Nzingha Prescod: My Experience As A Black Olympian And An Effort To Improve DEI In Professional Sports
Fencing taught me to move with intention through life and advocacy.
May 19, 2021 at 6:21 pm
I started fencing when I was nine and have been dedicated to being one of the world's best fencers since I can remember. I’ve made history individually and with my team, earning multiple World Championship titles and two Olympic berths. Because sports operate on a pay-to-play model, none of this would have been possible without access to elite coaching through the Peter Westbrook Foundation. This gift allowed me to become a globally recognized Olympic athlete and the blessings have followed.
I have always wanted to replicate this path for more young people like myself. I believe every child should experience the life-changing power of sport and have the option to play to their full potential.
In early 2019, I developed a debilitating hip condition, and a few months later I prematurely retired from a life-long career of competitive fencing. Since retiring, every day has been a whirlwind of self-discovery. I’m often re-introducing myself to myself, trying to understand my core. In this acclimation process, I’m maintaining the Olympism character enabled by sport.
From left to right: Young Nzingha, Epi and Irma, fencing. / Courtesy of Nzingha Prescod
Olympism is “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole of the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seems to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good examples and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” As a leader and purposeful doer, I’m exploring all options and figuring out the best way to continue a life of sport and impact, commonly known as “athlete activism.”
Inspiring excellence through the discipline of sport and expanding its access for the Black community has always been on my agenda. There is no question that sport enhances physical, mental and emotional capabilities. Qualities derived from sport equip individuals with the skills to be exceptional. Simultaneously, it can afford athletes of disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to economically mobilize through academic, professional and networking opportunities. When I approached my college education at Columbia, I wanted to prepare myself for this conversation of equitable sport because it’s such a powerful resource for multi-dimensional development.
In 2020, I decided to pivot my role in the sports world from fencer to change-maker. I now actively use my platform and influence to empower the youth in my community through programming and policy. Both are important tools for change. With the help of my network, I launched Fencing in the Park, a non-profit (501(c)(3) status pending) initiative that provides programming and creates a pathway into the sport that changed my life. It’s beautiful to see young kids from my neighborhood enjoying the sport.
To disrupt the system of exclusionary sport, I led the design of NYC legislation to create the Office of Sports, Wellness & Recreation. The bill passed last month and is chartered to facilitate quality sport offerings on a need-based basis. The focus will be integrating sport into early education and providing training opportunities for youth to continuously develop the skills to reach the highest levels of sport.
Nzingha Prescod (on the left) at a fencing tournament. / Courtesy of Nzingha Prescod
The conversation of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is more of a newcomer on my plate, although youth development is a component of this work. I think many of us are finding ourselves in a position where there’s an appetite for our voice in the decision-making conversations. I stumbled into this role because of the lack of protection people of color experience in this predominantly white space. I thought it was important to influence the institutional narrative.
Since April of last year, I immersed myself in this work at USA Fencing and the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee. DEI is often free labor, but I believe it’s necessary work if it’s creating sustainable mechanisms for representative decision-making. After being inundated with American History in our early childhoods, we all know about “Taxation without representation.” The same concept is applicable here and across PWIs. At the top 1% of Olympic sports, we see our stars like Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Daryl Homer, Aja Evans and Ashleigh Johnson, but Black athletes are not necessarily represented in the sport’s broader membership, on the boards and committees that decide on the direction of the organization — and in the national office where those decisions are executed.
Representation and protection is the goal for DEI. I’ve seen a lot of focus on protesting, but that doesn’t necessarily affect the internal fibers of an organization. Think Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge. As a board member at USA Fencing, I now know that we need people that look like us in the boardroom participating in decision-making and influencing discussions. Board and committee conversations range from “How do we punish and deter racial discrimination?” to “How do we allocate our funding?” to “What and who do we celebrate on our media platforms?” to “What do our hiring practices look like?” to “How do we standardize arbitrary decision-making processes so diversity is accounted for?” to “Who gets access to this sport?”
Some may consider this politics, but this is actually governance — the exercise of authority and control. I don’t hear that word enough. Organizational governance dictates whose interests are favored. You need people in there who know the matters that affect your community through experience or learned knowledge and can protect them. Period.
Nzingha Prescod / Photo credit: Sophy Holland
One of my teammates said to me, “Why spend your time on helping the institution when you can directly support your community?” My answer is you can do both, and that’s what I try to do while respecting my personal limits. In the last year, the DEI team at USA Fencing has been at the helm advocating for more representative leadership practices, reforming disciplinary procedures, securing a dedicated salary position for DEI and budget for anti-racism and cultural sensitivity education, and increasing awareness of the equity conversation across the Olympic & Paralympic movement.
Needless to say, DEI work can be valuable, but I’m also learning that my heart is in my community. As I navigate this life transition, I’m steering more and more of my energy into building Fencing in the Park and increasing access to sports at the systemic level.
Visit our website to learn more, donate dollars or in-kind, and join the movement.
Everyone has a role to play in advancing racial equity, whether by protesting, being a high-performing athlete or executive, coaching and increasing access to youth opportunity, or through governance and leadership. It’s all part of the puzzle in taking up the space we deserve.
Nzingha Prescod is an Olympic fencer, World medalist and Brooklyn native.