Leo Warbington ’22 describes himself as low-key — one who “likes to stay out of the way” and keep to himself.
Those descriptors may have been true four years ago when the political science major and economics minor was a freshman. But those characteristics contradict the Leo Warbington the campus community sees today.
Warbington, as Economics Professor Eric Dunaway describes him, “has answered the call.” He says the student-athlete isn’t afraid to stand up, raise his voice, and act as a leader. He has inspired others to step out of their comfort zones and advocate for a better Wabash College.
Last fall, he led a crowd of hundreds in solidarity as part of a campus-wide unity walk. The purpose of the event, which was hosted by Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies (MXIBS) and La Alianza, was to bring the campus together and promote equity, diversity, and inclusion, in efforts to fight racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all other forms of hate.
“I don’t know if he wanted that (leadership) role, but he answered the call,” Dunaway said. “His role, and what he’s been doing to promote racial justice on this campus, is inspiring.
“I told him, ‘This is not your responsibility to do, but I’m glad it’s you doing it,’” Dunaway recalls in a conversation he had with Warbington. “It’s a burden he accepted and has made this campus a better place. He deserves all the credit.”
Finding his ‘safe haven’
Having grown up in a diverse school system in Indianapolis, Warbington remembers the culture shock he felt after his arrival on campus.
“I had to sit myself down one day and accept the fact that this, a predominantly white campus, was going to be my reality for the next four years,” Warbington said. “I knew no matter how hard things may be, I worked too hard to get here. I’m not leaving. I took it as a challenge to see how I could overcome that adversity.”
Warbington credits the MXIBS for helping him succeed at Wabash. The senior was a track recruit when he was first introduced by Steven Jones ’87, MXIBS director and dean for professional development, and Clyde Morgan, head track and field coach and MXIBS assistant director, to the institute and its mission.
“Dean Jones and Coach Morgan immediately sold me on the MXI from the jump,” Warbington said. “Over the years, I’ve learned so much, not just about Black culture, Black history, and Malcolm X, but also about myself. Despite what I thought originally, there was a lot I wasn’t educated on related to Black social issues.”
Warbington said the MXI has become his “safe haven” where he goes to get homework done, hangout with friends, and be surrounded by other students who look like him.
“When I first joined the MXI as a freshman, we had few non-Black student members,” Warbington said. “Over the years, leaders of the MXI have worked hard to get more students of different races and cultures involved. We have grown in that aspect, and I now have a deeper understanding of the importance of diversity and inclusion.
“It’s about being accepting of all people who want to better themselves just like I do,” he continued. “One thing I have learned through the MXI is that life is not easy, but it becomes easier when everyone works through the struggle together.”
Warbington said lessons taught in the MXI greatly mirror what he’s learned being a four-year sprint hurdler for Wabash’s track and field team.
“The culture we have on the track team is the best,” Warbington said. The team goes by a powerful mantra created by Morgan: Men of Wabash, Northing Breaks Us (MOWNBU). “My brothers on the team, we understand that its much bigger than track. We focus on life. We focus on building each other up and improving in life.
“What the MOWNBU lifestyle has taught me is that when times of adversity are hitting, you can’t just sit there and feel sorry for yourself,” the senior said. “You have got to figure out a way to overcome it.”
Warbington really embraced and portrayed the “MOWNBU lifestyle” after an act of racial discrimination occurred on campus last year. When it happened, Warbington “didn’t know what to do or how to respond,” but like many other students of color, he felt shocked, frightened, and angry.
Morgan called for a team meeting about two weeks after the incident to talk to students about how they were feeling and how they should respond.
“I said, ‘You need to do something, but you don’t need to do it now because right now is when people are expecting you to do something. It’s more meaningful for you to do something when campus dies down and it’s quiet,’” Morgan explained. “‘I don’t know what that something is, but it needs to be extremely symbolic.’”
That something was the campus-wide unity walk organized and led by Warbington a semester after the incident occurred.
“The unity walk was not only a chance to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion at Wabash, but it was also an event that proved that nothing can break us down. I wasn’t going to allow that (act of discrimination) to break me down,” Warbington said. “This was the best way for me to overcome it, by not only lifting myself up, but by also lifting up all the others who were afraid to speak up.
“My nerves were all over the place,” Warbington said, explaining he wasn’t expecting the crowd to turn up like it did for the unity walk. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to be the center of attention. But Coach Morgan taught me that sometimes you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to grow.”
Warbington shined as a leader with a microphone in hand and a crowd made up of students, faculty, and staff, and Crawfordsville community members following behind him, holding flags and handmade signs that read, “Black Lives Matter,” “Address your bias,” and “We are all brothers.”
His voice echoed around the mall during the walk as participants repeated phrases including, “The people united will never be defeated,” and “We are one Wabash.”
“Out of all my years on campus, that was one of the most emotional moments,” Morgan said. “Being a part of it and seeing Leo up front, holding that microphone and addressing the crowd before and after like he did, he wouldn’t have done that even last year as a junior. But something clicked and made him realize that he had to get up and start leading. We’re so proud.”
Jones said it’s been wonderful to watch Leo grow, develop, and mature into the man he has become.
“Leo Warbington, my Young Lion! He is no longer the shy, laid-back freshman who entered Wabash College,” Jones said. “Leo has demonstrated his grit, grind, and greatness, and I am delighted to have shared the journey with him.
“The best is yet to come for Leo,” the MXIBS director said. “I look forward to all that Wabash has prepared him to achieve as he enters the next phase of his life.”
Warbington is finishing out his senior year strong and preparing to go to graduate school to study sports administration. He hopes to use his master’s degree to become a track coach or an athletic director.