Courtesy of Yale Athletics

Just before school began this fall, Yale football linebacker Micah Awodiran ’22 came up with the idea for the Bulldog Ballot Challenge, a department-wide initiative that led every eligible coach and student-athlete to register to vote by late September.

Awodiran’s passion for organizing traces back long before his work with the Yale Bulldogs for Change, the student group that helped implement the challenge. The political science major was passionate about social justice back at Marist High School in Chicago, where he grew up. Tensions flared between different communities in his school when topics around racial justice arose, Awodiran’s guidance counselor and coach Erik Christensen told the News. A widely spread racist text sparked significant agitation during his senior year.

“What ended up happening is out of that incident and out of that movement with Awodiran and a small group of his senior friends came a club we call the EVOLVE club,” said Christensen, who is also a moderator for the club. “That stands for empathy, volunteering, observation, leadership, vitalization and education, and it’s all about trying to bring all the different groups — from a racial perspective, from an LGBTQ+ perspective, from a socio-economic perspective — to bring them together and to get people interested in those issues, a platform to be able to discuss it [and] to run events around it.”

In Christensen’s view, Awodiran’s ability to take a negative situation and generate a positive outcome is a testament to his character. The name of the club and the goals of the club were all orchestrated by Awodiran and his peers. Christensen said that the club is a big part of Awodiran’s legacy at the school and still has a tremendous impact at Marist today.

One of the main goals of the club was to get Black History Month recognized by Marist High School. According to Christensen, the club hosted a fashion show last February in which over 400 people from diverse backgrounds came together to honor Black History Month.

“I think when I look back now and I hear from kids who are there now or maybe graduated a few years behind me, and hearing about how the EVOLVE club or just even having those issues brought out into the air, helps their experience, I think that that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of, even with what I accomplished on the field,” Awodiran said. “It’s all about just trying to make places better than when I found them. And you know, things that I wish I had when I was younger, making sure that the kids that are coming after me have that and don’t have to come up with these crazy solutions by themselves, but have the proper resources to be able to feel safe and feel like they can succeed and excel.”

When he was in high school, more than 25 colleges sought out Awodiran to play football for them, but the Bulldogs defender chose Yale over Duke, Illinois, Vanderbilt and more. He said one of the main reasons he chose to don the Blue and White was that he felt Yale would enable him to examine why the world is shaped the way it is and to ask the hard questions about the history and context behind his community.

After he started at Yale, getting things done at the grassroots level remained a clear focus for Awodiran. In April 2019, a Hamden police officer as well as a Yale Police Department officer shot at Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, and Awodiran was a part of the group that protested the shootings shortly thereafter.

“I’m definitely geared more towards social justice as you start to peel back politics and all those different things, you know that the grassroots is where it’s really happening,” Awodiran said. “So it really is just being a part of organizing efforts as much as I can be. When we had the defunding of YPD initiative my sophomore year, having those protests right on Broadway . . . with two young people who had been, you know, shot by YPD and we were really just trying to bring awareness to their situation.”

Awodiran said that having spaces for people to belong and voice their experiences with the broader community is important to him, and the most recent way he has been able to engage in this is with Yale Bulldogs for Change, or YBC, a panel of student-athletes convened to improve the experiences of student-athletes of color.

Yale football assistant head coach Derrick Lett, who is a member of the department’s new Social Justice and Inclusion Task Force, said he has seen Awodiran’s drive and intelligence on and off the field. He called Awodiran a “natural-born thinker,” someone who always has ideas about everything from practice schedules and how to spend team downtime to social issues.

Lett and other members of the Social Justice and Inclusion Task Force — Senior Associate Athletic Director for Fan Engagement Nathalie Carter and Assistant Athletic Director for Administration Marissa Pearson — met with students on YBC to discuss action items for the group in August.

“We asked, ‘What is our top priority?’” Lett said. “‘What are our top priorities right now, what do we want to tackle as a group for [the] Yale University athletic department?’ We’re throwing ideas, pushing things [around], things like that. Micah said, ‘What if we can come up with a challenge for the whole athletic department where we compete by sports, by teams?’ … You know how competitive we are, and also it’s a very big election, so we wanted to get as many people to vote as possible, and this is a great way to do it. We were all very pleased and very impressed with the idea, and we took it and ran with it.”

The Bulldog Ballot Challenge was a success for the department, ensuring that all 739 eligible student-athletes and coaches were registered to vote. Both Lett and Awodiran touched upon the competitiveness of teams and how that helped fuel each program’s desire to complete the challenge.

Lett said that Awodiran’s drive to get this challenge off the ground and running came as no surprise and fit Awodiran’s character. Yale football captain and linebacker John Dean ’22 played alongside Awodiran for the past three seasons and echoed Lett’s sentiment, calling his teammate the “the absolute heartbeat of our whole entire football program.”

“I wasn’t shocked at all,” Dean said. “He’s starting to realize how special he is and how impressive of a person and leader he can be. So, you know, for him to step up and realize that he can make a real difference and get 739 people in the athletics community to register to vote, that just speaks to the leadership abilities he has and how special he can be. So for me, I’m not shocked, but extremely impressed, and I love what he’s doing.”

When asked about Awodiran’s recent success promoting social justice in the Elm City, Christensen had just one thing to say: “I’m proud, but not surprised.”

Awodiran’s role as an advocate for positive change in his communities began long before his time at Yale and looks to continue long after he graduates. He said he recently discussed the judicial elections in Chicago with his mother, taking into account individual candidates and their policies. They reflected on how much impact every decision and candidate could have.

“I was just thinking about how much goes into local, state [and] national elections and how with every single term [and] every single administration, there’s so much that comes behind it, whether it be legislation or just relations within different communities,” Awodiran said. “That’s just something that I really hold dear — to really make sure that everyone’s having their voice heard and affecting their immediate community as much as they possibly can.”

Ben Scher |