Devin Walker is a friend from my past. Although we attended the same university in Wisconsin, it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that Devin and I had the opportunity to connect. When we did connect—it was on a small group camping trip where all parties were ill-prepared for the weather and conditions of the adventure. This experience inevitably lent itself to 48 hours filled with mischief and hilarity, two of many traits that feel alive in Devin today.
Devin is currently getting his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies the intersection of race, sports, and education and is writing his thesis on international education as a form of black student-athlete development.
Prior to attending college in Wisconsin, Devin grew up in Los Angeles. In his final year of high school, he was recruited to become a part of the Posse Foundation, an organization that identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. The foundation extends to these students the opportunity to pursue personal and academic excellence by placing them in supportive, multicultural teams—posses—of 10 students. The posse model works for both students and college campuses as it is rooted in the belief that a small diverse group of talented students carefully selected and trained can serve as a catalyst for increased individual and community development. By becoming a part of the Posse Foundation, Devin was given the opportunity to actively participate in group workshops for many months on race, class, gender, politics, power, and leadership before he entered college. The foundation is more or less a boot camp in becoming a culturally competent, inclusive, sensitive, and kind human being. As Devin says, “It’s ultimately about how do we create a better society, a more equitable society.”
Devin recalls one of the workshops that he attended while he was still in high school on the topic of gender. The men and women were separated for the beginning part of the conversation. In the safe space of an all-male group, the participants shared their feelings about the possibility of having a woman run for president. Devin remembers having many arguments about how women are too emotional to be president, unable to handle the pressure that comes with a position of great power. He notes, “You know—these tropes and stigmas and I was fully into them and like buying all of that.” After the two groups completed their individual conversations, they were brought back together and the leader of the men's group asked Devin to share with the entire posse what he had shared in the safety of a male-gendered group. In that moment Devin had a big realization:
“Why is it okay for me to say something in one space but not in this [other] space and I felt my body like boiling water. I said it and I saw some of the women’s reactions [in the group] who I considered friends—who I thought I saw as equals. But in that moment, I realized that actually I didn’t. . . . In the end, the conversation went a lot of different directions, but one of the women in the posse shared the traumatic experiences she had around sexual assault from a loved one. That was the first time I’d ever heard someone I care about share one of those narratives. Unfortunately, that was the first of many times I’ve heard [those stories] doing the work that I do.”
Devin’s experience with the Posse Foundation had a profound experience on what he studied in college and the work that he has continued to explore over the last many years. Devin wound up minoring in women’s studies for his undergraduate degree and notes that the first class he took on the topic was “so impactful because it challenged me so much. It made me so uncomfortable. It’s terrible when you’re in it—you know? It’s like ‘oh my god, it’s so uncomfortable,’ but once [that feeling is] gone you’re like ‘I need that. I need something like that again to continue to grow.’”
As a mixed-race man, Devin grew up with a very diverse group of friends. Attending college in the Midwest was the first time that he was surrounded by a mostly homogeneous community, and he had many experiences of interacting with people that had never previously talked to a black man before. He states, “My roommate had never spoken to another black person in his life . . . and he was mad cool, but it doesn’t matter how cool you are. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be comfortable.” He continues, “I had some challenging experiences my freshman year. I often remember that the only things that people would talk to me about were sports, gangs (because I was from L.A.), and rap music. [At first] I thought, ‘oh, this is cool—people are trying to go out of their way to find ways to engage with me.’ But then I realized [that it was] a lot more than that. This is all that they think that I am. This is all they know about black culture: sports, gangs, and hip-hop music and it was really hard to step outside of that box that I was put in [with]in white spaces.”
After discussing gender and race, Devin and I begin to dive more deeply into the idea of gut instinct and intuition. He notes,
“When you asked me the original question to think about a time when you didn’t trust your gut and what [I realized is that] for so long, what my gut has been telling me is to take risks. To take advantage of opportunity. And I feel like I have and [that] my trajectory has been so random.”
Much of Devin’s randomness has involved travel. Long stints of exploration in foreign lands forced him to rely on his own intuition and inner knowing and forced him to let go of preconceived notions. It also forced him to lean into learning how little he knows while actively choosing to walk on the road less traveled. Devin says,
“I think most of my life up to this point, I’ve been very noncommittal to most things and have always done me. And people call me ‘the Wanderer’ and not just in terms of traveling, but in terms of the way I think about life and space. But I think it was [just me] trusting myself and allowing myself to really honor who I was and what I wanted. . . . I’m very happy with where I’m at. . . . I’m not at odds with myself . . . I know I’m on my path. I’m in my right. I meet good people. I go to bed happy. I wake up with energy. And those are the things that are ultimately most important.”
At the end of our conversation, Devin shares about his current studies on the importance of black student-athletes having international education opportunities. When he talks about the subject, you can feel the vigor and conviction in his voice. It is a topic that he holds dearly to his heart, and for obvious reasons after hearing how much international travel has impacted who Devin is and how he relates to the world. I ask Devin to share with the audience parting words for what he would offer to someone who does not feel like they are living in the fullest expression of themselves. Without hesitation, Devin shares the following:
“So I guess you say some aspect of themselves that isn’t being seen and I guess my question will be seen by who? Are you seeing that? Are you doing that work with yourself. Are you allowing yourself to be fully free. Oftentimes, we’ll look outside and be like ‘Oh, in this space, I can’t be this. Or these people aren’t allowing me to be free.’ But what work have you done to push yourself? . . . We’re all snowflakes and everyone is unique and different. And when we put all that together, we can be very powerful. But we need to bring [our] authentic selves into every space.”