Jocelyn Willoughby, on “the Quest to Read and Be Curious”

“Be curious.”

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It’s a simple yet profound suggestion, one New York Liberty forward Jocelyn Willoughby has embodied in her 24 years on this earth. An avid reader, Willoughby approaches her daily endeavors with unceasing curiosity. It doesn’t matter if Willoughby is on the basketball court, in class, or leading a discussion for her book club—she’s always asking questions.

Willoughby was selected ninth overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft. She attended the University of Virginia, where it took her only three years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in global studies. The Newark, NJ native immediately carved out a role for herself on the Liberty as a rookie, proving she could hang as a professional basketball player. But what she did entering her second season is arguably more impressive. 

In December 2020, Willoughby announced the launch of her book club, titled “Read What You Sow.” Partnering with Cafe con Libros, an intersectional feminist bookstore in Crown Heights, the book club aimed to “explore the injustices disproportionally facing Black and Brown people within healthcare, education, and other social systems fundamental to the welfare of all people through the lens of womxn of color.” Willoughby held discussions on Zoom with authors such as Brit Bennett, who wrote the New York Times bestselling novel, The Vanishing Half

“That was really inspiring to be able to have those conversations,” said Willoughby during Liberty training camp in April. “I think one of the big things with Brit Bennett was understanding, it’s a work of fiction but it’s also rooted in very real history, so understanding, ‘Okay, how did you go through this process of condensing real history to make it something that’s accessible?’ Just questions like that, asking about [the author’s] personal lives.” 

Willoughby’s love of reading was instilled in her at an early age. 

“I definitely give credit to both my parents,” she said. “My mom’s an educator; my dad, he’s not an educator by trade but he takes a lot of pride in education. One of the things growing up, he would always give us different books. Even to this day he sends me articles like, ‘hey, I think this would be good for you to read,’ or ‘this is an interesting perspective,’ and so I think having that growing up was super helpful.”

Where school curriculums were lacking, Willoughby’s parents provided guidance and suggestions for what to read. 

“[My dad] would be very intentional about giving us books that not necessarily our school curriculum would give us,” said Willoughby. “I remember—I don’t know—probably in fifth grade he gave me The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I don’t know what grade I was in, but [he gave me] I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. So just books like that that teach a little bit about history, a little bit about culture, experiences that can still be related to to this day. There’s several books he’s given me that I haven’t read, some articles I haven’t read, but I think it was always just to understand the quest to read and be curious.” 

It’s abundantly clear when talking to Willoughby that she digs deep in all aspects of life, not satisfied with surface-level understanding and cursory engagement. Sure, she’s lighthearted and frivolous when the moment calls for it, often beaming with joy on the Liberty bench after a spectacular play by a teammate or a DiDi Richards dance number. But when it comes to real issues involving people’s lives, Willoughby refuses to peddle in the perfunctory. 

Looking for an example? When Willoughby decided to start her book club, she could’ve beckoned her social media following to join and called it a day. Instead, Willoughby strove to forge meaningful connections with the community she was inhabiting for work. And instead of partnering with the first bookstore she saw outside Barclays Center, Willoughby found a place that aligned with the ethos of her mission statement. 

“In thinking about the idea behind the book club, we thought it was really important to engage fans and local community members,” said Willoughby. “From that standpoint we thought, ‘What are the ways in which we can do this?’ Obviously, opening up the book club to everyone so that anyone and everyone can join. 

“It was really important to be able to have a local bookstore instead of just ordering from Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Support the local community. I hadn’t been in Brooklyn very long—I was in Israel the first season running the book club—but talking to our social marketing staff thinking about, ‘Okay, what local bookstores are in the community right now that we can support?’ Cafe Con Libros is obviously Black-owned, so we were like, ‘this is awesome.’ It very much aligns with the purpose of the book club, which is to amplify the voices and experiences of women of color and to look at different issues of social injustice.” 

Willoughby is constantly soaking up new knowledge and experiences. She’s been finishing up her master’s degree in public policy, all while juggling two separate basketball seasons and, of course, running “Read What You Sow.” The book club wrapped up its second season in April, featuring Our Time Is Now by voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. Then, it was onto the WNBA season. 

Through all her growth, Willoughby hasn’t forgotten the lessons her parents taught while she was back in grade school. Anyone familiar with the traditional American education system understands how reading lists and curriculums are dominated by the works of white men. Meanwhile, books by legendary authors such as Toni Morrison are seemingly being banned by school districts with more regularity. These circumstances are part of the reason why Willoughby strives to highlight books written by Black women and women of color in her reading group. 

“For me, [those restrictions are] about controlling ideas, controlling narratives in history,” said Willoughby, “which I think is dangerous when we’re only being introduced to one perspective, to one story, to one voice. That’s why I take a lot of pride in my book club and introducing or amplifying the voice of women of color specifically. That’s not a voice and narrative we necessarily hear a lot of. 

“There’s a lot of validity and power to it. I think it becomes very dangerous when we say, ‘only this is history’ and try [to] constrain that. It’ll be interesting how that continues to progress. The other thing to that that I’ve learned through my parents, through my education process is not being solely dependent on formal education and formal curriculum. I think that’s where these extra-curricular opportunities… it’s like, you don’t need to be in school to read! Not everyone enjoys it but I think that’s where it’s so important to learn on your own.” 

One of the things Willoughby is learning in real time is that injuries are a bummer. The two-way wing missed all of 2021 with a torn Achilles tendon before returning in the 2022 opener at Barclays. Known for shrewd, versatile, and uncompromising defense paired with a precise three-point shot, Willoughby started the first four games of this season and performed well. She quickly suffered another setback, however, forced back to the sidelines with a left knee injury that she is still recovering from. 

There’s no question Willoughby is doing everything in her power to return to the court as soon as possible. 

There’s also no question that until she’s back—which could be as soon as the Liberty’s west coast road trip in early July—she’ll keep reading and keep asking questions.