Track and Field activist Russell Dinkins
Photo courtesy of Gabby Garringer

Words to Action: Lessons From a College Track Star Turned Activist

Why this matters

This athlete activist went from writing an article to leading a movement that changed the landscape of collegiate track and field.

Monthly Issue Athletes & Activism

A year ago, fall of 2021, I was sitting inside of my house, mindlessly scrolling the internet, filled with feelings of worry about the future and how a movement that I organically found myself building and leading would continue.

I had become the unlikely face of saving college track and field. When we think of athlete activism, we think of someone of note using their platform to bring awareness to an issue – that only the famous, prominent athlete can have an impact. However, here I was, a nationally competitive yet largely unknown runner who was organizing activism campaigns against major universities including Brown University and Clemson University during the latter half of 2020 and the first half of 2021 – and winning.

However, as 2021 matured and the heat of summer gave way to the crispness of fall, I found myself wondering what would happen next.

Saving college track teams was personal for me: The sport created the opportunity for me to go from my working class household in Philly to attending Princeton. I had a great career at Princeton and beyond, breaking three Ivy League records, winning six conference titles, becoming an NCAA champion, and placing fourth at the USA Indoor National Track and Field Championships as a pro. But what was most important to me was that I was able to obtain a life-changing educational opportunity via the sport of track and field. I wanted to fight to ensure others also had those same opportunities.

Before I began this work in the late spring of 2020, I had recently been laid off at Mathematica Policy Research, where I managed logistics for government research studies. I had no background as a writer, as a grassroots organizer, or in how to craft legal strategy, yet by the fall of 2021, I had successfully helped save four programs, with the last one involving historic legal action that garnered a great deal of public attention.

However, by that point, the threat to college track seemed to be in the rearview mirror. The tumult of the pandemic’s impact on intercollegiate athletics had largely settled, and universities could no longer point to the pandemic as a convenient excuse to cut programs.

After winning the last fight via a historic legal action, I didn’t think it seemed likely that another university would look to cut its track program. So after a year of engaging in rapid response messaging, organizing parents and alumni at different universities, filing federal civil rights complaints, and pursuing legal challenges, I thought the dust seemed to have finally settled. And while I was still working to support one track team that had gotten cut in early 2020 before I had gotten involved in any activism work, it felt as if the message I had been working so hard to get out there had finally been heard. College administrators nationwide had decided that it would be best to leave track alone.

In a sense, that was my mission all along. I had a nearly singular focus for so long, and then suddenly, it seemed as if I had achieved my objective: that the work may have been done. The lack of a looming threat was a product of my own success.

At that moment, I did not feel the joys of victory but rather felt the weight of uncertainty. For the first time in about a year, I was directionless.


For each of the fights, I figured out what was required in order to secure victory. I did not have prior experience leading activism campaigns, interfacing with media, or forming legal strategy. I just … figured it out. I reached out to a colleague at Brown University and was able to speak with a young man involved in the talks with Brown after the university cut its program in the summer of 2020. I did not set out to take matters into my own hands, but when an article that I wrote about the problematic nature of Brown’s decision to cut its track program went viral, I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to elevate the story. A week after I posted the article, Brown reversed its decision.

The process was the same with other schools I helped. At William and Mary, the University of Minnesota, and Clemson University, I figured out what was needed along the way. I used conversations with organizers from Brown to build a digital toolkit that leaders at other schools could use. I met with alumni to explain the threat to the sport and how we could fight it. I wrote more articles. In the process of all of this, I became a grassroots organizer, I developed media strategy, and I pursued legal avenues. All of it was sourced by instinct and keen observation.

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I knew what would land with the media from observing which stories seemed to gain traction from the biggest outlets. I could sense when I needed to switch from writing articles to creating videos and using social media for the later fights (especially the most difficult one I faced, at Clemson). That change came after I observed that the public had moved on from the summer of 2020 and no longer had an appetite for reading thinkpieces. I could feel when universities were on their heels by observing how their public statements would change when my victory was near.

Not only was I speaking truth to power, but I was creating ways to force power to reverse its position. I helped save over 200 student-athlete opportunities. I was getting results. I was truly in a flow state.


However, once I got to the fall of 2021, I felt utterly directionless. My flow state was gone.

I was supporting yet another program at Central Michigan University with a fight to save the team, but the realities of 2021 meant that accurate charges of racism no longer held the same social currency or applied the same degree of social pressure as they had a year prior. Exposing a university’s actions no longer meant that a university felt compelled by pressure to change its decision.

Our fight to get Central Michigan’s team back would have to be quiet, more behind the scenes, and would have to rely more so on work with elected officials and submissions to the Department of Education. But the fight to save CMU still could follow the basic model that was used to great effect to save the other programs. That’s not why I felt directionless.

I felt directionless because I knew that saving programs as they got cut, while important, would not be all that was required to ensure that track programs stayed safe from athletic departments attempting to cut track programs in the future once they believed the coast was clear. Saving one program at a time is not a sustainable way of ensuring that college track is protected overall.

I felt that our work saving the Clemson program likely dissuaded other universities from attempting to do the same for about another five to ten years. However, if we really wanted college track to be protected in the future, a national advocacy organization needed to exist. I didn’t know how I could possibly go about doing that. After a year of always figuring out what the next step should be, it was weird to not know how to move forward.

Then I received a phone call. The athletic apparel brand Tracksmith contacted me, letting me know that they were thinking about creating a nonprofit whose mission would be to grow and support the sport of track and field nationwide, and they wanted to know if I would be interested in serving as the organization’s executive director based on the work that I did.

I was thrilled by the opportunity and was honored to be considered. It was as if I had been walking through the wilderness, blazing a new path for so long, and just when I felt that I could not walk another step, Tracksmith appeared with a lifeline.

The offer reinvigorated me. After a year of making a way out of no way to ensure educational opportunities were protected, a way was made for me out of no way to continue to support the sport that I love and hold so dear: track and field.


Now, in the fall of 2022, I can say that I am in a place that I could have only imagined when I started this journey.

I am the inaugural executive director of the Tracksmith Foundation, and we are wrapping up a great project engaging high school track and field coaches all across this nation. I also have continued to support Central Michigan’s alumni in a fight to save their track program, filing a racial discrimination complaint against the university that has triggered a federal civil rights investigation. I have also spoken at a national track and field conference, interfacing with coaches from all across this country. But my favorite projects have involved those where I have directly interacted with high school and college students.

This whole journey started with me wanting to help that kid whose name I would never know – that kid, who, through the sport of track and field, receives access to tremendous educational opportunities. I now have the opportunity to help countless kids whose names I will never know. And for that I am forever grateful.

This journey has taught me that you can make the impossible possible if you have conviction and steadfast commitment to your work. I could have never imagined that I, as an unemployed, unknown athlete, could write an article that would impact the landscape of collegiate track and field, or that I would organically find myself as the leader of a grassroots movement that not only spoke truth to power but actually garnered results.

Sometimes opportunities present themselves in ways that you can hardly imagine, and even though you may feel unprepared, the opportunity has presented itself to you because you are perfectly suited to fulfill the role. All along the way, I felt as if I did not know what I was doing, when in reality, I was perfectly prepared to do this work.

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As I grew up a kid from a working-class background, it was never in doubt that I would go to college, even though my parents had not gone to college at that point. We believed that we would figure it out. We didn’t know how I would get there, but we were sure I would.

In high school, I went to an amazing boarding school that, unfortunately, did not have a strong track program. It had been several decades since they had someone go to a Division I university for track. But I knew I wanted to be one of the best high school track athletes in the nation and earn recruitment into D1. I didn’t know how I would get there, but I was sure I would.

After I graduated college, I wrote a proposal to Princeton University highlighting the ways the university had been underserving its low-income students and expressing my desire to work for the university to help address the gaps. I didn’t know how I would address those gaps, but I was sure I would.

The university hired me, and my work is still benefiting students at Princeton to this day: gaps addressed.

Throughout my life, I have figured out a way to get there. So when the opportunity presented itself for me to lead a movement that had no blueprint, even though I did not realize it at the time, I had all the skills that were required for me to successfully make change happen.

I did not set out to intentionally do this work, but when this work chose me, I intentionally decided that I was going to accept the task. I believed that I was going to figure it out.

To be truthful, I don’t feel like an activist: I just feel like me. But I’ve always given a damn, and I’ve always fought for causes that I believed in. So, in a sense, I’m not surprised that I have become a professional activist, organizer, and changemaker.

Because I make a way out of no way. It’s what I do.

Monthly Issue

Athletes & Activism

Across the world, athletes continue to use the fame and audience afforded to them to fight for social and political change. Today's athlete activists embrace the legacy of their forebears while also reimagining how and what they fight for.

Following a global pandemic and racial unrest in recent years, athletes have an opportunity now to set the course for a new era beyond the game.