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This is part of a special series that will be rolling out every week in February to highlight Black supporters and supporter groups in North America. Please consider following, supporting, and donating to the causes highlighted in this series.
Phil Bridges describes it as an empty feeling. That feeling in your gut when you find yourself in a space where you want to be, a space that could be perfect for you, filled with so much potential joy. But when you look around, when you see the faces around you, something just doesn’t click.
Bridges felt that standing in the supporters section of Chicago Fire matches, as one of a handful of Black supporters scattered across the stands.
“I didn’t see many people who looked like me, and the ones I did were always spread out,” he said. “I felt like it was an empty feeling, knowing that there weren’t as many people who looked like me at a game.”
But Bridges, and several other supporters across the country are trying to eliminate that empty feeling for others, and transform the supporters section into the welcoming, happy place that it is for so many fans. They’re doing this through the creation of supporters groups that specifically amplify and celebrate Black supporters.
That empty feeling sat with Bridges for years until he met fellow Chicago Fire supporter Jake Payne at a Section 8 supporters group meeting in 2018. They immediately hit it off and began batting around ideas for a Black supporters group.
“We would just talk about it, never really putting anything concrete into the works until later into . “We finally just said, ‘You know what, if no one else is going to do anything, we need to do something,’” Bridges said.
Black Fires was born.
Since then, the group has created welcoming spaces for Black supporters at Chicago Fire and Chicago Red Stars matches and watch parties, produced merch and tifos celebrating Black icons and weighed in on the Chicago Fire’s diversity initiatives.
It has not been a smooth road but Bridges continues to push for progress.
“It has been quite the journey,” Bridges said. “If you’re doing something like this, you have to understand that you’re going to have bumps in the road and you’ve got to be in there for the long haul. But if you do that, you will find it to be worth it in the end, and that’s what we’re trying to get to.”
Forward Madison supporter Kyle Carr was already heavily involved with Forward Madison’s supporters collective, The Flock, when he was approached by a fellow Flock member, Chris Fox who floated the idea of forming a Black-focused supporters group. The two of them, along with fellow supporter April Kigeya, hammered out their goals and visions for the group, and a few games into the 2019 season, they launched Featherstone Flamingos.
“After having a couple, sit down meetings talking about it, we decided, yeah, we're gonna go for it,” Carr said.
Since then, the trio has created a synergy and cohesion that allows them to brainstorm and execute ideas from merch to programming to potential matchday themes and activations, all of which celebrate Black culture and the soccer culture of Madison. In the summer of 2019 they held a Black Restaurant Week where they promoted Black-owned restaurants in the city, and recently dropped an MF Doom Tribute Tee with a percentage of proceeds going to the YWCA.
The group is still finding its way, especially with their 2020 season largely cut short due to COVID-19, but they’ve remained true to their original mission and have expanded upon it.
“I think our original goal was that we wanted to provide a safe space for Black people attending Forward Madison games, to find people that look like them,” Carr said. “Now especially with everything that happened in 2020, we have a social obligation to make sure that supporters understand what we go through, and try to get others to be as good allies as possible. So I think that that's the new goal is being not just a safe space for Black supporters, but also trying to show, you know, this is what we need for those who want to support us.”
As Black supporters and supporters groups have become more prominent, they’ve begun to collaborate, to take their message to a wider audience, and create authentic Black American soccer culture.
On Tuesday, Featherstone Flamingos and Black Fires will continue that collaboration when they host the panel “Soccer While Black: A Talk About the Black Fan and Staff Experience in American Soccer” as a way to share some of the stories and struggles experienced by Black supporters and staff.
“It’s very important that we get those stories out there, because the only way to improve is to understand what led you to this point,” Bridges said. “By getting those stories out, by getting people to step forward and let them feel comfortable talking about their experiences, we’re able to say, ‘OK I see what went wrong here, I get her story, I see what went wrong in their experience, so let’s work so that we don’t have something like that happening again in the future.’”
“We’re trying to get a mixture of Black supporters, but also Black staff that are a part of these clubs,” Carr said. “So, it’s going to be fun to get their perspectives, how they got involved, how they got to where they are,” Carr said.
Carr believes that the growth of Black SGs over the next few years is only just beginning, as more and more supporters find each other and become empowered to launch their own groups.
“I think people are now deciding, ‘You know what? We can do it. We need to have a plan, but we can definitely do it, and why not give it a shot?’”
That growth is already in action in D.C. thanks to the launch of the Rose Room Collective.
Dedicated to including and amplifying supporters of color within the D.C. area, Rose Room Collective was founded by four D.C. United and Washington Spirit supporters.
“We kind of gravitated towards each other, because I don’t really know a ton of Black supporters who support the Washington Spirit, or just Black women’s soccer supporters in general,” said Marissa Crook, a founder of Rose Room Collective and a member of the Spirit Squadron, a Washington Spirit supporters group.
Crook, and her fellow founders, Douglas Reyes-Ceron, Aaron Bland and Sarah Kallassy meticulously designed the group’s look and identity, ensuring that it represented the rich Black history of the D.C. area, as well as the city’s deep soccer roots.
They settled on the name Rose Room Collective, a nod to a song that D.C. native Duke Ellington is credited with reviving, and created a logo with imagery that paid homage to Ellington, and D.C.’s former soccer teams.
Crook was on her break on February 9th when the group officially went live to the world.
“When the tweet went out, I just dead-stopped and said, ‘Oh my God, this is real now.’ The reaction we got, it was really overwhelming,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it to take off as quick as it did. It was just really crazy and a really good feeling.”
The group has already received more than 20 membership signups and, though it’s still in its infancy, is focused on growing the group, engaging with the community and beginning the discussions on how Black supporters and players can be better supported in the D.C. area.
Rose Room Collective @RoseRoomCoHi there, we are an independent supporter group for the @WashSpirit & @DCUnited by & for people of color (POC). The nature of soccer support in the U.S. is evolving, & we are founded on the guiding principle of including & amplifying voices of POC in the D.C. soccer community!
“We want Rose Room to be a safe space and to really bring POC supporters together,” Crook said. “Since we’re still really new, we’re really trying to focus on being present in the community. We’re talking about linking up with another supporters group and helping out at homeless shelters. We kind of want [the clubs] to really just open their eyes about really supporting your people, because they’re trying to right now, but we want them to do better.”
If American soccer fandom as whole is just now getting to the point where love for a club is starting to be passed down through generations, that development is lagging even further behind with Black fans. The focus is still on getting members of that first generation to stay past one game, to keep coming back.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Yes, we are diverse and we welcome everyone.’ But it’s another thing to actually make those people feel welcomed, and get those people to stay,” Carr said. “Supporter groups definitely try to let people in and let people enter. But they haven’t really done enough to make those people want to stay. I think that’s a step that a lot of supporter groups are currently working on, making everyone feel like they can stay.”
“Not everyone is at the same point you are as a fan,” said Bridges. “I think we have this issue of gatekeeping, which really hurts us. Because we’ll hear someone say something that maybe sounds crazy or weird to us, or doesn’t make sense, and the gate is automatically shut on them, like, ‘OK, we don’t want to interact with that person, they don’t understand soccer.’ It’s like, ‘No, keep that gate open, You bring them in, and we help them along this soccer journey, because that’s the point of building these communities and building the game. Let’s make this a more welcoming and more inclusive environment so that people don’t give up on wanting to be involved in something that can be so beautiful, so amazing.”
It can feel insurmountable. The distance that still has to be covered, the gaps that need to be closed in order to create the version of American soccer support that Bridges, Carr and Crooks have in their heads, and know in their hearts can be achieved. But the existence of their groups, the existence of them as supporters, and as people, is enough of a guiding light to keep moving towards that vision, when a supporters section will truly be a place for all supporters.
“There’s so much work to be done,” Bridges said. “We have so much further to go, but the fact that we made the start, that should be something to celebrate. We have to understand that we’ve got to keep pushing and keep moving. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to keep changing things and keep making the game more beautiful in American soccer culture.”