Black Lives Matter helped Isabella Scarlett
find her voice on and off the volleyball court

By Omar Shamout

Isabel Scarlett

(UCR Athletics)

College is often a chance for young people to find out who they really are. But for third-year volleyball student-athlete Isabella Scarlett, it was a trip home to Portland, Oregon, last summer that forced her to choose how she wanted to live her life. The 20-year-old psychology major was visiting her family when the murder of George Floyd prompted Black Lives Matter protests across the country, shining a spotlight on systemic racism and police violence.

Scarlett, who is Black, chose to make her voice heard and joined the marches in Portland with her brothers Cameron and Brennan, both of whom play in the National Football League. Portland, the fourth least-diverse large city in America, according to U.S. News, has a population that’s 78% white, 9% Asian, and only 6% Black. It became a flashpoint a year ago after former President Donald Trump threatened to send National Guard troops to the city to quell violence that had broken out among a small group of protesters. But Scarlett said the largely peaceful marches brought the community together.

“I went with my friends. I went with my brothers. I went with my parents. I went with, honestly, everybody. Most of the people that I knew here in Portland were out at the marches,” Scarlett said. “A lot of people narrowed in on the part of the protest that got kind of violent, but the actual marches themselves were something that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. It literally felt like I was part of history.”

As much as the movement taught her about the power of working together to achieve a common good, she also discovered the power of speaking up — and how much courage it can take to make your views known.

“Growing up, I used to be pretty shy. This last year has really been an eye-opener and a year of self-growth,” said Scarlett, who even considered changing her major to political science.

She’s continued her activism through social media, donations to nonprofits, and her ongoing work with the Big Yard Foundation, which was founded in 2018 by her brother Brennan, a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. The organization distributes books to schoolchildren in disadvantaged communities in Portland.

“We want to really instill how important reading and literature are to children,” Scarlett explained. “We try and have Black and brown people on the books. Something that was really important to my parents when me and my brothers were growing up was having representation in our literature, so that’s something that we want to do as well.”

Scarlett said she’s hoping to transfer some of her newfound confidence to the court and take on more of a vocal leadership role after the 2020-21 volleyball season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 6-foot-1-inch middle blocker started 23 of 26 matches in 2019 and led the team in blocks with 58.

“One of my goals is to just continue to step into that position, be a leader on the team for my teammates and the younger girls, and someone who they can look up to,” she said. “We missed an entire season. I’m excited to continue to get to know these girls for an entire year.”