority,” Messner said.
To combat those stereotypes, Messner has suggested some ways in which women’s sports could gain some ground in the media, starting with building general awareness.
“Higher coverage of a sport creates interest among kids, not just as future audiences, but as athletes who can imagine their futures as adult athletes,” he said.
Teams like the Blades are taking it upon themselves to educate and connect with the younger fans, according to Dahm.
“We’re really accessible to the community, and that’s a strength of our game and women’s sports in general,” Dahm said. “We take that upon ourselves to have that personal interaction with fans. It’s important to market our players just to help people identify and have a strong pull and want to watch it and support it.”
In addition to increased awareness, another key to more coverage is expanding the fanbase, according to Martino, the Blades’ GM.
“A lot of our fanbase is families,” said Martino. “There’s a huge gap between our fanbase — we’re missing that middle age group. Maybe it’s on us to do more outreach and get more of that college age involved. A lot of it is education because there are a lot of people that don’t even know theres a professional women’s hockey league. We can educate people that there is a pro league, and it’s very competitive.”
Springer added that increasing visibility of female athletes can bring more attention to their sports, as well.
“It’s unfortunate that women have to win a World Cup or a gold medal to get attention, but I think that’s what drives more success,” she said. “Getting women’s sports figures into popular culture is another aspect. Even something as subtle as appearing on a popular TV show or the Ellen Show sounds silly, but it takes that kind of stuff. I think it’s the exposure and availability and the more they get out there.”
Athletes like Serena Williams and the Olympic “Fierce Five” gymnasts fit into Springer’s logic. They found success at the highest levels and then built upon that by staying in the public eye through pop culture appearances.
“With men’s sports, you know a lot about many male athletes because they’re part of our culture,” Donaldson said. “There are almost no female athletes like that because they’re not written about. Until we get enough coverage of women’s sports and they become part of our culture, they’ll never get respect.”
According to Springer, the solution with the most potential is for the sports media industry to hire more women. The Women’s Media Center released “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media” which found that only 11.4 percent of sports stories were written by women in 2017. Furthermore, the number of female sports editors at 100 of the top U.S. and Canadian newspapers was less than 10 percent.
“First, always, decision-makers matter,” Springer said. “When you have women in the room, whether that’s as reporters bringing stories to their editors, or as editors, that stuff matters.”
Springer’s statement may explain why Lisk and the Big Lead generally don’t cover women’s sports.
“Our site is all guys,” Lisk said of the Big Lead. “I’ve pushed for that, that we need more diversity, but we don’t have a lot of budget.”
Lisk admitted that he, himself, doesn’t consume much women’s sports, even as an avid sports fan.
“I would say I am a very casual [women’s sports] fan,” he said. “I have two daughters, I’ve coached their basketball teams, so, in that sense, I watch all my kids sports.”
Publications with a lack of diversity and male journalists with a disregard for women’s sports are the main reason for a lack of women’s sports coverage, said Donaldson.
“Getting more women into those sports organizations will make the biggest difference,” she said.
The Future is Bright
During the off-season, Merisa Boyd’s work with the Blades will not cease — she is set on developing more relationships with the media and encouraging coverage of the team. She will ramp up her efforts in the next few months, reaching out to media members via Twitter and email.
“Doing more outreach this year to get more contacts coming to the games is going be huge,” she said. “It’s only getting better throughout the years. It’ll be all over the place.”
It’s too early to tell whether Boyd’s plans will come to fruition, but considering the challenges women’s sports have faced throughout history, and continue to face today, her determination may be the key. Female athletes have come a long way since the passing of Title IX in 1972, and sports media has come a long way since the insulting and humorously sexualized stories that were common a few decades ago. The work is not done, but there is reason for hope. Despite the challenges that remain, Boyd will continue to work behind the scenes and exert all her efforts toward getting the Blades the coverage she feels they deserve.
“It can be tough because not everyone gets to see the big moments like I do, and I want so badly for more people to care about women’s hockey and women’s sports in general,” she said. “They work incredibly hard, and I’m happy that I get to be a part of it in some way and do everything I can to highlight their work.”
Breathing deeply, Colleen Kleya smiles as she practices yoga in the basement of the Connolly Library in Jamaica Plain, gracefully working through moves like downward dog and tree pose. However, this is not a traditional yoga class. Strapped to her chest in a baby carrier is Kleya’s seven-month-old daughter. To her left, Kleya’s other daughter, 3, glances up at her mom, mimicking each movement.
“Coming together as a community to play yoga is amazing, and it gives these kids such a great footbed to be in their bodies in a time right now where kids are spending way more times sitting in front of screens,” Kleya said. “It’s really great to come together and use this age-old practice to kind of cultivate movement as a community.”
Kleya and her daughters were three of 18 participants who attended the family yoga class, offered by an organization called Hands to Heart Center. For the past three years, HTHC has provided free yoga classes to communities in Boston in an effort to make the practice more accessible to marginalized groups of people.
“HTHC shares the healing practice of yoga with people affected by addiction, poverty and trauma in Boston,” said Susan Lovett, founder and director of the organization. “HTHC’s goals are to increase access to yoga for all, to bridge the wellness divide for individuals and communities and to mobilize, train and support yoga teachers as volunteers. Through these goals, HTHC is transforming yoga for equity and social justice.”
According to a study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, nearly 40 million Americans practice yoga. However, classes can cost up to $20, making yoga virtually inaccessible to people of low-income communities. That’s what makes the increase in organizations like HTHC so special, according to Andrew Tanner, chief ambassador of Yoga Alliance.
“Yoga was originally designed for the upper class,” Tanner said. “Modern postural yoga was first taught in India to the royal house and the royal children, so understanding trauma in the modern world and reaching more people is an evolution of yoga, and it’s an important one. It’s considered cutting edge for yoga teachers to have an understanding of how trauma lives in peoples bodies.”
HTHC strives to make the practice more readily available to those communities in need. The classes take place in various public spaces in Boston, such as libraries, community centers, detention units, domestic violence shelters, high-poverty schools, homeless shelters and public housing developments. The organization offers a variety of class styles, including yoga for adults, family yoga, gentle yoga for seniors, trauma-sensitive yoga and yoga for students with special needs, as well as classes taught in Spanish.
Each class is taught by volunteers who are certified yoga instructors, meaning they have undergone 200 hours of yoga training. Once accepted by HTHC, the volunteers go through further training that is specific to the organization and its goals, including trauma-informed teaching skills.
Anne DeSimone, one of HTHC’s 190 volunteer instructors, currently leads beginner’s yoga classes for adults held at the Eritrean Community Center in Roxbury, and was drawn to organization’s dedication to the community.
“When I became a yoga instructor, it was my goal to offer free classes to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to yoga, so I was very happy to hear that HTHC existed and provided the infrastructure for what I wanted to do,” she said. “In terms of my classes, my goal is really for people to leave feeling better than when they arrived, and for them, whatever their age, whatever their background, whatever is impacting them at the moment, to feel like yoga is accessible to them and something that they can work into their life.”
Whitney Handrich, who teaches family yoga classes with HTHC, also appreciates the values of diversity and acceptance that the organization promotes.
“Hands to Heart Center is about bringing yoga to the people,” Handrich said. “So sometimes, you know, you see these kind of studios, and some are fitness and a workout, and you think it’s like this super flexible, fit body that needs to do it, but yoga really is for everyone, and you just have to find the right style and introduction to it to get involved. I really liked the idea because I think it can be so rewarding to these populations that wouldn’t normally have access, and that’s what Hands to Heart Center does.”
Jordan Levinson teaches family yoga classes with Handrich and discussed the mental and physical benefits of yoga.
“I think, first of all, it just gets people to move, which is nice because nowadays a lot of people are just sitting in front of the TV or sitting at a desk, so you get to move your body,” Levinson said. “You also get to kind of clear your mind a little bit. It always makes me happy after I practice yoga, so I hope that everybody else can feel happy too.”
Handrich expanded on the idea that yoga can positively impact the mind.
“The mental benefits are kind of infinite,” she said. “You know, really being present in the moment, being more mindful, focusing on your breath, and just when you’re practicing it kind of makes all of your other thoughts disappear because you’re so focused on the moment, and that’s something that hopefully you train and work to develop in the rest of your life.”
Yoga is useful because it can be specially catered to people dealing with a variety of issues and ailments, according to Tanner.
“What defines yoga from physical exercise is its relationship to the breath—the breath is the gateway between our body and our emotions,” he said. “Yoga is specifically designed to bring awareness to the situation as it is and bring awareness to where the trauma lies in your body.”
Handrich echoed Tanner’s comments on the healing powers of yoga.
“It’s almost like Hands to Heart Center brings yoga to the people who, you could say, maybe need it the most, where they need to reconnect with themselves and heal and, depending on the community, bond with each other and develop trust,” she said. “I mean, we all have our different ups and downs and problems through life, and I think yoga is a really good method to kind of heal those wounds.”
The efforts of organizations like HTHC are not going unnoticed, particularly by industry experts like Tanner.
“Hands to Heart Center, these people are pioneers in my opinion, and the work they’re doing is important,” Tanner said. “I think were gonna see more and more of this yoga reaching out…yoga naturally makes people want to give back because it helps you connect with your sense of self. People are naturally kind and want to help others.”
Photo Series: Adult Beginner’s Yoga at the Eritrean Community Center
On March 17, I wrote about how the U.S. women’s hockey team had decided to sit out the 2017 IIHF World Championship as a boycott over unfair wages. About a week later, they came to an agreement with USA Hockey, securing better wages and more benefits (business class airfare, disability insurance and more marketing and promotions for the team). Their annual salaries are now about $70,000, compared to the $6,000 they made in the past.
This was a huge victory for the team, and they went on to play in the IIFH World Championship, beating Canada in overtime for the gold (thanks, in part, to a game-winning assist by Northeastern alumna Kendall Coyne). The team received waves of praise and attention, which is great for the sport of women’s hockey. The women were brave in standing up to USA Hockey, and their efforts were rewarded in a myriad of ways.