Audrey Trowbridge sits in her basement surrounded by glitter, wood, paint cans and her favorite crafting supply of all time — pipe cleaners. Her craft room serves as a retreat, a place she can go to escape, relieve stress and spend time with her children. During remote learning, the Free State High School social worker took her video conference calls there, like she’s doing today.
Behind Trowbridge, a painting of a glowing Black woman wearing a bejeweled crown draws attention. When asked if she painted it, Trowbridge says one of her sisters gifted the piece to her. Its placement is purposeful. She wants others to see it in the background, but she also hopes to glean inspiration from it when she glances at herself on screen. The powerful art serves as a self-affirmation and a reminder while advocating for herself and her students.
“I’m gonna crown up. You are incredible, you are strong, you’re powerful,” Trowbridge says of the painting’s message to her.
In July, Lawrence High School announced Trowbridge’s promotion to head coach of its track team. An alumna of the program and assistant coach since 2007, she said she’s proud to serve as the program’s first Black female head coach. And as a member of the fourth generation of her family to graduate from LHS, her selection holds significant meaning, not only for her family but also to student-athletes who’ve never seen a Black woman coach until now.
Trowbridge grew up in a multiracial-, multicultural-family tradition steeped in civil rights advocacy. She recalls hearing about protests and segregation in Lawrence Public Schools from her grandparents, who told her about the former practice of separate homecoming courts for Black and white students at LHS. They were elated when Trowbridge was chosen as a homecoming court candidate 19 years ago. And when she called to tell her maternal grandfather, Duane Vann — whom she refers to as Granddaddy — she’d been chosen as head track coach, Trowbridge said he cried.
“They fought for that,” she said. “He remembered.”
Trowbridge holds four state titles — three in track and one in girls basketball. And like her childhood, she looks around today as a head coach and doesn’t see anyone who looks like her. She’s proud and appreciative to fill the role, but she makes a point of saying she doesn’t serve as a spokesperson for any particular group of which she’s a member. She’s just speaking for herself and from her own experience.
“We’re still in a time where I’m unique,” Trowbridge says, recalling a conversation she had with a male student-athlete last year. “For a boy to be able to pull back a memory of having a Black woman as his coach — even that might change the narrative of whatever experience comes later, because now he hopefully has an experience to draw from.”
Trowbridge has lived in Lawrence most of her life. She spent time with her mom in Arizona and her dad in Lawrence, and after graduation from LHS, she attended Mississippi’s Jackson State University, an HBCU (Historically Black College and University).
Trowbridge dubs herself a “Super Townie,” with all sides of her family having ties to the city where she was born. Anytime a member of the family participates in an extracurricular or sporting event, a crowd of supporters shows up to cheer them on.
She grew up watching her stepmom teach in the Lawrence school district, bringing home towering piles of papers to grade, which Trowbridge jokingly says dissuaded her from becoming a teacher. She feels a strong connection to Haskell Indian Nations University where her grandfather, Wiley Scott, was a longtime employee and founded Haskell LIGHT ministry with his wife, Caryn, in 1972.
She named her children after her values: Truth, 11; Loyal, 6; and Valor, 2. But if you know Trowbridge personally, you probably recognize them better by their playful nicknames: Snook, Snap and Snug. “I love their names … I believe there’s power in names, so hopefully they’ll grow up understanding their power.”
Married since 2014, Trowbridge and her husband Tyler, a Lawrence police officer who is white, are raising their multiracial family in a difficult era facing racial injustices and systemic racism as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Trowbridge said she attended protests in downtown Lawrence last summer after the murder of George Floyd Jr.
“It was a hard time for my family, but my husband and I both agreed it was important that I went and showed our kids the importance of standing for something bigger than yourself. I also wanted to be there because I come from a family of civil rights activists and felt it was my turn to be a part of the history advocating for change.”
As for raising children during a pandemic, Trowbridge says she’s tried to make the best of it. With an active family, shelter-in-place restrictions took some getting used to, but the family managed.
“It was hard to be away from so much, but it was also great to have each other, and I never went a day without a hug like some people had to. I’m lucky in that aspect and I try hard not to complain about that time because even as hard as it was, I had my favorite four people to spend my days with, and that’s time I would have never gotten before. Again, that’s not to minimize the catastrophe of the pandemic, it just helps me to stay in a place of appreciation in the storm.”
On top of sporting a dazzling smile and a contagious laugh, Trowbridge carries herself with an air of confidence. It’s a 30-something swagger and self-assurance that comes with age and experience: accepting who you are, remembering where you’ve been and having no fear in facing what lies ahead.
The journey that brought Trowbridge to this point hasn’t always been easy, though; ultimately it pointed her toward a career. “Social work kind of came naturally for me because as a young kid I grew up with a lot of trauma. A lot of people don’t know that, because my family was very well supported, but we’ve had some struggles. From the age of 5, I had a school counselor who met with me once a week from kindergarten on.”
Trowbridge says she met with the same school counselor all through elementary and junior high, a transition that just happened to coincide with the counselor’s job change. “We laugh about it until this day, what are the chances that this would happen? In high school, she wasn’t there anymore, but by then she had turned me over to coaches.”
The counselor, Pamela Nuzum, remains an important part of Trowbridge’s life and was even invited to her wedding. “She’s the reason I went into social work. There’s a quote about (becoming) who you needed when you grew up. I needed her.”
As a survivor of sexual abuse and sexual violence, Trowbridge understands the importance of an advocate who will listen to students and then help them realize the power within themselves.
She’s received specialized training in victim and survivor services. By empowering students and validating their feelings and experiences, they can develop their own voices, Trowbridge says. “It feels like you’re powerless, but you’re not.”
Trowbridge takes those social work philosophies into the coaching and parenting realms, creating a synergy between the three. She says being a social worker and a parent helps her perform better as a coach and vice versa.
Trowbridge also believes her life experiences as a townie make her more qualified for her jobs. She sees Lawrence holding a unique distinction as a college town that’s neither a big city nor a small town. Trowbridge realizes the pressures and expectations that come from growing up here as an athlete with an emphasis on moving on to Division 1 sports, for example.
“When you are a Lawrence kid, you see things completely different. I understand the messages they’re hearing … I’ve had to navigate the same emotionality that’s connected to my success as a Lawrence kid. We’re still in a time when we have first-generation college kids who are growing up in a college town.”
Trowbridge says with the shadow of the University of Kansas looming in the background, becoming a Jayhawk athlete might seem like the ultimate goal, but junior college opportunities deserve adequate consideration. She’ll encourage a student-athlete to pursue alternatives to KU if they’re the best fit for their situation. Trowbridge says she takes pride in hearing former student-athletes describe her like this: “She’s not going to tell you what you want to hear. She’s going to tell you what you need to know.”
Trowbridge loves sports, and she values the relationships athletics foster. “I am real. I am direct. I’m relatable to the kids. The time we spend together transcends track and field. It’s a genuine relationship.”
Calling herself “unboxable,” Trowbridge scoffs at the idea of anyone placing her in a strict category. “I love sports and I’m a sports person, but I’m a multi-layered person with deep thoughts and I assess situations as a whole.”
Trowbridge says as an advocate “for all things Black,” people are confused and surprised to learn her husband is a white police officer. “Nothing makes any sense. You can’t see me coming.”
When asked if she’s experienced racism in Lawrence, Trowbridge replied, “Every day of my life. Yes, yes and yes. Racism, sexism, all of the isms … Are we making moves, are we trying? Yes! The community has active pockets of people who are pushing the narrative, who are trying to make waves, who are acknowledging the struggles that some people face and certain people don’t, more so than when I was growing up — 100%. You see that. I would never negate those efforts; however, we’re not there. It’s noise and attention, but where’s the action? Ask the people who are experiencing it if it’s gotten better. That’s how you know if it’s getting better.”
Life as a survivor, Trowbridge says, built up her resilience. “There’s nothing that’s going to stop me from being who I want to be. I’m not defined by the experiences. I’m enhanced. I’ve learned how strong I actually am. Those things help me exist in a space where I’m the only Black woman there. My experiences have built me … I was made for a lot of these situations.”
Flashing another smile, Trowbridge paraphrases one of her favorite quotes, credited to Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos: “‘They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.’ That’s how I see myself.”