Identity

The Cheerleader Who Took a Knee and Made Space For a New Wave of Activists

Alyssa Parker on staying vocal, standing her ground, and finding—as well as becoming—a role model.
August 13, 2018, 3:03pm
Photo by Kathryn Gamble

When Alyssa Parker rallied fellow cheerleaders and football players to take a knee during the national anthem at Buena Vista University’s homecoming game in 2017, she knew there would be consequences. A year earlier, San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick had done the same to protest racial inequality and ignited a major national protest. In response, the NFL instituted league-wide fines and threatened to bench players for kneeling during the national anthem; President Donald Trump went so far as to publicly call for the players’ firing. At the time, Parker was a sophomore at the Storm Lake, Iowa school—and the president of Buena Vista’s Black Student Union. She knew she needed to engage in the national conversation on race in a visible way. “Changing how this campus thinks about social injustice, helping people understand and moving this conversation forward, is the type of thing I want to accomplish,” Parker wrote to her cheer coach.

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When she took a knee at the start of the September 30 game, a photo of that protest—showing nine kneeling members of the cheer squad in their navy blue and gold uniforms—received national attention, and rankled alumni. The university responded, stating, “Student athletes and cheerleaders will stand for the national anthem as a unified team.” Punishment for non-compliance would be deemed a violation of the school’s code of conduct, not exactly a good option for Parker, a criminal justice major with an eye on law school. She felt she had no choice but to quit the squad. Parker experienced intense backlash for that decision: she was accused of seeking her “fifteen minutes of fame,” was trolled on social media, and had racial slurs scrawled across her dorm room door. But her actions ultimately helped keep the conversation about taking a knee in the national spotlight, and inspired Parker to keep finding new ways to motivate and engage her peers in peaceful protests in support of social justice.

Kathryn Gamble

We spoke to Parker about pushing past insecurities, the importance of mentors, and how taking a stand put her in touch with her own power.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On being young, alive, and black
Everything started for me with the Trayvon Martin case. I think that watching that trial, and just being alive and young and black at that point, was a huge turning point for me. I realized that in the world we live in, being a young, black teenager was not safe. And at that defining moment I realized that it was time for me to either be vocal and promote change, or I don’t know—something bad could happen. I just felt such a responsibility. I realized that I wanted nothing more in the world than to stop fearing police brutality towards black men, women, and kids. And I decided that I’m just going to work my whole life so that when I die, my kids won’t have to fight this hard. I think I always push because I have hope that by the time I leave this world it will be a better place and that I will have effected change in the best way I knew how.

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On finding your inner compass
I was raised by four parents—both my parents were remarried—and they raised me to know when something is the right thing to do, when it’s the wrong thing to do, and what the consequences are going to be. I also went to an all-white high school in Iowa and have always been in situations where I’ve had to learn about myself, my values, and my identity on my own, without people who look like me around to help me figure it all out. So I spent a lot of time thinking about what was important to me, and then realized that these issues might be important in the world, too. And that maybe I could help change things for the better.

On learning how to lead
I think my biggest issue was that I had to put aside my own doubts and insecurities about what it would mean if things didn’t work out if I took on a leadership role. I had to overcome those fears and realize that the group—and the purpose of the group—was far bigger than myself. At Buena Vista there were so many other black kids on campus who felt like I did. I was like, “Oh crap, we all need to stop feeling this way.” I knew I had to do whatever I could to make sure there would never be another freshman who felt she didn’t have anyone to talk to or a place to go.

"I spent a lot of time thinking about what was important to me, and then realized that these issues might be important in the world, too. And that maybe I could help change things for the better."

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On speaking up for those who have been silenced
When we were starting the Black Student Union at Buena Vista, we struggled trying to find financial support and access to the same opportunities as other campus groups. Then there was the protest and all the backlash, and we had to keep working and push through it all. I was feeling exhausted. I was transferring schools and didn’t know what was next. I knew I wanted to have a big voice somewhere, but I didn’t know if I could keep up with the intensity and the pace. Then I was awarded an ACLU award for student advocacy, and it was really the kick in the butt I needed. I realized that I had this internal responsibility to keep going and do more. I had to keep fighting. For me, this is really about the young boys and girls who unfairly, unnecessarily, sometimes brutally, lost their lives. It’s so important because we don’t know what could have been next—what great things some of them might have done. I feel like the reason I am so loud and obnoxious and annoying about civil rights is because there are so many people that don’t get to have their voices heard anymore. I feel like there are hundreds of black people inside me and I’m speaking for all of them. So for me, winning that award reminded me of my strength, and motivated me to keep going.

On the Take A Knee movement today
Being a cheerleader and protesting had a positive impact at Buena Vista, but I decided to try a different approach at my new school [Parker transferred from BVU to Grand View University id Des Moines in September, 2017]. I’m the president of the Black Student Union, too, and this school is a bit bigger. I still kneel every time I hear the national anthem when I’m at events. I think the point of it all got away from the media a little, but everyone I know who was involved in the beginning is still fighting the good fight. Colin Kaepernick is still without a job, the NFL officially requires players on the field to stand during the national anthem, and all this is pushing me forward. There are so many things we have to keep fighting for.

Kathryn Gamble

On the connection between strength and support
Colin Kaepernick is a role model, of course, but the advisors for the Black Student Union at Buena Vista were my real mentors. And I definitely, definitely have both of them to thank for getting me through the tougher times. Everything that happened made me so much stronger. Things that people say don’t affect me the way they used to, but it was so important that I had mentors behind me. There were days where I was overwhelmed and I felt like, “Okay, I don't know if I can keep doing this—I don't know if I can keep being the face of it,” but having somebody to talk to kept me strong. And that’s my wish for future activists. That’s what I would want for kids, and I plan to start a mentoring program myself, just because having that support made all the difference for me.

25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.