How WNBA Star Gabby Williams Found Strength In Social Justice Activism
"It's our responsibility to raise awareness and incite change — something the WNBA has stood for from the very beginning."
Gabby Williams is a force to be reckoned with in the WNBA. The 24-year-old finished her college career with the UConn Huskies as a two-time NCAA national champion and a WBCA National Defensive Player of the Year. She also won the Lowe's Senior Class Award in 2018, given to the nation's student-athlete of the year in women's basketball. After a strong collegiate career on the court, Williams was the fourth overall pick in the 2018 WNBA and drafted as a forward by the Chicago Sky; she went on to rank second in the WNBA that same season.
Since then, Williams has made a name for herself not just as a supremely talented athlete, but as an outspoken activist. In the summer of 2020, the WNBA as a whole took a powerful stance in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. It started when New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon and Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart dedicated the 2020 WNBA season to Breonna Taylor and the African American Policy Forum's #SayHerName campaign. As part of their commitment, each week, WNBA players across the league wore jerseys that read "Black Lives Matter" on the front and "Say Her Name" on the back. The WNBA even created a Social Justice Council of players and activists who will continue to encourage conversations around social issues. (Related: This Wellness-for-All Advocate Reminds Us That We Cannot Fight One Injustice at a Time)
As for Williams, she and the rest of the Chicago Sky team committed to a series of donations throughout the 2020 WNBA season in partnership with the nonprofit Athletes for Justice. The team donated $10 for every point they earned, $100 for every win, and $50 for every loss throughout the 2020 season. Proceeds went directly to organizations in the Chicago area that work on community empowerment and social justice, including The Movement for Black Lives, the Firehouse Community Arts Center of Chicago, the By the Hand Club for Kids, and more.
"I'm still so proud that we stayed resilient for the cause and relentlessly stood up for what we believed in," Williams tells Shape.
But that isn't to say that activism is always easy, adds Williams. "Social media can be a really evil place," she shares. "Some of the messages I was getting were brutal. But I think at times it can be easy to focus on the negative comments. People can say a million uplifting and positive things, but that one nasty comment is what sticks in your head."
Still, Williams says that standing up for what she believes in has been more than worth it. "I had to go back to why we were doing this in the first place," she explains. "We weren't doing it to get everyone to like or love us. We did it because we feel like it's our responsibility to raise awareness and incite change — something the WNBA has stood for from the very beginning."
It's that commitment to empowerment and strength that lends itself to Williams' recent partnership with Ford for its #ShowYourMuscle campaign. The initiative celebrates women who are redefining the concept of strength by flexing their resilience, power, creativity, and compassion.
"Women are just so dope," Williams tells Shape of her involvement with the campaign. "Being a Black female athlete hasn't been easy. Each woman in the WNBA has a different, powerful story about what it took for them to get to where they are today. We've all dealt with our fair share of discrimination and have had to fight to continue doing what we love." (Related: Elena Delle Donne's Denied Health Exemption Request Speaks Volumes About How Female Athletes Are Treated)
Williams says there's no better time than now to celebrate what women can do, especially considering the many hardships brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. "I just think about the health-care workers, working moms, single moms, and students, who've all showed their power and strength to get through these difficult times," she says. "It's really proved to me that there's nothing women can't do."
The #ShowSomeMuscle hashtag has inspired women everywhere to talk about moments of strength from their own lives. For instance, prenatal yoga teacher Tosi Adeniyi took to Instagram to share how proud she is of the work she does to support expecting moms. "A lot of women don't have the support/education that is necessary to support happy/healthy births and babies," she wrote. "So I #ShowSomeMuscle by working every day to help educate and empower mothers regardless of economic status/race/sexual orientation."
Another inspiring #ShowSomeMuscle post comes from mental health professional @lexy_larae, who opened up about her work with the homeless. "Over the last two years, I've gotten over 60 people housed," she shared in an Instagram video. "More specifically, I helped them gain a sense of trust and belonging, help with mental health services, [and] assistance with housing navigation and rental assistance."
When asked what she's done to #ShowSomeMuscle, Williams shares how proud she feels about coming out of 2020 stronger and more resilient than ever. "I think quarantine and the pandemic gave me perspective and challenged me in ways I've never been challenged before," she explains.
For example, when the 2020 WNBA season was postponed in April because of COVID, she says it forced her to press pause for the first time in a long time. "It was tough," she adds. "I couldn't really train or exercise for a while, which was really hard for me both physically and emotionally, because basketball is an outlet for me."
But that break turned out to have some silver linings, says Williams. "I was actually able to address some nagging injuries, do some much-needed rehab, and get in tune with my body again," she explains. "Quarantine forced me to slow down, which eventually helped me a lot on the court." (Related: Now Isn't the Time to Feel Guilty About Your Workout Routine)
When the 2020 WNBA season did finally resume in July, everything was different, says Williams. The league was forced into a bubble as part of strict COVID-19 protocols before beginning a shortened 22-game season. Even though Williams was happy to be back, the schedule was sometimes chaotic, she says. "In the beginning, we didn't know how COVID could affect us," explains Williams. "At times it was hard to even focus on the basketball because of the stress and anxiety surrounding the situation." (Related: Why It's So Important to Understand Grief During Coronavirus)
And without fans there to cheer her on, Williams says she realized the importance of the support she gets from her teammates — both on the court and in their collective commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement. "We had to be each other's motivation," she says. "I found that we were so much more vocal with each other than we'd been before and that fueled us and made us better in a different way."
Looking ahead, Williams says she hopes that future generations learn that being a female athlete and activist can go hand in hand. "I think now, we've created a norm where this is what it means to be a female athlete," she explains. "It's not just stepping on the court and playing basketball. Standing up for causes we believe in is also a huge part of who we are.
"You can't have the WNBA without also having that," she continues. "If you support us, you have to support what we stand for — and I hope future athletes remember that so that we're one step closer to making this world a better place."