A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Sgt. Curtis Davenport The shooting instructor 27 years in uniform

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”

At the end of an unmarked driveway in a wooded area of southeast Atlanta, past the SWAT team barracks and armored vehicles, next to the firing range where bullets pierce paper heads and hearts, Sgt. Curtis Davenport teaches police how not to kill people.

As commander of the firearms training unit, Davenport’s basic responsibility is to make sure Atlanta’s 2,000 officers can hit those paper targets. But over the past five years, as police killings of unarmed African-Americans caused a national uproar, Davenport’s job evolved to include “de-escalation” training — encouraging police to avoid pulling the trigger at all.

One Wednesday this summer, 22 police officers filed into Davenport’s classroom inside a small, one-story building. He stood at a lectern wearing khaki pants and an olive drab polo shirt. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire was audible from the range 40 yards away. On the walls hung promotional photographs of Glock firearms, including one that showed a close-up of a pistol clenched in a white fist, ATLANTA POLICE printed along the barrel, the muzzle an ominous black tunnel. “Confidence,” the caption read. “It’s What You Carry.”

Surrounded by all this deadly force, Davenport began his mission of peace.

He had invited me to attend his two-hour class, shoot on the range and participate in a video simulation of dangerous police encounters, all to help counter today’s anti-police narrative. The backdrop was the city of Atlanta, cradle of the civil rights movement and the modern black mecca, where 54 percent of the population and 58 percent of the police are black. Atlanta is one of the few major American cities where the police force comes close to reflecting the diversity of the population — which has not deterred Black Lives Matter protests and activism within its city limits.

Davenport is 50 but looks 35. He still has the muscular physique of the college fullback who reached the last round of cuts at Atlanta Falcons training camp. He can talk with the spin of a politician — Davenport was the Atlanta Police Department spokesman for three years — or break fool like your country cousin. He can quote Scripture or Ice Cube. Relying on the laws of God and man, he walks the tightrope between black and blue with serenity and confidence.

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else,” Davenport said. “The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took. I swore to uphold laws. I swore to protect your rights. I swore to protect you when you can’t protect yourself. So while that is a part of my responsibility, being a police officer does not make Curtis Davenport who he is.”

Yet, after 27 years in uniform, he sees the world through a blue lens and can’t help but feel the pressure.

“Police officers to a certain extent have been dehumanized,” he said. “We’re not people with feelings. It’s like they want us to be robots.”

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Change, get fired or quit

Inside Davenport’s classroom, 16 of the 22 officers were black, including two women. Everyone carried a gun except Davenport. He clicked his PowerPoint to life and began:

“The public demanded that police be reformed down to their training, and this is one of the results,” he said, citing former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “So they came up with this course, and if I were to sum it all up in a phrase, it wants the police officers in America to get out of the warrior mentality. And they want you instead to adopt what’s called a guardian mentality.

“That may be kind of hard for some people, especially those who’ve been doing this a long time or those who don’t think that’s what they want to do.”

For the resistant cops, Davenport offered three options: You can change. You can keep acting the same and get fired, possibly indicted. Or you can quit.

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Next came the details. Davenport drilled down into exactly when and how the Constitution and the state of Georgia permit police to use force. He told the officers to look for alternatives — just because they can legally use force doesn’t mean they should. The ultimate goal is “voluntary compliance.”

“De-escalation is all about utilizing other options,” Davenport said. “It’s not about taking away use of deadly force. What it’s about is, do I have to use deadly force? Do I have another option present?”

He covered tactical details such as how distance determines appropriate force. He reviewed what every officer already knew: The law allows you to shoot unarmed suspects. Always shoot at center mass — not at a leg or shoulder. Shoot as many times as necessary to end the threat. But if you shoot one unnecessary bullet, it can cost you your job or your freedom.

Over and over, he advised officers to control their egos. Everybody who wears a badge has a big ego, he said. “That is our biggest hindrance.

“If you work an extra job and somebody gotta leave, you tell them to leave like, ‘You, out, get on out of here.’ They walking to the door, ‘Ah, you sorry m—–f—–, I’ll whoop your a– on the street.’ Guess what? He walking out. I don’t have to have ego. People looking at it, ‘Aw, you see that police, man, he a chump. He took all that stuff.’ End of the day, I got voluntary compliance. Make sense? That’s de-escalation in a nutshell.”

There was a caveat, though, that explains why many police who kill unarmed civilians are not prosecuted.

“De-escalation is only to be used when you’re dealing with nonviolent suspects,” Davenport told his class. “If you’re dealing with a violent suspect, do what you do.”

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Sgt. Davenport works with officers in the classroom of the Atlanta Police Department Pistol Range on how to de-escalate situations and what indicators might lead to drawing one’s weapon. Officers work on their accuracy on the shooting range to ensure they do no more damage than is necessary to subdue an attacker.

Life after football

Davenport was born and raised in the city, with summers spent on his grandparents’ rural Georgia farms. After graduating from Lithonia High School east of Atlanta, he earned a computer science degree at Clark Atlanta University while playing football as a 5-foot-10, 260-pound battering ram of a fullback. In four college seasons, he had four carries for 4 yards and four touchdowns. The running back he blocked for got drafted. Despite stone hands and slow feet, Davenport almost made the Falcons from their 1989 training camp. He still feels like he has one more bone-crunching block in him.

After football, Davenport needed a job and the police department was hiring. His physicality served him well when he began patrolling Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods in 1991 and became an undercover narcotics investigator in 2005. Arrests led to lots of fights — “You’re taking somebody someplace they don’t want to go.” He has a scar on his thigh from being bitten by a 300-pound woman who wanted no part of his handcuffs. He trained in taekwondo, kung fu and ground fighting. He learned how to head off physical battles just with the bulge of his arms and chest beneath his tailored uniform. He’s 230 pounds now, still works out ferociously, would like to be 215 but his wife bakes a mean batch of cookies.

Davenport was raised in the church and was saved in 2002. Giving his life to the Lord made him more patient and tolerant, and also unwilling to take shortcuts that some officers considered permissible.

He keeps a Bible in his office at the firing range. It’s as much a part of his job as the dozens of bullets all over his desk — inside ammunition boxes, encased in curved rifle magazines, loose in a plastic cup. After the class, explaining his belief that policing is based on biblical principles, he read from Romans 13:1:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

Then verses 3 and 4:

For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

The bullets on his desk looked more lethal now. Davenport closed his Bible.

“I ain’t asking you to agree with it,” he said. “I’m just telling you what it says.

“When I put my actions up for judgment, I didn’t put it up for your judgment,” Davenport said. “Sometimes, by pleasing him, I don’t please them.

“Sometimes,” he added, “ ‘them’ is other police officers.”

I thought about the off-the-books lawmaking “contempt of cop” punishable by a night in jail, and remembered Freddie Gray running from police, getting cuffed and then being carried out of the police van with a broken neck.

Last June, the police chief asked Davenport for his expert opinion of a video that showed an officer punching a man in the face while trying to arrest him. Davenport referred back to his secular Bible — the Standard Operating Procedures of the Atlanta Police Department.

“Force must be reasonable, and it must be necessary,” he said. “Was what he did reasonable and necessary? The answer is no.”

The officer was suspended for 20 days without pay. That upset the rank and file, as the arrested man had a reputation for fighting back against police. Davenport said that a few years ago the officer would have received little to no punishment.

I asked whether that’s a positive development.

“Whether good or bad,” Davenport replied, “it lets you know that policing has changed. He did the old actions, and he got the new punishment.”

Is there a downside?

“We have a lot of police reform, but no community reform,” he said. Criminals “are still doing the same stuff, but I can’t do the same stuff to combat it.”

Davenport recognizes that mass incarceration has devastated the black community. He believes African-Americans are treated unfairly in the justice system. But he sees another part of the equation too.

“Let’s be honest. Was anybody protesting when Ray Ray shot Peanut?” he said. “Just two people who live in the ’hood. I think that’s a far bigger issue, black-on-black crime, than blue-on-black violence.”

It was time to shoot on the range, a manicured green quadrant with a steep hill of red dirt at one end. Davenport outfitted me with a holster and police-issue 9 mm pistol. He instructed me how to hold the weapon, sight down the barrel and ignore the “unnatural event” of setting off a tiny bomb in my hand. Pulling the trigger took as little effort as turning on my phone. A hole appeared in the paper person’s head, and I was filled with sadness at the thought of black boys carrying death in their pockets.

Black and Blue: A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Ferguson and Sunday dinner

The biggest complaint Davenport has with police work is the pay. In Atlanta, a sergeant’s salary tops out at $72,000 before overtime. Davenport brings in another 10 or 20 grand a year with extra jobs, primarily as security at the Tabernacle concert hall, so he can “enjoy some of the comforts of life.”

It was very comfortable riding in the black leather passenger seat of his new Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup. We pulled up to his five-bedroom brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Decatur. Inside the garage was his beloved 2007 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, parked near a black leather jacket emblazoned with the name of his old motorcycle club, the Buffalo Soldiers. Davenport and his wife, Valerie, who works in the UPS finance department, bought the house out of foreclosure in 1996.

Curtis and Valerie, an amateur bodybuilder, cooked Sunday dinner together in their cozy kitchen. Their pit bull puppy, Bella, rescued from a shelter, scampered underfoot. Curtis dropped steaks and salmon on the grill. Valerie sautéed cabbage and prepared mac and cheese and cornbread. A box of takeout fried chicken sat open on the island counter. Crab legs boiled, sending enough “Slap Ya Mama” seasoning through the air to draw a cough. Nothing special, this spread. Just a regular Sunday.

Their sons arrived: 23-year-old Clayton, who attended Alabama A&M on a football scholarship and now works as a plumber, and 21-year-old Cameron, who went to work for CSX Railroad out of high school. Next came Davenport’s father, Jimmy, and his stepmother, Karen. Jimmy and Karen got married when Davenport was 16; he calls her Mom. Last to arrive was their daughter Sydney, 20, a sophomore at Albany State University.

A lawnmower buzzed outside, pushed by a former Atlanta police officer who went to prison in the aftermath of a scandal over falsified search warrants. Davenport could mow his own lawn, but the former officer needs the work.

Sitting in a paid-off house, bellies full, paychecks steady, driveway full of cars, the Davenport family’s biggest immediate concern was whether the Falcons could make it back to the Super Bowl. Curtis and Jimmy have season tickets. Nobody felt conflicted about police work or passionate about Black Lives Matter.

Valerie described her husband as a loyal, responsible, dedicated man who follows the rules. Clayton recalled his dad often bringing his poor teammates from youth football over for weekends. “We always were bringing in strays,” Valerie said. “He wants to do his part. He wants to help. Helping is part of his job. He really enjoys what he does now, because it’s a responsibility for him to make sure those police do what they’re supposed to when they have that gun in their hand.”

When the brownies and ice cream came out, I asked whether the family had argued over any of the recent high-profile police killings.

“Michael Brown,” Davenport said, referring to the unarmed 18-year-old killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. “They was all for that poor Michael Brown. The dirty police, they did him wrong. Y’all was ready to picket and tear up Atlanta for Michael Brown.”

Davenport told his family all along that Wilson would not be charged with a crime. There was no apparent distinction between “would not” and “should not” in Davenport’s mind. According to the Justice Department report released by former Attorney General Eric Holder, Brown punched Wilson in the face when confronted, grabbed his gun, was shot in the hand, ran away, then charged back at the officer. The law allowed Wilson to shoot Brown.

When the killing first hit the news, Davenport’s father, Jimmy, was angry. A retired post office supervisor, he was born in 1947 in Wedowee, Alabama, where segregation was the law, white people called him “boy” and there were no black cops. But once the facts of the case came out, Jimmy Davenport agreed with his son.

Jimmy’s wife, Karen, wouldn’t go that far.

“Curtis was talking about the law and what the policeman did. I was talking about the broader perspective of policing,” said Karen, a retired school principal and college administrator.

“If Michael Brown had been white, let’s just play it out,” she continued. “If he had been white and stole something from the store, the police would probably be like, boys will be boys, he didn’t mean to do it. It wouldn’t have escalated.”

Her sergeant son interrupted. “Wait a minute now,” Davenport said. “Did it escalate because of the police officer’s actions? Or did it escalate because of Michael Brown’s actions?”

“It escalated because of both actions,” his mother said. “I think it escalated also because he was a black guy, they said he stole something from the store, and then he became confrontational, and then it escalated.”

“Who became confrontational?” Davenport asked.

“Michael Brown.’’

“So he was the aggressor.”

“My point is, Curtis, if it was a different situation with a different complexion young man, I really wonder if it would have escalated to that extent.”

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, oh, what a party we’d have,” Davenport said.

Everybody laughed. Love filled the room, not the vitriol that tore through America after Brown’s death sparked riots and turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement. But the philosophical chasm remained. Karen Davenport saw Brown’s death in the context of policing as a tool of mass incarceration, in a society rife with racial bias. Sgt. Davenport focused on what he teaches in his course — when the law says an officer can pull the trigger.

De-escalation is only for nonviolent suspects. Otherwise, do what you do.

A scandal in the department

Atlanta buys its heroin in the Bluff, where addicts and dealers lurk in abandoned houses as children play nearby. Davenport worked these west Atlanta streets as an undercover narcotics investigator, making drug buys and serving warrants. Jumping out of an unmarked van, ready to deliver some justice, that was fun. If a suspect wanted to put up a fight, the crew stepped aside and Davenport took him down.

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life,” Davenport said. “Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

He would masquerade as a junkie, walking shirtless into a drug house or wearing a suit and tie like a downtown businessman. Once he was buying crack in a second-floor apartment when two men burst in, fired their guns in the air, and robbed the drug dealers. Davenport thought about pulling his hidden weapon but decided against blowing his cover. That was the closest he ever came to firing his weapon at someone.

In 2006, he was promoted to sergeant and left the squad. Six months later, Davenport’s former narcotics team, led by Officer Gregg Junnier, crept onto a porch in the Bluff, wearing plainclothes. They smashed through the door and burst inside. The homeowner, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, thought she was being burglarized and fired her revolver at the intruders. The officers fired back and killed her.

At first, authorities said police had bought drugs from Johnston’s house that same day. But Johnston’s neighbors knew she was innocent. Soon it was exposed that Junnier lied on the search warrant, lied on other warrants and was breaking other laws too. Junnier and two other officers went to prison.

It hurts Davenport to admit that Junnier, a man he would have taken a bullet for, was a crooked cop. He believes he should have seen it. He wonders how many warrants he served that Junnier falsified. Davenport was never accused of any wrongdoing connected to Junnier’s crimes. But Junnier’s crimes get Davenport accused of wrongdoing just for wearing his uniform.

Yet even after the Johnston scandal, which resulted in an overhaul of the Atlanta Police Department narcotics unit, Davenport doesn’t see systemic problems with policing.

“I would say 98 percent of police officers throughout the country do a fantastic job day in and day out,” he said. “But that never gets publicized, right? You don’t have the family members from somebody you helped on Good Morning America telling about that. But the 2 percent are the guys who make bad decisions and do bad things that gets 98 percent of the publicity.”

There’s a difference, though, between outliers on the police force and in other professions. Those 2 percent of bad cops can ruin lives, even take them.

Davenport accepts that higher level of responsibility and says police departments need to do a better job of identifying problem officers.

“You don’t go from being a good, honest cop to being someone who plants drugs or evidence, or might be a little bit quick to kill. There are other signs. They might take shortcuts prior to that. When we see that we have to report it, and we got to either get them retrained or get rid of them.”

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

Engaging the threat

After shooting at the range, Davenport took me to the police academy, where pictures of 39 slain officers hung on a wall. Inside a darkened room was the Milo Range Theater 300, a $120,000 system featuring a circle of five huge video screens that create an immersive training experience.

Since 2015, Atlanta police have killed nine people, including seven African-Americans, two of whom were unarmed, according to The Washington Post’s national database of police killings. That’s about the same number of killings as the comparably sized cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Long Beach, California.

A half-dozen officers watched as I strapped up with a video-game-type pistol. Davenport said to look for the threat and engage it. I asked what “engage” means.

“You can talk,” he said, “or handle it with your sidearm.”

A scene unfolded: A traffic stop of a pickup truck. I approached on the driver’s side and saw an old man behind the wheel. I asked him to put his hands on the wheel — he did not comply. I demanded that he put his hands out of the car window — nothing. The camera backed away. I was about five paces behind the truck. The man got out. I drew my weapon and yelled at him to lay down on the ground. He kept walking toward the tailgate. I yelled I would shoot if he did not lay down. My heart pounded. I felt frustrated and discombobulated by his refusal to obey. Was he sick? Stupid? The old man grabbed something from the truck bed and spun toward me. I blasted him. He fell down and dropped the gun in his hand. The screen went dark.

Davenport said I could have shot him sooner. But what if he didn’t intend to pull out a weapon?

“What do I care more about?” he said. “Going to jail, or going home alive?”

Another scene: A call about a “disturbance” at a park. Such sketchy information is often all police have to start with. Two young men were talking near a parked car. I questioned them, but they didn’t respond. I put my hand on my gun. They put their hands up and I saw one had a gun in his waistband. A woman suddenly got out of the vehicle and approached me with something in her hand. I almost shot her. She was filming with her phone. I yelled at everybody. She lay down in the road. I felt much more scared with three people than with one. I threatened to shoot the gunman if he didn’t lie down. He bolted toward the woods. I let him go. The screen went dark.

Davenport observed that it’s not against the law in Georgia to carry a gun in your waistband. Nobody had broken any laws in that scenario.

Then Davenport tried one.

Another traffic stop. A young woman got out of her car and put a gun to her head. Davenport went into de-escalation mode. He asked her to calm down. “Let’s talk, let’s just talk, you can put the gun down,” Davenport said. She didn’t listen. Davenport kept talking, his gun in hand but pointed at a 45-degree angle toward the ground.

Was this a nonviolent subject? Could he shoot? Should he?

The woman swung the gun toward Davenport and fired. Davenport let off eight shots. The screen went dark.

The technician played back a recording of the encounter. The woman shot first. Davenport’s first shot missed.

“This might have been my bad day,” he said.

A glimpse inside a high-tech police simulation at the Atlanta PD

The lesson of Jonah

Davenport, an ordained minister for 12 years, is an assistant pastor at Greater Travelers Rest House of Hope Atlanta, performing weddings and baptisms and leading Bible studies. I sat with him one Sunday in a front pew of the majestic 7,000-seat sanctuary, close enough to the concert-grade sound system to feel the stomp-stomp of the bass drum.

Black faces filled the ground-level pews and the two balconies. Stained-glass black faces gazed from the windows behind the choir. Cameras broadcast live on the internet. Aged mothers in white hats and dresses were honored. The band played “I’m Nothing Without You,” “Jesus Is My Help,” “The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now.” Davenport worshipped calmly, tapping his gator-clad toe to the music, with no waving hands or extra amens.

Then Dr. E. Dewey Smith Jr. got to preaching about Jonah.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah rebelled and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Smith described how God sent a storm to afflict Jonah’s ship. His honey-coated voice was calm, but we knew what was coming. Smith described how the terrified sailors started praying to their pagan gods and throwing things overboard.

The ship captain went below and saw Jonah sleeping. “What is this? Sleeping? Get up!” Smith barked, paraphrasing the Scripture. “Pray to your God! Maybe your God will see we are in trouble and rescue us.”

“Jonah!” Smith shouted. “STAY WOKE!”

The congregation bubbled. Davenport remained silent. Pastor Smith is his friend, but Davenport knew what was coming.

“Stay woke and see it’s OK for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to get shot in Minnesota,” the pastor said. “It’s OK for police to shoot somebody live on camera with a baby in the back seat, who has gun ownership and a license to carry and see him get five bullets into him and the officer is acquitted and gets paid to leave with no repercussions! It’s OK for a 2-year-old baby to get shot in Minnesota, an 80-year-old woman to get shot in Minnesota, a 12-year-old — all unarmed — to get shot in Minnesota and nothing happens. But as soon as a woman is shot, whose skin is much, much lighter than yours and mine, then all of a sudden the police chief has to resign! All these other folk got shot and nothing ever happened! I gotta tell you, you better STAY WOKE!”

The congregation exploded in agreement, a bullet aimed at the heart of a servant who believes in the nobility of policing. Davenport’s face betrayed no emotion as he balanced between the black and the blue.

African Ancestry Inc.: Telling black folks where they’re from Maryland company pioneered the science for determining the genealogy of the Seahawks’ Michael Bennett and people of color across the diaspora

Few people on the planet are as funny as comedian Tommy Davidson. But when Davidson decided to learn about his heritage, it was no laughing matter. He had questions and wanted answers. African Ancestry Inc. provided them.

A leader in the field of genetic ancestry tracing, AfricanAncestry.com followed Davidson’s roots to Africa. Through DNA testing, he discovered he’s a descendant of the Mende people of Sierra Leone. The information provided a sense of belonging that Davidson previously lacked. Many African-Americans can relate.

“Because of the slave trade, we never really had the inner sovereign feeling of home,” said the celebrity, who rose to fame on the groundbreaking 1990s sketch-comedy show, In Living Color. “We never had that same feeling that Europeans, Asians, other people who came here [to the United States], have experienced in their lifetimes. Getting the information, man, it was significant for me.”

That’s what AfricanAncestry.com likes to hear.

Founded in 2003 by Dr. Rick Kittles and Gina Paige, the Silver Spring, Maryland-based company pioneered the science for determining the genealogy of people of color across the world. Other genealogy companies, obviously, are capable of tracing roots as well, but “we’re able to be more specific because we have a larger database of African lineage,” Paige said. That’s the reason in a nutshell.

“And we have a larger database of African regions because we are specifically in business to help black people understand where they’re from and who they are. That’s our sole focus. We are not in business to give you health traits or genetic traits. We are not in business to tell you who you’re related to and who your seventh, eighth and ninth cousins are. We’re in business for a very specific reason.”

A swab from the inside of a person’s cheek is all that’s needed for testing.

Based on which test is purchased, AfricanAncestry.com analyzes either mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) inherited from a person’s mother, the Y chromosome that men inherit from their fathers or autosomal DNA from both parents.

Through the analysis, markers or mutations indicate where ancestry is found. If genes indicate that a person is from Africa, the company compares those genes to what it describes as the world’s largest database of African lineages. AfricanAncestry.com is then able to specify the present-day African country and ethnic group with which the person shares maternal and paternal ancestry.

Once a sample is provided, the process takes about eight weeks to complete.

Seattle Seahawks learned the results of his testing last week. On his mother’s side, Michael Bennett descends from the Mandinka people in Senegal and, like Davidson, the Mende people in Sierra Leone. His father’s folk come from the Bubi people of Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea.

Courtesy of African Ancestry, Inc.

AfricanAncestry.com also has provided DNA testing for the PBS television show, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. The company did all the testing for African-American guests during the first two seasons. AfricanAncestry.com informed Davidson that he’s a descendant of proud fighters.

The Mende were aboard the Amistad, the ship on which a slave revolt occurred in 1839. The story became widely known because of the 1997 Steven Spielberg-directed movie starring Djimon Hounsou and Morgan Freeman.

“It really is something,” Davidson said. “Just to find that link to things because of what happened in slavery. Just the psychological effect that that’s probably had on us. It’s real.”

AfricanAncestry.com’s employees take pride in bridging the gap for black folks.

“I’ve seen the impact that [testing] has had on people across all walks of life, across all professions, across all interests, across all different beliefs,” Paige said. “There’s something sobering and also humbling about having the ability to provide people with this information. Not everyone can do it. We’re the only ones who can do it. That’s heavy.”

Nadia Hamilton was inspired to launch MagnusCards by her brother with autism This tech designer’s new app is a video game for individuals with cognitive needs

When 30-year-old app designer Nadia Hamilton was growing up, she noticed that her younger brother Troy, who was and is living with autism, needed support in completing everyday tasks. Brushing teeth and getting dressed were especially difficult.

Troy would go into the bathroom to pick up his toothbrush but would wait for family members to prompt him on the next task.

“OK, step one, you’re going to put the toothpaste on your toothbrush. Step two, then you’re going to do this and that and this and that,” Hamilton said. “If he did not have that support, he was stuck.

“This is something that people with autism and cognitive special needs in general tend to struggle with: knowing or feeling comfortable doing the step-by-step instructions that are involved in a process.”

By the time Troy Hamilton, who is now 28, graduated from high school, there were fewer and fewer opportunities for his continued personal and social development. So Hamilton used her experiences growing up with Troy to launch Magnusmode and create MagnusCards, an app in the form of a video game that focuses on providing step-by-step instructions for completing tasks.

“I got an idea. I think I was around 8 years old. I knew that Troy loved video games, and I knew that he loved using the official strategy guides for each video game. A strategy guide is kind of like a step-by-step instruction to help you get through a stage in a game. So I knew that this guide enabled him to play the games on his own. I started thinking, I’m like, ‘OK, I like to draw. What if I can utilize my creativity to help him to navigate life around the home?’ ”

Brushing teeth, making toast, preparing for school and bedtime are part of MagnusCards’ system. In its preparation stage, Hamilton would use tape to post instructions to the walls of the apartment she shared with Troy. Troy would then go through each activity by looking at the visuals and re-enacting what he saw step by step.

“This afforded him with the confidence and with the safety net of knowing that he was going to get to the end of the activity, and he would not miss any steps, and he could do it on his own,” Hamilton explained. “It was pretty much from the strategy guides from video games, I created the ultimate strategy guide for life.”

Hamilton graduated from the University of Toronto, where she studied history and political science and earned a bachelor’s degree. She started working with individuals with special needs to pay her way through college. Going into their homes as one of her duties gave her insight on how other users could benefit from the app. So while developing MagnusCards, she was able to focus on an all-inclusive product that would benefit others seeking to maintain everyday work or life habits. The gaming program offers full customization so caregivers, parents, teachers and others can use it.

“So if somebody’s used to doing laundry a certain way with their laundry machine with shirts that are a certain color, the pictures and the text can be customized on the card decks so that their experience is unique, and the instruction is relayed in a way that is important and digestible to them,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton spoke with The Undefeated about family support, being a change-maker in the world of technology and autism, and the infrastructure of MagnusCards.


Is your family supportive with the app?

Oh, yeah. Everybody. (Nadia and Troy have two other siblings.) I come from a really supportive family in general, so whenever somebody wants to do something or has an idea to do something, the first people that we even tell is the family. We are always together. We grew up being always together, and we do everything together. To this day I live in Waterloo, because my business is based here, but I go back on the weekend. I do so because I want to be near my family and I want to spend time with Troy.

How has your business spanned into a tool that’s helping a demographic of individuals living with autism?

I started out by just wanting to help my brother, but I quickly realized that there was millions of people who were suffering with these challenges worldwide, and 44 million in North America alone. So I entered a social business competition because I wanted to build a company that was dedicated to supporting people like Troy. It’s very much an extension of this family paradigm because every time I meet somebody, or I see somebody, or I even hear somebody when I’m out in the community that has autism, or Down syndrome, or Asperger’s, or dementia, or another cognitive special need, I see them as my brother. I see them as my family. This is all about elevating a group of people in society that have been underserved. That’s kind of why we do what we do. It’s basically about helping people to get outside of themselves and live in the community, and help that community understand that they have a place within it as well, and help them to understand that they have so much to offer.

How did your partnership with Colgate begin?

Within the app there’s this oral care category, and brushing teeth is always something that’s been challenging for my brother. It’s not that the act itself, the physical act, is challenging, which it is for many people. It’s really just the fact that if it’s not done perfectly, and by perfectly I mean in the routine that he’s used to, then his whole day can go downhill from there.

Brushing teeth is the first thing you do when you get up, and if it’s not done right, first of all, there’s all sorts of health implications if you don’t do it right. But, second of all, it ruins the person’s day. I knew that my brother really would benefit from some card decks in this category and other people that I’ve worked with as well.

I started thinking, OK, we need an oral care partner. I was thinking about Colgate because a couple reasons. One, my brother only uses Colgate. Another big reason was that we’re building a global company, and there’s a global need for autism.

I reached out to the executive team. I finally got a meeting. It took months. I knew from that handshake [after the meeting] that there was a strong chance that we were going to move forward because everybody just seemed to understand the importance of that when you’re saying that everybody deserves a future that they can smile about, that means everybody. So it’s this message of inclusivity and, also, this commitment to putting your money where your mouth is that gave me the confidence to believe that we were going to move forward with Colgate.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey?

I guess the fact that nobody’s really ever done anything like this before. There’s an extreme lack of support and services in the community for people with all sorts of cognitive special needs. And, essentially, what we’re doing here is building a whole new method of connecting these individuals with the world. And, to my knowledge, nobody is doing anything like this. So it’s very difficult when you’re doing something brand-new because you don’t really have anything to measure it against at first. So it can be scary. It can be challenging in the fact that I don’t come from a business background. I had to learn everything from scratch, everything, including sales. I think I draw a lot from my intuition, but, also, I had fantastic mentors along the way. And, also, I’m fueled by a passion and a competitiveness that is, I guess, rooted in athletics but also rooted in my love of my family.

How many people do you employ?

There’s 15 people on our team. Some are part-time, some are full-time, some are contractors, but we’re all a team. It was just me for a long time, but we have grown pretty fast.

How would you like to expand MagnusCards?

I’d really like to invite other people to come on board. It started out grass-roots, very basic, in an apartment building with a girl, and a brother, and a dream, quite frankly. But now we have a team, and we really are looking to share our mission and vision.

Ariel Community Academy students are investing on Wall Street by fourth grade For 20 years, the school’s graduates have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and investment bankers

There is a school in Chicago where students are introduced to stocks in kindergarten and trade stocks by the fourth grade.

Ariel Community Academy is a public school on Chicago’s South Side — the vision of John Rogers, founder, chairman and CEO of Ariel Investments, and Arne Duncan, former U.S. secretary of education.

Rogers founded the school more than 20 years ago. Among the graduates are doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and, of course, investment bankers.

“I tell people all the time that the best way to learn about investing is the way my father taught me,” said Rogers. “He gave me real money to invest in real stocks. That’s the heart of what makes our program work. It’s not a game.”

Here’s how Ariel Community Academy works, according to principal Lennette A. Coleman and former students.

The school goes from kindergarten through eighth grade, each with two classes of approximately 25 students. Three instructors are dedicated to teaching financial literacy: one at the primary level, one at the intermediate and one for middle school. The rest of the curriculum is similar to any other grade school, with classes in math, science, fine arts, music and technology. And they have a “dynamite baseball team,” Coleman said.

Financial education starts in kindergarten and the first grade, where they learn the very basics about economics and personal finance. “They learn about saving money and spending money,” said Coleman. “The instructors use a curriculum that is age-appropriate.

“They are taught about wants and needs, and the difference between those things,” she said. “We may look at the fact that the cost of a bike is $200 and the average person makes $400.

“It is very simple, basic concepts about what money is and the value of money related to different subjects,” she said. “They get an understanding that money comes from somewhere. You can earn it through talent or effort. Some people think and some people work with their hands.”

By the third grade, the students begin to learn about stocks, bonds and curriculum.

“In the fourth grade, they begin to learn about portfolios, picking and managing stocks, as well as entrepreneurship and creating business plans,” Coleman said.

Students start in kindergarten with the $20,000 originally contributed by Ariel ($10,000 for each of the two classes in the grade). In the early years, the portfolio is managed by Ariel and Nuveen Investments. By the later grades, the students are actively involved in making the investment decisions. A Junior Board of Directors (composed of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students) decides how to invest the money until they graduate.

By eighth-grade graduation, that portfolio has grown. The original $20,000 goes to the following year’s kindergarten class to start the process all over again. The surplus, or profit, is divided. Half is donated back to the school. The other half goes to the students in the graduating class.

The average profit is $12,000 to $13,000, although it has been as high as $32,000, Coleman said. If the student uses his or her cut of the profits to open a college savings account, Ariel will match it with $500.

“Ninety percent of the students opt for the savings account and get the match from Ariel,” she said.

Ariel Financial Literacy Event 031215

One of those students was Victoria Bills, who started at the school in the sixth grade. By the eighth grade, she was head of the investment committee.

“The moment I set foot in Ariel and saw that I could be a portfolio manager, that’s immediately where I wanted to go in life,” she said. “I wanted to be in money management.”

She went on to the University of Chicago Laboratory High School on a John Rogers scholarship, and later Babson College in Boston. Today, she works at Ariel in institutional sales.

Mario Gage is another graduate. His mom enrolled him in the school in the second grade because she loved the concept of financial literacy.

“She made us follow the three-jar system,” said Gage, now 25 and also an employee of Ariel. “When we got money, we had to split that money into three different jars. Ten percent went into the charity jar, 30 percent went into the savings jar and 60 percent went into the spending jar.”

She enrolled Gage and later his brother Miles, who is two years younger.

“It was cool, and an eye-opening experience,” Gage said of his experience at Ariel. “It’s something youth, especially minority youth, don’t get exposed to.”

Ariel Community Academy students in the classroom with Ariel Investments chairman and CEO John W. Rogers Jr. (left, in blue shirt and tie), city of Chicago treasurer Kurt Summers (center) and Arne Duncan (right), managing partner of Emerson Collective.

Ariel Community Academy

His class’s profit was $14,000, which left $7,000 to be divided among the graduating eighth-graders.

Among the highlights of Gage’s time at Ariel, he said, were field trips to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Ariel Investments and the McDonald’s annual meeting. He also joined a youth investment club outside the school, one exclusively for African-American youths ages 12 to 18.

“Not only did it affect me, but it affected my family,” he said. “My mom started getting into stocks and started her own portfolio.”

Gage’s mom, Michelle, a human resources director, said she has always talked finances with her sons. “When they grew older, they started teaching me.

“All children learn how to read in elementary school,” she said. “Some love to read and some don’t like to read, but, hey, all learn how to read. I’ve always taken the approach that I want my kids to not only learn how to manage money but to love it.”

When Gage graduated from Ariel Community Academy, he also received the John Rogers Scholarship to attend the University of Chicago Laboratory High School. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in economics and went to work for Ariel Investments. He now travels and lectures on financial literacy and assists Ariel with its financial literacy initiatives.

Rogers said the concept for the school started 20 years ago when Duncan worked at Ariel coordinating community affairs. His first project was the I Have a Dream Class, which he borrowed from a program at New York City, in which a class was adopted with the promise of making college affordable for the students.

The idea to focus on financial literacy came after Rogers attended a conference with personal finance journalist Jane Bryant Quinn and former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt. They talked about the need for more financial literacy in schools, especially public schools. He immediately called Duncan, and Ariel Community Academy was born.

“Sometimes financial literacy is all about keeping credit card debt low and how to manage a mortgage,” he said. “All that is important. But in this day and age, you have to be a financial expert to prepare yourself for retirement. Pensions plans have been replaced by defined contribution plans (401(k) or 403(b)). Stock market knowledge is more important in this country than ever before. We need to keep up.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson to Kyrie Irving: “I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA” Astrophysicist is pop culture’s ultimate superfan

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to talk. Loves it. When you ask the New York native and director of the Hayden Planetarium a question, his voice lights up. Whether it’s about science or popular culture, Tyson is eager to educate, often offering more than you even asked for.

The fourth season of National Geographic’s StarTalk, his hit late-night talk show (née podcast) that features the likes of Bill Clinton and Terry Crews, premieres Oct. 15. “I care deeply about what role pop culture plays in hearts, minds and souls,” said DeGrasse. StarTalk mixes science with comedy with interesting conversation for a show both entertaining and educational — but most importantly, accessible. “I can start where you are, what you bring to the table, and I just add to that,” he said. “I think that’s part of the successful recipe of StarTalk.”

What’s a bad habit that you have?

I’m always aware of bad habits, so I’ve probably gotten rid of it already. I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, [fried] in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw? Is it a bad habit, or is it just a habit? The real question is, if anyone has a bad habit, why haven’t they done anything about it yet if they are self-aware it is bad? I used to twirl my hair when I was a kid, but then I stopped. I notice when other people are twirling their hair, it’s interesting. I empathize with them.

“Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body.”

Kyrie Irving once said that the world is flat, although he later admitted to (supposedly) trolling. What would you say to him about this?

We live in a free country, where you can think and feel what you want, provided it doesn’t violate someone else’s freedoms. I greatly value that. So to Kyrie Irving I would say, ‘I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA.’ It’s a reminder there are jobs for people who have no idea what science is or how and why it works. And in his case, basketball is serving him well. The problem comes about if you are not scientifically literate, hold nonscientific views and rise to power over legislation and laws that would then affect us all. That’s the recipe for social and cultural disaster.

What’s the last museum you visited? Do you find yourself going to museums often?

I very much enjoy museums. The last museum I went to that was not local in New York City … it was an art museum in Sydney, Australia. There was a whole section that had aboriginal art, not only of Australians but also some from the Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, fried in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw?”

What is your favorite social media spot?

Lately, I have to say Twitter because of the value I derive from it. I have these random thoughts every day, and Twitter is a means by which I share these thoughts with the public. And in an instant, I get to see people’s reactions. Were they offended? Did they laugh? Did they misinterpret it? Did they overinterpret it? So I get a neurosynaptic snapshot of how people react to thoughts that I have. And this deeply informs public talks that I give. It’s my way to get inside people’s heads without violating their space.

People go to your Twitter feed to learn, so it’s nice to hear that you enjoy learning from your followers.

It’s not like I’m Professor Neil on Twitter. I tweet about a lot of really random things. People say, ‘Why don’t you give us the latest news?’ I’m not a news source. If I don’t think about that news today, you ain’t getting a tweet about it. I don’t start the day saying, ‘What am I going to tweet today? Let me think something up.’ No, it’s random. … You just happen to be eavesdropping in my brain. Before the end of the month I’ll be engaging in my Instagram account. I’ve yet to post to it. I deeply value photographic arts. It’ll mostly be artsy things, more artsy than purely educational. Then I write my own little caption about it.

So no pictures of your dinner?

If the dinner evokes some cosmic thought, yes, you’ll get a picture of my dinner. Otherwise, no.

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

I think about Jesse Owens often. I think about Jackie Robinson often. Simply because of how great they were at what they did, how honed they were in their performance and the fact that their existence meant more than their performance. In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts: great athlete, at an important time, doing an important thing, having an influence on people in a positive direction.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was a little bit starstruck when I interviewed Jeremy Irons. There are movies he’s been in where I just — how can you be this good in that role? How is that even possible? And just to shake his hand and interview him for StarTalk, that meant a lot to me. And here’s one you won’t expect. I’ve never met him, but I’d be delighted to. I’ve got him on my short list: Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body. He’s beefier in the last two years than he was about 10 years ago, when he was actually wrestling. He beefed up extra for the Fast and the Furious series, so not in that state, but in an earlier state, of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When I looked like that, no one was interviewing me in the newspapers. No one was asking to publish my books. So he’s a modern reminder of a lost chapter of my life.

When you were wrestling in high school, did you want to become a pro wrestler?

No. No, no, no. No! You want to talk about physics — physics in pro wrestling is what allows things to look like they hurt when they don’t. But it’s the laws of physics exploited to fool you, rather than exploited to win.

What sport do you most enjoy watching, from a purely physical standpoint?

I like many. And there is physics in all sports, so I don’t rank them in this way. In fact, StarTalk because of the success of our shows where we cover sports, we spun off an entire branch called Playing With Science. It’s all the ways science has touched sports. We talk about famous catches, famous hits. We do talk about concussions. We brought in a neuroscientist to talk about [concussions] from football. We talk about NASCAR and the technology involved with that. We talk about the physics of driving around a track. There’s a lot of fun physics in essentially everything, you know why? Because there’s physics in everything.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.