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Meet the two women pushing for a Colin Kaepernick statue on UNR's campus

Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since 2016 when he knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality against minorities. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The push to build a statue of former Wolf Pack star quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the University of Nevada's campus has been driven by two women.

Wenei Philimon was born in Sudan but grew up in Las Vegas before graduating with a journalism degree from UNR. She's now enrolled in a master's program at Arizona. Lauren Harvey is a Northern Nevada resident who graduated from North Valleys High and is a triple major in gender, race and identity, Spanish literature and international affairs while serving as an ASUN Senator for the College of Liberal Arts.

Their movement started a year ago, in February 2020, when Philimon was doing a class project on how black students felt on campus.

"Many of them felt either unwelcomed based on stuff that has happened on campus or they felt like there wasn't really representation on campus," Philimon said on Wednesday's NSN Daily. "I asked them, 'What kind of representation would you like to see?' A lot of them mentioned Colin Kaepernick and what he meant to them and the fact that the university didn't really acknowledge him the way they felt like he should have been acknowledged.

"A lot of these black students felt like there wasn't really a representation of them, and they wanted that to be Colin Kaepernick. I asked Lauren if we could possibly get this going and get the statue here, which is something black students have decided is the person we want to represent us here on campus."

Kaepernick has some signage around campus, mostly in the Wolf Pack athletic facilities, much of that being off limits to students. But Philimon discovered many students on campus didn't even know Kaepernick, one of America's most famous faces over the last five years, graduated from UNR. So she decided to partner with Harvey before the pandemic began to bring more public recognition on campus for the university's most famous, and probably most influential, alum.

"The reason we really wanted to do this is because we truly believe the university needs to recognize and almost thank Kaepernick a little bit better for the contributions he's made on our campus," Harvey said. "We need a symbol on campus of someone who has done really, really important things not only in our community but nationwide. The fact that Kaepernick has become such a large cultural icon, and for some reason we don't recognize that or even appreciate that on our campus, we thought was a really, really important reason to start this conversation about getting a statue of Colin Kaepernick on campus."

After starring for the Nevada football team from 2007-10, Kaepernick became one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, leading the San Francisco 49ers to back-to-back NFC championship games, including nearly winning Super Bowl XLVII. In 2016, Kaepernick first sat before kneeling during the playing of the national anthem prior to NFL games. He did so to bring attention to racial injustice and police brutality in the United States, specifically against minorities.

"This is something that has to be said, that has to be brought to the forefront of everyone's attention," Kaepernick said at the time. "I'm going to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change, and when there's significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it's supposed to represent in this country ... I'll stand."

Kaepernick has been blacklisted by the league since 2016 and hasn't been on UNR's campus for several years. Harvey recently pushed a resolution through the ASUN that supports the construction of a Kaepernick statue on campus, the first hurdle to make that a reality. A number of steps remain, including getting approval from UNR president Brian Sandoval. Harvey said they have support from roughly 20,000 undergraduate students and various on-campus organizations that support the initiative.

"We're going to take all of these things we've gathered to President Sandoval and ask for his approval," Harvey said. "If we get his approval, our next step is Kaepernick. We're trying to make sure this is going from the ground up, starting at the university level, making sure we're OK there and then going straight to Kaepernick and saying, 'We are the students. The students want this. We want representation of you, of the black community, of our generation on campus.' After that, if we do have Kaepernick's approval, the next step is making the committees that will be responsible for the various aspects of the statue, so the artist, the funding, the design, all that kind of stuff."

Philimon said they've received a lot of support but also some negative feedback from people who find Kaepernick too controversial to warrant an on-campus statute. Only two people — longtime benefactor John Mackay and former Nevada governor and Senator Richard Bryan — have statues on UNR's campus. Bryan is the only alum of the school to have a statue at the university.

Harvey said she understands why some have provided negative feedback on a Kaepernick statue, but added you don't have to agree with his stance to support erecting a statue, which the group believes should be of him kneeling.

"The main reason why people (have been) against it is because they say he's offensive, that he doesn't stand for me, for what I believe," Harvey said. "To that, I would say, 'OK, that's valid.' But the statue isn't going to support just the black community. It's not just going to support students, faculty and staff who feel as though they're marginalized on campus. It's going to help the entire community because it does help bring this debate and discussion about what it means to be patriotic, what is free speech really? That's a really important conversation that needs to be had in higher education anyway. For one, he's a symbol of that, a symbol of this conversation that needs to be had, and that will benefit the entire community.

"But another thing is that he has become essential to this transformation of society that we're seeing in this moment. Obviously, he didn't just kneel. He has an entire foundation where he does the 'Know Your Rights' workshop. He's donated millions of dollars to social justice organizations like Mothers Against Police Brutality, School on Wheels, things like that. And I really think looking around on our campus, people have buildings named after them and statues for less things. Just for being a notable alumni. While there are a lot of really important people who have done amazing things on our campus and do have things named after them or statues in their name, Kaepernick brings another element to that. He's not only a notable alumni who's done some pretty phenomenal things while he was here, but he's also a social justice icon and really moving this conversations about, 'What is race, what is racism and what does it mean in our society today?'"

Philimon said most of the buildings or statues on UNR's campus honor white men and fail to recognize the contributions of minorities and women. She said a Kaepernick statue would help build a more diverse campus, especially after white nationalist posters as well as a swastika was plastered on campus in fall 2019. Philimon said a Kaepernick statue would foster necessary dialogue.

"Before the pandemic hit, the university kind of had an issue where these white supremacist groups were posting flyers that said, 'Diversity harms America,'" Philimon said. "This opens the door for us to say, 'No it actually doesn't. We're going to make this campus more diverse and more of a home for people of color and not just one specific group because it makes them uncomfortable."

Support for Kaepernick's cause gained support over the summer following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes before he died. That led to a rash of Black Lives Matters protests and statements, including from UNR, that condemned racism.

"BLM essentially became a trend thing," Philimon said. "It's almost like people just put up a black box on their Instagram or put it on their bio, but there's this lack of action backing it up. When we brought it to ASUN, one of the things we said was, 'The university said it'd back up BLM. ASUN said they stand with black students. A resolution was put out. The university sent out an email.' We were kind of, like, 'Where's the action component of that now?' You want to have these conversations, you say that black lives matter, you say that racism exists, but then when we try to do things to help us progress forward, it's kind of, like, 'No. This is too scary. I'm uncomfortable.' There's a lot of, 'It makes me really uncomfortable to talk about this. I don't know how to talk about that.'"

Indeed, UNR released seven initiatives last June to make its campus a more inclusive place that included bringing "thoughtful and prominent recognition celebrating Colin Kaepernick and those Black social justice pioneers who came before him on our campus." The measures, which were unanimously supported by the president’s council and council of deans, said the "university will take these immediate actions to address the impact of racism on campus." Eight months later, Harvey said she has not seen that vow to bring prominent recognition celebrating Kaepernick come to fruition.

"I don't know everything the university itself has been doing to support what they've said," Harvey said. "I have not seen a lot of those changes made on campus. But I really think with this project, this can be a really important way to maybe even go beyond what they had originally promised. Say, 'You're right. We're bringing Kaepernick back, we're bringing his image back, but we're also bringing this conversation with it.'"

One potential risk in celebrating Kaepernick on campus with a statue is the potential loss of donations from alumni or boosters. Harvey said the cost of the statue, estimated around $300,000, would be crowdfunded and not come from university or state money. She said Kaepernick deserves the honor despite being a controversial figure.

"There is a lot of backlash against him, specifically because of the fact that a lot of people feel he insulted members of our military," Harvey said. "That is a valid feeling to feel that you've been taken down a few pegs because somebody is kneeling in front of the flag. But one of the most important things is Colin Kaepernick did what he did as a way to use his privileges given by members of the military who fought for his right for the First Amendment, to really use that First Amendment for the way that he found best. He was using his right to do what members of the writers of the constitution said. 'If something is unjust, you need to do your best to make sure that becomes change, that that's transformed.' That's what he was doing, and that's what we're trying to do, having these really difficult discussions with individuals who might not be supportive of us but we're trying to step together with them and see eye to eye."

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