At her Atlanta high school, Lisa Parks was a standout on the track team. But after moving to New York City, the junior doesn’t compete anymore.

It’s not that she doesn’t want to. It’s that her high school, Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, doesn’t offer the sport.

Nor does it offer boys volleyball, the game that Matthew Diaz grew up playing during summers spent with family in Puerto Rico. While his cousins have gone on to play professionally, Diaz only gets to spike the ball when he goes to visit them.

Parks is black. Diaz is Latino. And they say too many students like them don’t get the chance to play sports in New York City schools. Both are part of a class action lawsuit accusing the education department and the Public School Athletic League of discrimination by denying black and Hispanic students an equal opportunity to play on school teams, in violation of local human rights law.

“Our mission is to have sports equity in schools,” Diaz said.

Stats collected for the suit show that the average black or Hispanic student attends a school with about 10 fewer teams than students of other racial or ethnic groups. Schools serving the most students of color are five times more likely to have their application for a team denied, often with no response or clear explanation given as to why, the suit claims. And spending on sports for black and Hispanic students is about 14 percent below what other students get.

The lack of extracurriculars such as band or athletic teams at some schools is traced in many cases back to a movement to break up large campuses into smaller schools. While that tactic led to improvements in graduation rates, it also left many schools with too few students or too little money to offer athletics. But data crunched for the suit found that the disparity in sports holds even after controlling for school size.

In its response to the suit, lawyers for the city deny the allegations.

“We are dedicated to providing the maximum number of opportunities for all students to play on sports teams and take part in a transformative experience that strengthens school communities,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said in an emailed statement.

Both Parks and Diaz are activists with an organization called IntegrateNYC, which pushes for desegregation and equal resources in city schools. They form part of the Fair Play Coalition, which grew out of their efforts to bring sports equity in schools, and are being represented by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Both talked to Chalkbeat about the suit and their activism. Here’s what they had to say about the importance of athletics and getting students involved in decision making.  

How did you realize this was a problem that goes beyond your school?

Diaz: We gather students monthly to these [IntegrateNYC] meetings and we’ve seen a pattern of students saying they have less resources than other students. And we’ve seen studies and facts that schools with a majority of white students have better resources, more sports teams than students in majority black and Latino schools. And we found a lot of those students coming to our meetings, and they created that as our priority to make a policy for it. Specifically, my school asked for many sports teams, and we were denied.

Why did you decide to file a lawsuit?

Diaz: When I started this work, our athletic director was already fighting for this. He basically made our school have a lot more sports teams than it had before, but we were still fighting for more. And then he connected me (because of my activism) to the group of lawyers that we have today. We created this coalition called Fair Play Coalition, and from there we just went on to the lawsuit. We expanded this idea from me being in activism, from him doing his own work of activism in sports, to creating this coalition, and having more students and allies for this work of sports equity.

We’ve attended rallies. We’ve done emails to PSAL [the Public School Athletic League, which approves and supports school teams]. We’ve contacted everyone. And we still didn’t get a word back at all. So we saw we needed to take action.

There are many different ways that segregation and inequities play out in the school system. Why did you focus on sports?

Parks: For me, sports are really a big part of my life. I’m from Atlanta, so I’m used to playing every single sport. I had a dream. My dream is to go to the Olympics. And my mom is my biggest fan, so for her, knowing that I’m not playing sports is a big heartbreak because that’s something that I look forward to doing every single day — after school, before school. So coming to New York and not having a sport to play — the sport I want to play — was a big shocker, and it’s something that I’m proud that I’m fighting for other kids to have.

What do you think you’re missing out on by not having the opportunity to play the sports you want?

Diaz: I’m missing out on a career. I’m missing out on college. I’m missing out on scholarships. As a person from a low-income community, it is pretty hard to get out of that cycle of being in a low-income community again. I feel like sports is a way out for a lot of students. Not having the opportunity to play volleyball, which is the sport I really want to play, kind of sucks.

What do you want from the education department and for students?

Diaz: Basically what I want is a straight way for youth to have enough power to communicate with the people who are in power. They do not have to go to school, and we do. So why not have our voices in the forefront? I want my little brother to play football. He’s in middle school, and once he goes to high school, he’s not going to be able to play football. I want him to have the chance to play the sport that he wants. And I want him to have the voice. If there’s no football, he could complain, and they would give it to him.

Parks: When I was in Atlanta, I would run track, and my sisters would look up to me. My friends would look up to me. Everyone in the stands would be cheering me on, and they were like, ‘I see you. I see you.’ So [I want] somebody to say that, and for people to really admire me and want to follow in my footsteps. And for middle schoolers, it’s like, ‘You can play sports. You can do it. Anybody can run. Anybody can do anything they could possibly want to do.’ Kids aren’t allowed to play the sports they want to play. It’s just really sad, and I want them to be able to be able to do that.

Why do you think that student voices are so important to include when it comes to naming this problem — and also fixing it?

Diaz: If we weren’t involved, then we would have the problem that we have right now. And if we weren’t involved, it would be this society that does not feel pressured to do anything. I feel like young people should be in the forefront, because we have to go to school and we have to go through not having sports that we want to play, and not having the resources that we need, or not having the guidance counselors that we need in schools.

What if nothing really changes? Will it have been worth it?

Diaz: I think it definitely changes a lot because it gives other students the hope that they have voices and they can do what we did.