Leatrice Bulls is not only a Team USA figure skating alumni with a gold medal under her belt, but she is also paving the way for women of color in the STEM field. After recently graduating from Harvard University, she is on her way to graduate school and we know she will change the world! We had the opportunity to sit down with Leatrice and hear about her amazing accomplishments and her stance on many issues. Here are the highlights from our interview with Leatrice:
After reading about you, you seem to be very busy as you are a very accomplished woman. You are not only a student at Harvard who is in numerous societies and clubs, but you're a Team USA alumni with a gold medal. How do you do it all and what traits do you have that make you so successful?
Wow, that’s a hard one. Hard work was something that was just ingrained in me from when I was really young, and time management. So in terms of hard work, I think from a young age my mom always told me, like if I was upset that I didn't get something, she was like “well did you put 100% effort into it?” and that's just something that has always driven me is doing my absolute best all the time, whether I'm tired and I don't feel good, or whether, like no matter what it’s putting my full self forward no matter what the situation is, no matter how high or how low the stakes or the instance is. That’s something that has been very helpful.
Another thing that was ingrained in me from very early on, I started traveling and missing school for competitions when I was in the second grade, so with the whole communication and time management thing, little 7-year-old me had to go to my teachers and say “I'm going to be out next Thursday and Friday because I have a skating competition, what homework am I gonna miss when I’m gone?”. So that’s the thing that people usually don't get that early on but I had to become accustomed to because in my household, school came first and education was always the most important thing. And I knew that I absolutely loved skating, but I also knew that if my grades started slipping, then skating was gone. I was passionate about learning and all of that and getting an education, but skating was that thing that I did on the side that also made me so happy, gave me so many friends, helped keep me physically in shape, and helped me kind of prove to myself the limits of what I could do.
As you know, the science, technology, engineering, and math career field is predominantly comprised of men. How important do you think it is for women to have careers in the STEM field and how do you think we can make this happen?
Yeah, so, women in STEM, particularly black women in STEM, is a big passion of mine. Harvard itself is a predominantly white institution and the engineering school is even more so than that, so having representation is something that is super important to me and something that I plan to dedicate a lot of my career to. Even in my time in college, I started two organizations that helped create more of a community for women. So I started the Harvard Society of Women Engineers which gave current college members access to opportunities, and to friends, and to resources that were harder for women to get. And then I also started the Harvard chapter of this thing called The MakerGirl Academy which was an outreach program that worked with local Boston and Cambridge area students who were elementary school-aged girls and taught them how to design on a computer and 3D print.
So women in STEM is something that I think is really important. There are some crazy statistics that I can't pull off the top of my head, but it's like how many girls have been told that STEM is for boys or things like that and the numbers are absolutely horrible and I think that one thing that I've noticed a lot is it starts from an early age. I did a lot of camps and a lot of things specifically for girls interested in STEM at a young age, so I was really fortunate to not ever be told like “you can't do this, this isn't for you”. There were definitely instances where there were microaggressions because I was a woman or a woman of color where people would think that I wasn't capable of doing the work and take things away from me or just like talk down to me, but no one ever explicitly said “you can't do this”.
For me also, even if someone had said it, this goes for school and for skating, I've always felt as if the best way to prove someone wrong or the best way to get back at someone that said I couldn't do something was to prove them wrong by doing what they said I couldn't do and more. It's really important and I know that I personally was never really discouraged by that, but I know a lot of people are, so something that I plan to dedicate like a good portion of my career to and have spent a lot of time in my college career doing is like, creating more and more spaces for women because representation matters. You need to be able to see people that look like you for you to have that extra vote of confidence that like, you can do it as well. And that starts from an early age. That starts with elementary school-aged girls who are told to go play with dolls instead of playing with Legos. Like that's how it gets started and that’s how it’s ingrained in us, that it’s not for us, and that’s just not right. There’s absolutely no reason that I shouldn’t be able to get a degree in engineering or computer science just because of the fact that I'm a woman. So yeah, I think it's really important and that’s something I plan to dedicate a lot of time to in the future.
Describe your experiences in figure skating. Did you ever feel discouraged because of your race? How can we diversify sports such as figure skating?
So I started skating when I was 4 years old, that's when I took my first lesson, and I absolutely loved it. There's something about being on the ice that just makes me feel at home. Figure skating is what taught me that really cliche life lesson of “when you fall down, you have to get back up”. It’s a sport where you are literally falling constantly as you try to learn things, and the only way to get it is to literally get up and try it again. It's super cliche and super corny, but that is how I learned that lesson from a really early age.
To the piece about discrimination, that is something that I faced and have faced for a really long time, for the majority of my life in the sport. As people know, it is a predominantly white sport, so being different in it can be difficult. And I think that gets to kind of the implicit and explicit things that coaches and people are saying.
What I mean by that is like an explicit lesson is if someone were to say “you don't belong on the ice”. Most people don't do that luckily, but there's a lot of implicit lessons which are underneath other things that aren't as obvious that can give the exact same sentiment. So for example, things like mesh and quote-on-quote “nude mesh” and tights. When your coach doesn't allow you to have something that is supposed to blend in with your skin and you have a color that is not your own, that sends the message that you don't belong in this sport without them having to say it to your face. There's a fear that judges are judging you more harshly than other people in synchronized skating and that having you skate is going to be too obvious or bring too much attention to you if you happen to make a mistake. Or in single skating, the famous instance is with Surya Bonaly, she knew that she was being underscored because of her race and it’s built into the institution, that is figure skating and figure skating judges.
There have been many instances where there are these undercover lessons being fed to these skaters of color that this sport isn’t for them and that they don’t belong and it’s not obvious so it’s really hard to call out because at no point does anyone say “you shouldn’t be here because you’re black”, but there are other things. I’ve dealt with countless microaggressions around my hair being out of control or too poofy and how do we, like, tame that. I've dealt with my mesh not matching me, being the butt of countless jokes. I've had other skaters or teammates use the N-word around me as if it were nothing. Makeup is a big one. I know I’ve had comments about my makeup making me look like a clown or a raccoon because if you have makeup that has a white backdrop to the color, it’s going to look very different on brown skin than it is on white skin. It just doesn’t look right and it looks bad.
Again, I want to reiterate that I absolutely love this sport and that there is something really special about it which is why I stayed in it for so long, but that doesn't diminish the fact that there have been multiple instances where there were lessons being taught and comments being made that implied that it was not my place to be in that sport.
What is your favorite moment from your figure skating experiences?
Yeah, my favorite moment, wow. It definitely has to be in 2017 the Mozart Cup. My team and I won the gold at that. That was my first international competition, and I don't get nervous before I compete. That's something that, I don't know, for me I've always told myself “it’s just another run-through, it doesn't matter. We just happen to be in a sparkly dress in front of a crowd this time”. But before we got on the ice for our short program at that competition, I thought I was going to throw up! I was so nervous, I was terrified, I was like “I can’t do this, I don’t know what’s going to happen. What if I mess up?” Then we skated our short program and it was fabulous! We got our marks, we knew we were in first place going into the long program.
After our long program, we didn't have a perfect skate so it was just very nerve-wracking. We were the last team to skate, so we knew when they told us our placement that that was our final placement and that kiss and cry felt like the longest two minutes of my entire life. But then they announced our score and announced that we were in first place and I remember feeling this weight just lifted off of my shoulders. We cried that whole day, like the whole rest of the day just out of pure joy and that was one of the happiest moments, not even just of my skating career, but of my life because I know that that was something I had worked my entire life for and then getting there, doing my job as a member of the team, and then like having it pay off with a gold medal against teams that were very, very competitive was, it felt really good.
Leatrice in January 2017 at the Mozart Cup in Salzburg, Austria after her team, the Lexettes, had won the junior division.
I really admire your social progressiveness and your ability to thrive in careers in areas that are predominantly white. With the recent protests, do you have a message to people about how they can get involved with the Black Lives Matter movement and diversify areas such as these?
Yeah, definitely. This is hard and I think a lot of people right now are kind of trying to look for all of the things that they can do right now because there's a lot of energy, a lot of momentum right now. So there's obviously this kind of, like, scratch like oh, what can I do today specifically. Donating and signing petitions, emailing local government leaders, like yes, check, check, check! Those are all great things that I would strongly encourage people to do. And those are things that can help right now, but I think the bigger thing is that this is the movement. This is a marathon, not a sprint that we're working with right now. We're trying to completely upend a system built on racism. That takes time. And it doesn't take time in the sense of like telling people to be quiet and be patient, but it takes time in the sense that we have to work every single solitary day to be anti-racist. Today, next month, next year, and 5 years from now. It’s got to continue and that’s where that education piece and that listening piece and the self-reflection piece comes in.
So education, Google things that are happening. Google is literally free. People are throwing resources out as if it’s candy at this point so if you are ignorant, it’s a choice. It’s a choice to be ignorant because there is so much out there. So yeah, educate yourself on the history. There have been literal laws and presidential structures and local government structures that have been put into place intentionally to silence and minimize the black community. Learn about them, watch documentaries, read books, understand how you may have benefited off of these systems that were built on the backs of other people.
The next thing I would say is that self-reflective piece. So there has been a common misconception about a racist person being a bad person and a good person being not racist… we all have our own implicit biases and we need to reflect on those. So just knowing that oh, maybe there was a time when I was in an elevator and a completely unsuspecting black man got in with me and clenched my purse extra hard because in the back of my mind, I said “black man equals potential robber”. That is something that many people have done who are good people and may not say the N-word to you, but have participated in a racist structure. So being able to self-reflect on people's own biases and if they're called out, knowing that it's not as an attack on your character or a personal attack on who you are as a person, but rather an attempt to better society.
That gets into the listening piece: listen to people of color. Listen to people that say “that's not okay and here's why and don't get defensive about it”. They're just trying to fight to have the same opportunities and the same rights that you have. So yeah, just taking the time to listen to what they're saying and use it as a chance to personally reflect and better yourself rather than a chance to defend your integrity as a human being because that’s not what’s at question.
This is something that needs to happen now and needs to continue as the new cycle dies down, as the protests die down.