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An independent day school educating students PreK-Grade 12

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Erica Cunningham Hits Her Stride and Finds Her Voice  
Erica Cunningham

When Erica Cunningham ’20 filled out the paperwork to join the rowing team at the University of Alabama, she was doubtful. Having played three sports at King, she was a proven athlete, but this was the Crimson Tide. The deck was further stacked when the school invited all 20,000 women enrolled to try out for 11 openings on the team. 

“I had never rowed before,” she said, still flummoxed by the idea that she even tried out. “When I made the team, it was huge.”

Learning the sport was a challenge, with its demanding schedule and intense training for aerobic endurance. She got up to speed quickly, contributing to an excellent season, capped by the team’s first appearance in the NCAA Championships.

A trip to Cincinnati solidified Cunningham’s place on the team and her resolve to build a career in communications. Tensions were high as the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, sparked racial protests across the country, some of which were erupting just down the road from the race site. 

Coach Glenn Putyrae pulled Cunningham and her two other Black teammates aside to acknowledge the potential stress of the environment. He assured them that they had the team’s support, and that they should tell him if anything made them feel uncomfortable. 

The three women arrived to warm up wearing T-shirts bearing slogans of solidarity. Putyrae gathered the team and delivered a speech about unity. When the rowers headed to the boats, Cunningham realized that all of her teammates were wearing the same T-shirts as a show of unity.

“It was really incredible to be embraced by the team like that and to see them make an effort to understand our experience,” she said. “Especially being a minority on the team, it was so reassuring to see.”

Cunningham had been considering a communications degree, and the compelling statement her teammates sent that day underlined the power of messaging. She realized she could be a source of change by using her career to find solutions to some of the serious cultural problems she was witnessing. 

“I see life through the lens of a Black woman. But I am a proud biracial woman,” she said, adding that her mother is Italian and her father is African American. “There is a distinct difference in how society treats both sides of my family.” 

This experience gives her an edge. “I can understand both sides of the story,” she said. “Especially in movements like Black Lives Matter. I can relate to both and understand where each party is coming from. I know I can add to the discussion and work toward resolutions because I come to it from a place of understanding.”

Race is not the only problem she is interested in addressing. Growing up in Fairfield County, she had a front-row seat to the impact of socioeconomic divides too.

“I grew up immersed in very different ways of life,” she said. “That was magnified during COVID. The crisis played out very differently for lower-income families and minority populations. People who were living in multifamily houses, people with language barriers, they were struggling. That was happening less than 10 minutes away from extraordinary wealth, where people could go home to very large houses and pay for delivered groceries and keep working from home.”

Her unique perspective drives Cunningham. She sees opportunity in her exposure to a wide socioeconomic spectrum and her personal experience bridging multiracial families. “Going to college with that experience will allow me to help the people I know need it most,” she said.

Back in Alabama, she is kicking off her sophomore year with hopes of joining a sorority and networking with civil rights organizations off campus. And at dawn, she is earning her seat in the boat as the sun breaks and it glides across the water toward the horizon, ready to Roll Tide.

Erica Cunningham