Imani West is a former NCAA Division I goalie and now serves as a clinician for the US Lacrosse Sankofa Clinic Series. She has a passion for helping to introduce lacrosse to more young players of color, especially girls. She wants to help them understand that there is a place for them in the game.

Tell us about your background?
My hometown is Maplewood, N.J., a suburban town about 20 miles outside of New York City. I’m half Brooklyn and half Newark. My mom is from Brooklyn and my dad is from Newark. I also have a sister and a brother. I spent seventh and eighth grade at a private Catholic school which was a culture shock because I was one of the only black people in my grade. I ended up going back to our district to graduate from Columbia High School in 2014. I received an athletic scholarship to play Division I lacrosse at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. I was the program’s first black goalie and the only black girl on my team during my four years. That experience was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but it also made me who I am today. I graduated in 2018.

How did you get started in lacrosse? 
Lacrosse is pretty big in my hometown town and has definitely grown since I started in fourth grade. My sister and I picked up sticks because our friends did. We didn’t get serious until I was in eighth grade. Originally, I played defense and I was not the best. My coach suggested that I play goalie because I could get a scholarship and my parents said, “Sign her up!” So, in seventh and eighth grade I played both goalie and defense, to officially decide what I wanted to do. I stuck with being the goalie ever since ninth grade. 

What made you decide to play in college?
While I loved playing, lacrosse was a tool to help me get to college and graduate with my degree. Being in goal and helping lead our defense to make amazing plays gave me so much excitement that I never wanted it to end. The good games and the bad games helped me gain a lot of confidence and learn more about myself. I wanted to be a role model to other black kids and show them that they can play this sport and be successful. My sister and I influenced our cousins to play in Georgia. I learned how important representation is for people who aren’t always seen. 

How did you get involved in coaching?
After my first year of college, during the summer, I came back and coached for my old club team, DEWLAX. I was able to work a lot with the goalies and also serve as an assistant coach wherever I was needed. Coaching showed me how passionate I am about teaching and helped me realize that I want a career in teaching. That is what I am pursuing now.

Why did you pick lacrosse over other more traditional sports?
My parents put my sister and me in a lot of sports but none of them really stuck like lacrosse. My dad was known for his basketball skills in high school and had scholarships to play in college; he even had a tryout with the Nets. I started playing basketball in middle school and continued until my senior year of high school. Defense was my favorite part of the game. I didn’t always score points but I played with a lot of heart on defense and I was a leader on my team, similar to how I was on the lacrosse field. Playing basketball definitely helped me improve my lax IQ. 

What opportunities did lacrosse provide for you that you wouldn’t have had otherwise? 
Lacrosse has given me the opportunity to travel to different states and meet amazing people that I wouldn’t have met without the sport. Being the only black girl on my Division I team in southern Virginia was a huge adjustment for me. I quickly learned what it means to be black in this sport after coming from a team that had at least four girls who looked like me. I saw how many Division I teams didn’t have any black girls on their sidelines. In college, I was coached by one of the few black head coaches in Division I women’s lacrosse, Elaine Jones. I have grown in ways that I couldn’t imagine without this sport.

Besides serving as a USL Sankofa clinician, how else do you continue to give back to the sport?
My coaching experience started the summer after my freshman year of college. I’ve been able to support different groups within the lacrosse community like my high school program, various club teams, goalies, and teams that were in their first year of introducing the sport. This past year, I worked for an educational nonprofit in Washington D.C. where I was a teacher’s assistant at an inner city bilingual school. Almost all of my students were from the Latinx community and had only really played soccer. I explained to them that I played lacrosse in college and not many people looked like me. Since relocating to D.C. in June for a teaching program, I’m now hoping to introduce the sport more into communities that are unfamiliar with lacrosse. 

What motivates you to continue giving back to the sport?
Thinking about my younger self helps me understand why it is important to keep giving back to this sport. It’s important for young athletes of color to see other people of color leading this sport and being successful. If not, how would they know it is possible?

What advice would you give to young athletes of color looking to get involved in lacrosse?
I would tell them there is a place for you in the lacrosse world. Although it may be scary to be one of the few players of color on your team, you are so important to the community. The history of lacrosse explains that it was a game created by Native Americans and as the game continues to grow, young athletes of color are making history too. Being the only athlete of color on my team in college was lonely, but it gave me a new understanding of my blackness and how powerful I am as a black woman. 

What does it mean to you for the sport of lacrosse to become more diversified?
With the game of lacrosse, you don’t have to be the tallest person or the fastest runner to have a place on the field. Lacrosse becoming more diversified will show athletes of color how capable they are. There are shared experiences between many athletes of color in lacrosse that create a sense of community. 

What type of social justice issues are you involved in or passionate about?
Currently, I am working towards becoming a teacher in urban communities. I found my passion for teaching through lacrosse. This past year, while I worked at an inner city school in Washington D.C., I was able to see inequities on how students of color were treated, from the disciplinary actions carried out by teachers and administration to the curriculum used to educate students on their history. I saw that the mental health of students of all ages has a major effect on their behavior and their academic success, especially in minority students. When I do lead my own classroom, I will be inclusive and uplift my students of color. I will understand that my students grow at different rates socially and emotionally. I will make more of an effort to check in with how my students are doing mentally. My classroom will be a place where students will feel safe, be heard, and loved.

If you could provide a book for summer reading for students, what would it be and why?
For freshman orientation in college, we were asked to read The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore, prior to our first day. That book always resonated with me because it really shows how your decisions can affect your future in different ways. It’s a true-life story of two black boys with the same name who grow up in the same environment with similar upbringings but end up with very different futures. The book speaks to the black experience but also explains the importance of our choices, personal responsibility, and persisting through adversity.