Former NFL running back now aims at the racial wealth gap Jason Wright, a McKinsey partner, co-authors new study detailing why black families are financially so far behind whites

Jason Wright always saw himself as more than a football player.

While playing at Northwestern University, the former running back led the local chapter of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. During his seven-year NFL career, he was a union leader who went on to launch a charter school network in Cleveland.

His football career ended in 2011, and Wright, 37, is now a partner with McKinsey & Co. And, no surprise, he sees himself as more than your ordinary management consultant.

Former NFL running back Jason Wright co-authored a report released Tuesday that lays out the broad scope and troubling implications of the racial gap.

McKinsey & Company

Wright, who has an MBA from the University of Chicago, is leveraging his company’s reach and expertise to tackle one of the nation’s most critical problems: the vast wealth gap separating African Americans and whites.

Wright co-authored a report released Tuesday that lays out the broad scope and troubling implications of the racial gap. The typical black family has a net worth of just $17,600, one-tenth of the wealth of the typical white family, which in 2016 had a median net worth of $171,000, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

The gap widened significantly in recent decades, and it is showing no signs of closing. The biggest reason is that the typical African American family faces an array of obstacles that often work together to thwart wealth creation.

 

“There is a galvanizing case for change. When we look specifically at helping black folks across the country, the result is it helps everyone because the entire economy benefits.” — Jason Wright

For one, the report says, two-thirds of black families are concentrated in 16 states where, taken together, the overall economy is weak and educational options lag behind those elsewhere in the country. Most of those states are in the South, where economic opportunity, health care and even access to fast internet service is not always a given.

Meanwhile, black families in relatively prosperous urban areas or states tend to live in low-income neighborhoods where home values typically grow slowly, crippling one of the main sources of wealth creation. In addition, black families are far less likely than whites to own homes. More than 10 years after the Great Recession, the home ownership rate for black families continues to decline; it is down to just over 40%, while more than 73% of white families own homes. As recently as 2004, more than 48% of African American families were homeowners.

Another factor contributing to the gap is that African Americans tend to come from families with scant wealth to begin with, leaving them with little to build on. Just 8% of black families receive an inheritance, for instance, compared with 26% of white families. And when black families do inherit money, they get less: The typical black inheritance is just 35% of the average white inheritance of $236,000, the report said.

The lack of wealth hits hard at black college students. Blacks are much more likely than whites to incur student debt, and when they do, the debt is higher. Too often, it proves to be unpayable. Overall, nearly half of black undergraduate borrowers default on their student loans, some 2.3 times the white default rate, the report said.

Many other African Americans are living outside the nation’s financial mainstream, a troubling fact that impacts their ability to get mortgages, consumer loans or even credit cards. More than 1 in 4 African Americans do not have a credit score, and 17% do not have traditional bank accounts.

On top of all that, black workers typically have unemployment rates that are double the rates of similarly educated whites. Among those that are employed, blacks tend to earn far less than whites, in part because of lower educational levels.

If economic trends continue as they are now, the outlook is bleak for African American workers, who tend to be overrepresented in professions like truck driving, for instance, that face increasing competition from automation, the report said. Meanwhile, fast-growing fields like software programming and artificial intelligence have relatively few African Americans.

It is a gruesome picture but one that Wright believes can be improved. He noted that there were periods in the past when the gap had closed somewhat. He said improving educational opportunities, making consumer credit more widely available, ramping up consumer education and devising economic strategies to uplift lagging regions can all make a substantial difference in closing the wealth gap.

“There is a galvanizing case for change,” Wright said. “When we look specifically at helping black folks across the country, the result is it helps everyone because the entire economy benefits.”

Later this week, a group of more than 200 black executives and leaders will meet in Martha’s Vineyard for McKinsey’s annual Black Economic Forum to discuss the report’s findings. Afterward, Wright plans to lead an effort to turn out a series of follow-up documents going into more detail about approaches for closing the wealth gap.

Wright called the work every bit as exciting as his days playing in the NFL.

“When I played football, one thing I saw was an opportunity to influence on scale,” he said. “What I found at McKinsey is something that I thought I lost when I retired from football, and that’s another platform” to make change on a large scale.

Embracing Black Mardi Gras keeps the culture alive for the next generation ‘We have to keep our culture going. It’s for the black streets, it’s for the black neighborhoods.’

It’s Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, and folks are ready to “Laissez les bons temps rouler.” That’s Cajun for “Let the good times roll.”

For some young African-Americans who call this city home, Mardi Gras is as much about entertaining the millions of visitors who come to party as it is about preserving community traditions. Mardi Gras is historically known as the last day for people who fast for Lent to eat rich, fatty foods. Black Mardi Gras celebrations honor the history, resilience and artistry of black and Native American New Orleanians.

“These traditions are important because they were born in a time when black people faced both legal, social and economic segregation,” said Kim Vaz-Deville, the editor of Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans.

The Baby Dolls were established in 1912 by prostitutes who worked near the French Quarter in a section known as Black Storyville. The clientele who frequented the French Quarter provided a source of income for these women, who were then called “baby dolls.”

“They were locked out of mainstream Mardi Gras events, other than being asked to work as servants for such events,” Vaz-Deville said. “They had to set up a way to enjoy themselves, and they did this by forming these clubs with specific themes that were grounded in the popular culture of the early 20th century.”

One of the most popular aspects of Black Mardi Gras is the practice of creating elaborate suits traditionally worn by various Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Today, the historic art form has been especially embraced by post-Hurricane Katrina millennials dedicated to keeping Black Mardi Gras connected to its roots.

“This is way bigger than Christmas to me. This is the biggest event of the year; honestly, it’s bigger than my birthday,” said Joseph Boudreaux Jr., the second chief of the Mardi Gras Indians Golden Eagles tribe.

Joseph Boudreaux Jr. (center) prepared for Mardi Gras with stepsons Terrance Williams Jr. (left) and Simeon Israel Jr. (right).

Allana Barefield

Boudreaux is a third-generation Mardi Gras Indian, a group known for its ceremonial dress and resilience. He said the Golden Eagles honor Native Americans who helped slaves escape bondage. As a result, various Mardi Gras Indian tribes use masking as a way to commemorate their shared oppression with African-Americans.

“We have to keep our culture going,” he said. “It’s for the black streets, it’s for the black neighborhoods, for the people who were not allowed to go on Canal Street to see the floats.”

For Boudreaux, his father and his three stepsons, celebrating and passing down black Mardi Gras traditions are a major part of their lives.

Terrance Williams Jr., one of Boudreaux’s stepsons, has chosen to honor Mardi Gras Indian customs by starting his own tribe. He formed the Black Hawk Hunters last year at the age of 15.

“I’m carrying on a culture that’s been around for over 100 years, and my generation has to keep it going,” said Williams.

He said most Mardi Gras Indians won’t form new tribes until they are in their 20s. To do so, he had to get approval from other tribal chiefs. Now that he is chief of his own tribe, he will also honor the legacies of other tribes and teach masking to younger generations.

Mardi Gras Indians start making new suits the day after Mardi Gras of the previous year. The elaborate beadwork, feathers and other accessories involved make the process expensive and time-intensive. Suits designed for Mardi Gras 2019 will finally be unveiled Tuesday.

“They’re not a real Indian if they don’t have a bead collection,” said Tahj Williams, a 20-year-old suit designer and Tulane University student. Williams likes to make unique designs, from her gloves to her headdress. The compliments she receives from young girls help inspire her. Last year, she created a red Mardi Gras Indian suit that was featured in Vogue magazine.

“People would only come out to see the men. There’s started to be an evolution,” she said. “The biggest moment for me is that people are starting to pay more attention to the queens,” she said.

Queens refer to women involved in masking. Their contributions to the process were overlooked for generations, Williams said. Tahj Williams considers queens to be the backbone of each tribe and the reason that the tradition survives.

“I can’t wait to see what happens 20 years from now, for my kids and grandkids to start getting into the culture,” she said.

But in some ways, the culture has been stagnant, she said. Tahj Williams can’t form her own tribe like Terrance Williams Jr. can. Women are not allowed to do so because, throughout history, men were the ones looked at as leaders.

Anita Oubre’s Mahogany Blue organization at the Jung Hotel in New Orleans. They are Victoria Spotts (left), Christina Bragg (right), Trinette Pichon (upper left), Karena James (upper right) and Oubre (top of the staircase).

Allana Barefield

Still, the male-dominated culture has not deterred Williams from embracing it. She wants to show other women that they can get involved.

For Tahj Williams, this black Mardi Gras culture not only helps younger generations lay claim to their heritage, it gives them purpose and the structure and discipline needed to commit to their craft.

“I don’t think we shine a light on my generation enough and the positive things that we are doing,” she said. “They [society] don’t show you these young chiefs or young children who participate in Mardi Gras Indians to keep them out of trouble.”

Waldorf Gipson IV attends Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s part of the Young Men Jr. Olympian Benevolent Association Inc. (YMO), a masking group that works to increase access to health care for black communities. The 135-year-old organization is also the oldest “second line” social aid and pleasure club in New Orleans. A second line is a tradition in New Orleans in which members dance in a parade as they follow a brass band.

“We do this for everybody, not just for ourselves,” said Gipson.

YMO consists of six divisions, all of which were organized at different times. Gipson is a part of the Furious Five, which was founded in 1985. “This means everything to me. I’m 20 years old, and my daddy started this 34 years ago, so I was born into it,” he said.

Like Gipson, Victoria Spotts also had a parent who participated in Black Mardi Gras traditions. Spotts, 31, joined her mother’s organization last year. It’s called Mahogany Blue and is within the Baby Dolls sisterhood.

“I absolutely love it; it’s pretty much a natural high, parading through the streets of New Orleans, empowering other women to do the same,” Spotts said.

Black Mardi Gras events will come to a close Tuesday, as Mardi Gras marks the end of carnival season.

Phil Freelon, America’s most prominent black architect, designs for the culture The ‘Blacksonian,’ Atlanta’s civil rights center — and a Durham bus station — are all part of his legacy

It was a brisk early afternoon in January, and I was sitting in a van in Durham, North Carolina, with Phil Freelon, arguably the most prominent working African-American architect in the country. Freelon is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects — among them Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. But on this day, we were admiring, of all things, a bus station.

“If you go around the country and visit bus stations, they’re usually seedy and dirty,” he said. “But they don’t have to be.”

And the Durham Station Transportation Center, which Freelon designed, wouldn’t be out of place on the gilded campuses of Apple or Google. The center, which opened in 2008, has a glass exterior topped by a sleek metal roof sloped like a beret, covering an airy, minimalist interior lounge and ticketing area.

“In my career, I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no graffiti. Now, I don’t think everyone going to catch a bus looks around and says, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful building.’ But I think they soak in the ambiance, and I’m happy about that.”

Durham Station Transportation Center

James West/J West Productions LLC

The paradox of architecture is that it’s all around us, and yet, for many people, the profession remains esoteric. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.

“Diversity is a huge problem in our profession. The profession is small — there are only 110,000 licensed architects in the United States, compared to 1 million attorneys and 800,000 physicians. And only 2 percent of architects are African-Americans, a lower ratio than with lawyers and doctors.”

Freelon, 65, has attempted to change that on several fronts: through his hiring practices, visits to predominantly minority schools to speak about his work, and the establishment in 2016 of the Freelon Fellowship, which provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And since he founded his eponymous firm in 1990, much of his work has been focused on designing libraries and other academic buildings for historically black colleges and universities and cultural projects in traditionally black neighborhoods.

Currently he’s involved with a major expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh. “He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States,” Fast Company magazine observed when it named Freelon its Architect of the Year in 2017.

“Of course, you don’t just wake up one morning and the Smithsonian wants you to build a museum,” Freelon said. “There’s 30 years of work that leads up to that.”


Before he had ever met an architect, Freelon had decided to become one. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his mother was a school administrator and his father was a salesperson for Cordis, a Miami-based medical device manufacturer. Freelon attended Central High School, an academically rigorous, predominantly white, all-boys magnet school, which also produced the famed architect Louis Kahn. Citing the influence of his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, Freelon said he was drawn to classes in the visual arts, as well as drafting and design. He also took inspiration from his strolls through the city, visiting the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Only later,” Freelon said, “did I learn that a black architect, Julian Abele, helped design the museum,” including the iconic steps featured in Rocky.

Freelon had his mind set on attending a historically black college or university (HBCU) and enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. “It was the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power, and I had an Afro and was very socially engaged,” he said.

Freelon plowed through the curriculum. “He was an excellent student, meticulous and curious,” said John Spencer, chairman of the architecture department, whom Freelon credits as his first mentor. Believing he would be more challenged at a larger university, Freelon transferred to North Carolina State, although he was anxious about moving deeper into the South. “When my father used to attend his company’s annual conference in Miami in the ’60s, he couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels and would stay in the black neighborhood of Overtown,” Freelon recalled. But a visit to Raleigh reassured him.

“At N.C. State, Phil and I were two of only a handful of black students at the College of Design, and there weren’t any black professors in our discipline,” recalled Percy Hooper, now an associate professor of industrial design at N.C. State. “We didn’t feel segregated from the white students, but we ended up spending a lot of time together, supporting one another.” The coursework was demanding, and there wasn’t a lot of downtime. To unwind, the friends would ride their bikes or, more ill-advisedly, toss around ninja stars.

During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner.

“I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it.”

Freelon helped design schools, churches and other buildings around the state. “As a young architect, you’re not a specialist and you tackle a wide variety of projects.” A significant step in his career, he said, was being tapped as lead designer for Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “Of course, it’s since been demolished and rebuilt,” he said, chuckling. “At this stage of my career, there are a few buildings that I’ve designed that have been torn down.” (He later designed an award-winning parking garage at the airport, as well as the airport’s general aviation building.)

In 1989, Freelon received a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. The next year, he left O’Brien Atkins to launch his own firm, the Freelon Group. It began as a one-man shop and grew to more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of whom are women and 30 percent people of color.

“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon said. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.” Freelon also said he had little interest in upscale residential projects, the multimillion-dollar homes that fill the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest, the ubiquitous coffee table magazines of the aspiring bourgeoisie. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own,” he said.


Phil and Nnenna Freelon in 2015

Lissa Gotwals

One afternoon, I joined Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, at their suburban home, a 15-minute drive from downtown Durham. The modern, two-story structure with a matching separate studio space features a warm combination of concrete, steel, glass and laminate siding. The sloped lot abuts a pond and runs the length of a football field. There’s a long path from the house to a fire pit and a steel animal sculpture that the Freelons named Kareem Abdul-Giraffe.

Inside, the New Standard Quintet, a Chicago jazz group, played on the stereo while the couple’s dog, Count Basie, perched by the couch. Earlier, Freelon had told me how he met his wife. Nnenna, a Massachusetts native, was finishing her undergraduate degree at Simmons University in Boston. She was on a visit to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was considering pursuing a graduate degree in health care administration. A mutual friend introduced them. “We met on our friend’s front porch, and for me it really was love at first sight,” Phil Freelon said. It was a swift courtship. With only her undergraduate thesis to complete, Nnenna moved to North Carolina, they got married and she quickly became pregnant. She put graduate school on hold and eventually turned to her first love, jazz singing, and is now a six-time Grammy Award nominee.

“Phil is one of those lucky people who always knew what he wanted to do,” Nnenna Freelon said. “For most of us, it’s more circuitous. I was blessed to have a husband who was passionate about what he did and wanted me to find what I was passionate about.”

For a globe-trotting professional singer and star architect, Durham isn’t an obvious home base. Why not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? “When you have kids, your life changes,” Phil Freelon said. “We figured we could live here and get in an airplane and go where we needed to go. I’m a huge family guy, and I love being a father. That was most important.” The Freelons have three children, who all live nearby. Deen Freelon, the oldest, is a tenured professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist. And Pierce Freelon, the youngest, is an activist and former Durham mayoral candidate who runs Blackspace, an after-school entrepreneurship and social media program for disadvantaged youths.

“I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.”

“It’s been impressive what Phil has done here,” said Kevin Montgomery, the African-American president of O’Brien Atkins whom Freelon recruited to that firm in 1988. “He was able to develop a firm in a midsize market that has global recognition and can compete with much larger firms in places like New York and Chicago.”

That proved to be the case with the Smithsonian museum, a project, Freelon said, that was more than a decade in the making. A couple of years after his Museum of the African Diaspora opened in 2005 in San Francisco, Freelon teamed up with New York’s Max Bond to win a contract from the Smithsonian to complete the planning and pre-design work for the African-American museum on the National Mall. A year later, the Smithsonian announced an international design competition, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye approached Freelon and Bond about joining forces.

“David is the highest-profile architect of African descent in the world, and we had our eyes out for what he was going to do for the competition,” Freelon said. “We met and determined we had similar approaches and values, so the team was expanded.” They also added another firm, Washington-based SmithGroup, which had previously done work for the Smithsonian. More than 60 groups, representing firms throughout the world, sought the commission. The Smithsonian eventually culled the field to six, provided them with stipends and asked them to produce designs within 60 days.

Team members from Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, who designed the winning concept for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, meet with members of the Smithsonian Institution: (from left to right) Hall David, Peter Cook, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Lonnie Bunch, David Adjaye, Phil Freelon and Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough in front of a model of the winning design in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2009.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

“We were competing against all these starchitects,” Freelon said, including I.M. Pei, Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. A committee composed of members of the Smithsonian, the architectural press and academics picked the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup design.

When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hailed the building’s “powerful strangeness” that “embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.” He continued, “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.” The most recent accolade came in January, when the American Institute of Architects named the museum one of nine winners of its 2019 Honor Awards.

During the opening ceremonies, which included a Kennedy Center performance by Nnenna, Freelon was walking with a cane. He’d experienced leg troubles the previous year, although at first he didn’t think much of it. “I was run-down anyway, because 2015 was an intense year,” he said. Not only was he finishing the museum, he was also teaching at MIT. He had also just completed a merger of his firm with the global architecture powerhouse Perkins + Will, which had been courting Freelon for more than a decade. Freelon now oversaw the firm’s North Carolina operations from Durham.

“It wasn’t just that Phil was a superstar — and he really is the Michael Jordan of architecture,” said Perkins + Will CEO Phil Harrison. “We wanted Phil because of his design sensibility, which is modern but not cold. There’s a real humanism you can see in all his work. And with his staff you see a real diversity, not just in demographics but in thinking.”

When Freelon traveled to D.C., he would jog around the Mall to stay in shape. “I noticed I’d use the same effort, but it was taking me longer and longer to complete my course, and my right foot was dragging.”

After meeting with several doctors, Freelon was referred to Richard Bedlack, who heads Duke University’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is progressive and incurable. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and in time results in total paralysis and, ultimately, death — typically within two to four years after the diagnosis.

Freelon was “shocked and disappointed,” he said, and there was a brief period of denial. But after a few months, Freelon told his staff and took a month off to ponder his future. “But I decided to go back and work full time,” he said. Now, he uses a heavy electric wheelchair and works less and mainly from home. He remains on the Perkins + Will board of directors and is closely involved in ongoing projects.

“I’m an optimist by nature, and I look at my prognosis as a glass half full,” Freelon said. “I’m relieved I was able to raise my children and have a career and family.”


Architect Phil Freelon at the offices of Perkins + Will in Durham, North Carolina.

Endia Beal for The Undefeated

One can drive a mile in almost any direction around Durham and come across a building Freelon designed. With his sister-in-law Debbie Pierce driving Freelon’s customized van, we visited the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park, home to the country’s most famous minor league baseball team featured in the movie Bull Durham; the Durham County Human Services Building, an airy, glass structure with a huge courtyard that replaced a grim, Soviet-style bureaucratic bunker; and several science buildings on the campuses of North Carolina Central, an HBCU, and Duke University.

Few professions offer their practitioners a chance to leave a physical legacy, and I offered to Freelon that he must feel proud as we revisited his creations. He laughed and alluded to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

Of course, Freelon didn’t view his works as mistakes. He was being self-deprecating. But it was also significant that on our tour he insisted I visit a few buildings he didn’t design.

We parked in front of Duke University Chapel, a majestic Gothic structure with a 210-foot-tall bell tower. The chapel, along with other significant structures on Duke’s campus, including Cameron Stadium, was designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. “The story goes that when Abele came down here to do site work he had to dress up in overalls and pretend he was a common laborer or he wouldn’t have been allowed on campus,” Freelon said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the university formally acknowledged Abele’s contributions, placing a portrait of the architect in the lobby of the main administration building and naming the main campus quad Abele Quad.

Later, we pulled in front of a small church in a historically African-American neighborhood. Opened in 1931, it was originally a church for the deaf, who were recruited to work in Durham’s noisy cigarette manufacturing plants. More recently, it had been rented to various congregations. Eventually, it was put up for sale and Phil and Nnenna Freelon purchased it. We went inside, where workers were renovating the space. Freelon had hired a friend who had more experience with such work to be the architect.

The Freelons created a nonprofit, North Star Church of the Arts, to operate the building as a community space. (An inaugural service will be held Feb. 17.) “We’ll have spoken-word nights, after-school programs, maybe some weddings and other ceremonies,” Freelon said. “We just want to give back to the community.”

We were in the back of the church. The pews had been pulled out and stacked to the side, and we looked toward an imaginary dais.

Freelon has been involved in building celebrated structures that will last for many years. The Smithsonian museum likely will survive as long as our republic. But here he was inside a humble church that he didn’t even design, smiling. “Nnenna and I wanted this to be our legacy project,” he said.

WNBA’s Take A Seat, Take A Stand brings its passion for social justice to its fans The league’s new program allows WNBA to donate part of the proceeds from ticket sales to charities that support young women and girls

For WNBA players, the summer of 2016 was a year — for power and for the ability to speak out against social injustice. Before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, before The ESPYS’ cold intro when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade weighed in on gun violence.

Minnesota Lynx  captains  Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen stood before media wearing “Change Starts With Us  —  Justice and Accountability” shirts. On the back, the names of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and the Dallas Police Department shield appeared.

And that was just the beginning.

To start the 2018 season, the WNBA has launched a program that gets the crowd involved and benefits community programs.

Take A Seat, Take A Stand is the league’s new women and girls empowerment program. It uses proceeds from WNBA tickets to do more than support the bottom line. When fans take a seat at a WNBA game, they also have the chance to support several organizations, including Bright Pink, GLSEN, It’s On Us, MENTOR, Planned Parenthood and the United State of Women.

The league will donate $5 to each fan’s chosen organization, along with a ticket for a young woman or girl. Fans can also donate tickets directly to one of the organizations.

“For 22 years, the WNBA and its players — women playing at the highest level of their sport — have stood up as role models for millions of women and girls,” WNBA president Lisa Borders said in a release. “With Take a Seat, Take a Stand, we are proud to come together as a league to stand with our partner organizations, our fans and the many inspiring women raising their voices for change in the current women’s movement.”

Bright Pink is a national nonprofit focused on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women. GLSEN is a national network of students, educators, parents and community leaders working to create safe and inclusive schools for LGBTQ students. It’s On Us is a cultural movement aimed at fundamentally shifting the way we think about sexual assault. MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership unifies quality youth mentoring in the United States. Planned Parenthood is the nation’s leading provider and advocate of high-quality, affordable health care for women, men and young people, as well as the nation’s largest provider of sex education. The United State of Women is a national organization for any woman who sees that we need a different America for all women to survive and thrive — and wants to work collectively to achieve it.

Besides these organizations, fans will have the choice to support local organizations in all 12 teams’ communities, which will vary by city.

“We’re so grateful the WNBA is standing up for the 2.4 million patients who rely on Planned Parenthood and supporting issues that affect the health, well-being and success of women and girls,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Players have used their platforms to bring attention to inequality, and through Take a Seat, Take a Stand, the WNBA is giving fans an opportunity to join them in the fight for social change.”

For Bright Pink, the program demonstrates the WNBA’s strong commitment to women’s causes and is an example of everything the league represents to communities.

“The WNBA has been an incredible partner to our organization by helping thousands of women know their risk for breast and ovarian cancer and be their own best health advocates,” said Katie Thiede, CEO of Bright Pink. “We’re thrilled to be involved.”

“We’re excited to continue our partnership with the WNBA as part of this fan engagement campaign,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN. “The league and its players have made such a difference for so many women and girls, and especially for young LGBT athletes who often feel unwelcome in the world of sports. Thanks to the league and its fans, GLSEN will be able to open so many more doors of opportunity to LGBT students in school, on the court and beyond.”

Tina Tchen — partner, Buckley Sandler LLP, and co-founder of It’s On Us — says they are excited to join forces with the WNBA’s Take A Seat, Take A Stand campaign to inspire and empower women and girls.

“For decades, the WNBA and its players have been strong advocates for gender equality, LGBTQ rights and youth empowerment, and we are excited to partner with the WNBA family to collectively take a stand against sexual assault,” Tchen said.

“We are so grateful for the NBA family’s consistent support and partnership to elevate mentoring,” said David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. “Teaming up with the WNBA in our shared mission to bring people together, build relationships and prioritize equity is such a natural match. Young people seeing extraordinary women competing and leading at the highest level expands the narrative about what is possible in their own lives and in our culture.”

“The United State of Women is thrilled to partner with the WNBA to support young women and girls across the country,” said Jordan Brooks, managing director of The United State of Women. “The WNBA is home to so many inspiring women who wow us with their skills on the court and serve as role models in the community. We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this effort … to inspire and elevate women and girls around the country.”

‘Next Man or Woman Up’ syndrome puts too much pressure on some athletes DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Marshall and Chamique Holdsclaw have talked about mental health issues affecting their lives

We’re in a big moment for sports fanatics. Last week, the NFL hosted its annual draft, where teams were on the hunt for the next Russell Wilson or Ezekiel Elliott.

Everyone wants to win. As coach Herm Edwards famously said, “You play to win the game.” Winning games brings success. And success brings money. But in a culture where winning comes before everything else, how much does it cost black players to lose?

Almost every competitor in professional sports is familiar with the concept of the “Next Man Up.” The idea is that a player must always be ready to play his best because when he can’t play his best, the next man is up. And the “next man” knows that if he performs at a high level, he could secure his position long term.

For example, Dak Prescott took over for injured quarterback Tony Romo in 2016 and has remained the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback ever since.

As a licensed couples and family therapist who specializes in working with relationship issues, men and professional athletes, I’ve worked with clients of all backgrounds. At the same time, my work with black athletes has allowed me to hear their struggles of balancing playing at a high level to keep their career going while maintaining their mental health.

One of my clients, a former player, shared, “I got injured, lost my spot, and even after rehab, I wasn’t as fast as I used to be. They cut me, and eventually I felt my only option was to retire.”

This led him to struggle with life after football, difficulties in his relationship and disconnection from his children. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely than the general population to experience serious mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.

The message the industry sends black athletes is clear: “Don’t lose a step, don’t get injured, don’t admit weakness (physical or mental) because if you do, someone is waiting to take your spot.” As stated above, many athletes experience constant worry about maintaining their starting position. This is the embodiment of anxiety, which is defined by “feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes.”

“There are at least two to three other guys on the team that play my position,” one of my clients said. “After I got injured, I was benched and my name came up frequently in trade rumors.”

He was depressed and needed help but couldn’t allow himself to trust me until almost a year of therapy. About 25 percent of African-Americans seek mental health care, compared with 40 percent of whites, mainly due to stigma, shame, distrust, misdiagnosis and socioeconomic concerns.

The pressure to remain a starter has many implications, including loss of the position, career, money, family and more. The impact of such significant losses can create depression for many players, and they have for clients in my field for decades.

In the sporting world, unreported depression and anxiety are rampant. And “Next Man Up” syndrome feeds into the issue. Don’t be misled to think this is just for male sports leagues — this issue carries across all sports for all genders. Chamique Holdsclaw, a former WNBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, shared her personal experience and family history of mental illness with ESPN. “I wasn’t honest about needing help. I was just going through the motions, trying to keep stuff together. … The mental health component of sports is missing.”

Next Man or Woman Up syndrome benefits one player while potentially prompting a mental health crisis for another. The importance of mental health and how it impacts everyday life has been undervalued for far too long.

In the past few years, black athletes have fought through the stigma to share their stories, struggles and successes with their mental health. In one tweet, DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors declared to the world, “This depression get the best of me …” DeRozan went on to say in an interview that his anxiety and depression, “it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver who was recently released from the New York Giants, has shared numerous times about his experience with borderline personality disorder. “Man, if you would have asked me eight years ago what does mental health mean to me, I would have said mental toughness,” he told USA Today.

“As football players, we are taught to never show weakness, to never give an opponent an edge. To open up when something hurts, in our culture, is deviant. But when you really sit down and think about it, connecting with those emotions is the real strength.”

Not every athlete hoping to maintain a roster spot struggles with a mental illness. But if we don’t work harder to remove the stigma of talking about and treating mental illness, it will continue to be difficult to discern which athletes need treatment to continue playing at a high level.

The time has come to stop devaluing the importance and necessity of mental health education and treatment in the professional sports world and beyond, because what we see in the public from celebrities, athletes and entertainers highlights what many others are experiencing daily.

Celebrity docuseries are usually fluff. Not HBO’s ‘Being Serena.’ A life-threatening post-delivery scare gives series on Williams a far more serious tone

Whenever a celebrity agrees to a documentary, there’s always a question about how much we’re actually going to learn about the person. Answer: only what they want you to know.

These shows tend to fall along a spectrum. There are the VH1 or Lifetime series that are full of folks hoping to launch themselves off the B- or C-lists into actual celebrity. There are the series that pretend to be serious, even though they know good and well they’re not, such as Mariah Carey’s 2016-17 E! concert series, Mariah’s World. And then there’s Being Serena, HBO’s new docuseries following Serena Williams through the beginning of her pregnancy, childbirth and her postnatal return to professional tennis, which begins airing Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST. It is a celebrity docuseries, yes, but one with the imprimatur of HBO Sports.

The higher the profile of the subject, and the more involved the person is in the project, the more these films tend to be pretty exercises in hagiography. That doesn’t mean they’re without value, just that you shouldn’t expect to see truly unflattering bits. It’s why the most insightful documentaries about famous people usually don’t come until after they’re dead.

That said, Being Serena ends up offering more insight than most, given the athlete’s harrowing hospital experience after the birth of her daughter with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. Williams became a high-profile example of a problem affecting black mothers all over the country. Last year, ProPublica and NPR published a series examining high rates of maternal mortality in American women (it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist). One chapter was especially disturbing. “Nothing protects black women from dying in pregnancy and childbirth. Not education. Not income. Not even being an expert on racial disparities in health care,” the organizations reported.

Williams had blood clots in her lungs (known as pulmonary embolisms) and had to advocate for herself, asking for a CT scan with contrast to find them after first asking for an oxygen mask because she could not breathe. She knew what to ask for because Williams has a history with blood clots and she knew what an embolism felt like. And so what began as a TV project on a world-class athlete returning to the top of her game turned into a docuseries in which the best women’s tennis player ever confronted her own mortality.

“I almost died,” Williams says in the series. She wrote about the experience in an op-ed for CNN, connecting it with other, less famous, less wealthy black women.

Being Serena, executive produced by Michael Antinoro (Battle of the Network Stars, The Ashley Graham Project, Jim Rome on Showtime), can sometimes be overwrought. There’s a lot of B-roll of the camera panning through treetops. It’s got some tonal inconsistencies, which I think can be attributed to the fact that no one expected Williams’ labor and delivery experience to be so fraught. Williams had planned for a vaginal delivery but had an emergency cesarean section because her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., was in distress.

What began as a TV project on a world-class athlete returning to the top of her game turned into a series in which the best women’s tennis player ever confronted her own mortality.

HBO provided the first two episodes for review, and they offer a glimpse into Williams and Ohanian’s relationship — they’re complete opposites, Williams says. There are tender moments of Richard Williams, Serena’s father, meeting his granddaughter for the first time. And we see Williams trying on wedding dresses and she and Ohanian installing her Australian Open trophy (the one she won while pregnant) in Olympia’s nursery. (The nursery is tricked out with a gorgeous rose gold crib, and I admit I found myself yelling at the TV, “No! Crib bumpers are dangerous! Get rid of those!”)

By the end of the second episode, Williams is out of bed and hitting balls on the tennis court. It’s an abrupt shift from watching her struggle to carry Olympia in her car seat across the driveway to her house. But Williams, by and large, is open about the fact that even for someone as healthy and fit as she is, childbirth can be dangerous and scary. It’s certainly a contradiction to the studied peacefulness of her Instagram feed from that time. Williams is mostly bedridden and in pain for six weeks after delivery, waiting for her C-section scar to heal and for the removal of a filter that doctors put in her body to prevent blood clots from reaching her heart.

When she finally does begin hitting again, she’s honest about the pain she’s feeling because her joints have expanded as part of pregnancy. She argues against current WTA rules that treat pregnant women like players returning from injury when it comes to determining tournament seeding. The current rules, she says, discourage women from having children during their playing years. That’s likely to become an issue if more women attain the career longevity that Williams, 36, has managed.

Being Serena has some unforced errors, sure, but its value lies in what it reveals to be a woman and a professional athlete right now. Williams is tender and nurturing, but she’s more than retained her competitive spirit. She’s unapologetic in her ambition, and for a country that still struggles to accept that in women, it’s a welcome contribution to the television landscape.

The Next Chapter: Pro Football Hall of Famer Darrell Green on how the game of life is played off the field His mentoring program is ‘sobering work, but it’s an exciting work because it works’

At the 1983 NFL draft, a young cornerback out of Texas A&M, Kingsville found himself the last player selected in the first round, heading to the Washington Redskins.

It was the beginning of Darrell Green’s 20-year NFL career, which included two Super Bowl championships with the Redskins and recognition as one of the greatest cornerbacks in football history.

After retiring from football in 2002, Green dedicated his time to mentoring youth.

“It’s been a privilege to be on this journey,” Green said. “From the time I got in the league I was involved with youth around primarily this area [Washington, D.C.] and my learning centers in other parts of the country.”

In 2015 he partnered with health care provider Centene Corp., and he now leads Strong Youth Strong Communities (SYSC), a nationwide initiative that hosts free sessions with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to equip youths with life skills to promote positive thinking and sound judgment.

Centene’s vice president of corporate community relations, Joyce Larkin, says the most rewarding part of the program is to see kids opening up, talking about their issues and leaving feeling better about themselves.

“We are in our fourth year of working with Darrell, the creator of our Strong Youth Strong Communities initiative, and we are in our second year of partnering with the Pro Football Hall of Fame as their official youth wellness partner,” Larkin said. “We could not be more pleased with both partnerships and our combined efforts.”

The project is focused on more than a dozen cities and communities in the United States with declining graduation rates, high levels of poverty, homelessness, increasing suicide rates and limited access to educational resources.

According to Green, Centene allows SYSC to expand its approach of helping young people stay healthy.

“We show up with our gold jackets, Super Bowl rings, Hall of Fame rings, and numerous stories and videos,” Greene said. “That gets us in the door in some levels. … Our whole goal is just do everything we can to allow them to absorb all that we have out of us.”

“Oftentimes, the teachers are trying hard, the parents are trying hard, but the kids just need a little bit more encouragement,” Larkin said. “So it’s been our privilege to go into a community, use the gold jackets with their message of ‘The game of life gets played off of the field.’ ”

Green uses his life experiences to relate to youths who attend the sessions. He was bullied as a child, and his brother died of a drug overdose. After his parents got divorced he had a hard time dealing with the transition, and he became a father before he was married. His main message to children is to understand they have the opportunity to establish a foundation for their lives.

“I get excited when I think about this,” Green said. “And I make no apologies. I’m not a young cornerback today. I’m a dad and grandpa today. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud to be able to be relevant to this generation. I’m proud to be able to be received and bring value to the next generation and be counted, be counted in the number of those who are making a positive impact.”

Green picks up stories along the way, and it helps him stay motivated. During one event, he recalled an encounter with a young girl in Los Angeles who was in tears over disappointing her mother.

“During the breakout session she was crying. I’d talked about the importance and the value, the importance of your parents,” Green said. “We spoke that day to what we presented and gave her the ability to see the value in her mother. It was incredible just to spend time with that young lady, and I can give you tons of other stories. It reaches these young people. These kids have the ability to overcome. They have the ability to change. They have the ability to achieve. And they have the ability to forgive and to love, and to serve.”

Later this year, Green and the agency plan to launch a web portal.

“As we travel this country, we want to make sure we can continue to keep a connection to these youths,” Green said. “We’ve got over 10 million people that we’re serving that we have access to support. That’s a lot of work. It’s a sobering work, but it’s an exciting work because it works. We’ve seen a lot of great success in what we’re doing with our kids. And we’re kinda like the old saying, ‘We’re full, but yet, we remain hungry.’ We always are excited to celebrate, but we remain hungry, Joyce and I. We’re also pushing, pushing and pushing.”

HBO to broadcast Anna Deavere Smith’s show on the school-to-prison pipeline Playwright reworked ‘Notes From the Field’ after the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is a master of verbatim theater, a marriage between documentary storytelling and the stage that involves the actor re-enacting the words of her subjects. Her latest work, which is debuting on HBO on Saturday at 8 p.m., is Notes From the Field, a one-woman show that delves into the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you’re not a theater nerd, you’re probably more familiar with Deavere Smith from her guest star turns as Rainbow’s mother on black-ish or as the lip-pursing-but-ultimately-loving hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus from Nurse Jackie.

For years, Deavere Smith, 67, who is also a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has used her one-woman shows to examine race relations and other complicated social problems. Her career has provided a blueprint on how to produce art with a conscience without making it dogmatic.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) looked at the Crown Heights riot of 1991 from the perspectives of both black and Jewish residents. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994) was about the Rodney King riots. Let Me Down Easy (2008) was about health care and the fragility of human life.

All were constructed from the same process: Deavere Smith traveled across the country to interview hundreds of people — for Notes From the Field, she interviewed 250 — and distilled them down to the 20 or so most effective and moving accounts. Then, Deavere Smith recreates these people on stage: their voices, their clothes, their mannerisms, their emotions, their words. She is a reporter in an actor’s body, and her expeditions in search of the truth earned her the George Polk Career Award in journalism from Long Island University last year.

“I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race.”

“One of the deans of political journalism, David Broder, said to me The New York Times should change that little thing ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news that’s fit to print — by deadline,’ ” Deavere Smith said during an interview at HBO’s offices in New York. “I have a much longer, fatter deadline. Yes, I’m told, ‘This is previews and this is opening night’ and I have to be ready. But … I’m lingering and lumbering around in a way that [reporters] can’t. I’m like a cow. I gather all this stuff, and then I just sit around and chew it.”

For Notes From the Field, Deavere Smith spoke with experts, teachers and lawmakers. But she also interviewed people whose voices often get lost in the debate over the brokenness of our criminal justice and public school systems: the students and inmates who pass through them.

One account from Denise Dodson, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institution, is particularly wrenching. Dodson speaks about how getting an education while incarcerated has been pivotal in changing the way she sees herself. Still, she told Deavere Smith that she thinks it’s fair that she’s imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder. Dodson’s boyfriend killed the man who was trying to rape her, mid-act. The overwhelming majority of women who are imprisoned are survivors of domestic or intimate partner abuse.

Deavere Smith originally staged a shorter version of Notes From the Field in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought it to New York in 2016. The New York Times called it “wonderfully energizing” and labeled Deavere Smith “the American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian.”

She had written and researched it before Michael Brown, before Tamir Rice, before Philando Castile, before Walter Scott. Since then, she’s updated it. The HBO adaptation includes Deavere’s depictions of Bree Newsome, the activist and artist who was arrested in June 2015 after she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the Confederate flag that hung there, and Niya Kenny, the former student at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina, who filmed her classmate being dragged from her desk and handcuffed by a school resource officer.

“I wasn’t planning to actually make a full-fledged play out of my project, but I did because I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race,” Deavere Smith said, citing the cellphone videos of police killing unarmed black people. “These windows are always brief, and in fact, I think it is not a picture that is as strong right now as it was, say, in 2015, because other things are happening and some of those things are distractions.”

“I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people.”

Deavere Smith was participating in a panel discussion with CNN commentator Van Jones and former Obama White House chief of staff Valerie Jarrett recently at New York’s 92nd Street Y recently when she reiterated that an actor’s greatest tool is empathy. That empathy, combined with curiosity, results in the most emotionally arresting performance of Notes From the Field, when Deavere Smith recreates the words of Allen Bullock, the protester who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray.

Her performance, filmed in front of a live audience at Second Stage Theater in New York, is kinetic and engaging. Her face is superimposed on a huge screen behind her as she walks the stage, video camera in hand, sporting a Copwatch hoodie. She recreates Bullock’s anguish at witnessing Gray being thrown into a Baltimore police wagon, his anger as he saw officers restraining Gray with leg shackles and dragging him away, simply for the mistake of making eye contact with them. Deavere Smith challenges the audience to see Gray as both subject and object.

Despite a dramatic deep dive that complements the work of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and Ava DuVernay (13th), Deavere Smith isn’t ready to call herself a prison abolitionist, like those who want to raze the prison-industrial complex entirely. But she thinks efforts to ban The New Jim Crow from prisons, or shut down prison libraries altogether, are misguided.

“It’s terrible. Terrible,” Deavere Smith said. “They can try to ban it all they want, but you and I both know that the walls of prisons are very porous.”

Although she’s arguably more knowledgeable about schools and prisons than a majority of Americans at this point, Deavere Smith avoids being prescriptive. When it comes to prisons, she’s not Angela Davis, and she’s similarly agnostic about charter schools despite the fact that her reporting led her to conclude that American public schools are “a disaster.” They often fail poor students, students of color, disabled students and students for whom English is a second language, and they’re more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s.

“Most of the people I know who have charter schools want to be able to boast and brag about success and how many kids they send to college,” Deavere Smith said. “And even those things make me nervous when that’s the way they talk about the experience. ‘Well, we’re sending every single person or every single person in our class graduated with such and such SAT score. They’re all going to college.’

“And you go, ‘OK, great.’ But something about it bothers me, and I think what bothers me is that there’s only one measuring stick for success. I know a lot of smart people. I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people. I’d like to meet more generous people. I’d like to meet more forgiving people. … I’d like to see them get commended. You know, smart’s just overrated, as far as I’m concerned.”

‘Orange is the New Black’ star Dascha Polanco talks Michael Jordan and her journey as a single mom ‘We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward’

The 35-year-old Orange is the New Black (OITNB) star Dascha Polanco grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and was an athlete in high school. But she hit the basketball court last week in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game playing alongside teammates Jamie Foxx, Common, Quavo of Migos and WNBA player Stefanie Dolson.

“I love that there are two women, Katie [Nolan] and Rachel [Nichols], coaching the [NBA All-Star] Celebrity Game,” said the actress who was on Team Clippers, the winning team. “I was very competitive when I used to play softball in school, so I was excited when the opportunity to play [in the Celebrity Game] came up.”

Polanco is best known for her role as Dayanara “Daya” Diaz in the hit Emmy- and Screen Actors Guild Award-winning Netflix show OITNB. Her first taste of Hollywood was in the independent film, Gimme Shelter, starring opposite Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson. Her big- and small-screen credits include Joy, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, The Perfect Match and The Cobbler to name a few.

Born in the Dominican Republic, she emigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl with her parents and became a citizen in late 2013. Borrowing the words of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind, “Ima make it by any means, I got a pocketful of dreams,” Polanco didn’t sit on her dreams just because she was a young single mom living with the help of government assistance. She didn’t let the stereotypes of a label define what she could or couldn’t do. She went back to school to become a nurse at New York City’s Hunter College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Then she began working as a hospital administrator at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

While studying nursing, Polanco signed up for acting classes at BIH Studios, where she eventually got signed to a talent agency and later landed OITNB in 2012, which changed her world forever.

The fierce and bold mother of two spoke with The Undefeated about why Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time despite her New York team allegiances, how she defies labels and uses fear to tap into an even stronger hustle, what it means to be an Afro-Latina in America and how overcoming insecurities is an everyday job.


Growing up in Brooklyn, are you a die-hard Knicks fan or have you become a Nets fan since they’ve become the Brooklyn Nets (previously the New Jersey Nets)?

I root for all New York teams. I grew up a Knicks fan and have so many memories watching the games with my family. As long as the Nets are the Brooklyn Nets, I’ll cheer for them too.

Who is the GOAT athlete?

Michael Jordan, hands down. And yes, I know I’m a Knicks fan, but MJ all the way. When I worked in the healthcare field, I had Jordan quotes all over my office. He is the epitome of dedication, perseverance and beating the odds. In my son’s room, I even have the poster of MJ with his arms stretched out.

What is your favorite Michael Jordan quote?

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” You can relate that quote to any situation in life. When I used to work in the operating room, it took a team of surgeons and nurses to get the job done, [and now as an actress, it takes so many people with different roles to make everything come together].

Where did your motivation come from as a young single mom going back to school to become a nurse, and then later taking acting classes while still working in the health care field?

We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward. I remember living in a shelter and using food stamps and getting treated like a piece of crap every time I went into the city for welfare. That treatment made me feel ashamed and embarrassed, but it also encouraged me to want to have my own and be independent. I could have chosen to do nothing [and accept the stereotypes associated with the labels that were given to me], but I chose to go back to school. No label can define me. I’m Dascha and I am a force.

What’s something you didn’t think you’d have to adjust to as a celebrity?

I never was able to buy things because I wanted to; it was always because I had to. Now I have the choice and can treat myself, but I even struggle with that because I’ve become conditioned to be fearful of losing [what I work for]. But I’ve gotten to the place where I’ve learned to embrace what I deserve.

When you were working at the hospital, why didn’t you tell anyone that you were also filming Orange Is The New Black?

Where I come from, we don’t say the things that we’re working on. [Sometimes] people don’t want to see you grow. When I’m working, I don’t speak about it. I just let it show for itself. All of my life, I’ve gotten negative feedback when I’ve said I wanted to be a singer, actress or a dancer. I’d hear, “Ahh, girl, that’s so hard … I don’t think you’re going to make it doing that.” So I don’t give them the opportunity to put that negative energy into the universe. I don’t have to tell everyone my goals, because at the end of the day, everyone wants to succeed but no one wants to see anyone else succeed. I stay quiet and keep my goals in my control and my protection.

How have you overcome insecurities?

It’s a process that you ideally try to overcome, but you’re always working on it. There are days that I feel ugly and fat, and I have to tell myself to cut it the hell out. I started acknowledging what I’m feeling and exploring why I’m feeling that way. I look back at my experiences growing up and it’s rooted from not feeling like I’m enough. [And in the present day] maybe it’s that I’m around a group of sophisticated people and I feel I don’t talk as proper as them or I’m at a table with models and I’m the only one eating bread. Those insecurities come about when I’m so focused on everything else and I’m not taking the time to be aware of myself. So now I stop, meditate, stop again and go.

Where does your courage come from?

It might be genetic because my mom [who died at 46 years old] was one courageous woman emigrating [from the Dominican Republic], and just her tenacity in every situation. My mom and dad are my heroes and have taught me to take advantage of the now in life.

I recently booked a film that I never thought that I would get. [I can’t say what it is yet.] It’s a small role, but it’s with someone that I’ve always wanted to work with. I was so nervous that even my armpits were sweating. But I took a moment before I went on set and reminded myself, I am here because I deserve to be. You were brought to America by your parents to do whatever your heart wants to pursue, so take this moment to have the power and courage to take advantage of this moment. Fear is just one layer before your breakthrough. Give me a little bit of fear so I can beat it up and come out even stronger.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latina in America?

There’s these labels and terms that we’ve created so people could understand their roots, what they identify with and where they come from. Even though I’m considered Latina, I’m really a Caribbean woman because I have African roots too. I love being a combination of pure melanin and having exaggerations in my body and movement.

But sometimes these labels are just a way of grouping individuals and putting people against each other — where it becomes about exclusivity instead of bringing people together. Growing up, the black community embraced me but not as much as I embraced them. It was always, “You’re not black, you’re Spanish,” but culturally I connected with them. It’s always been that constant battle but a lot of people feel that way. Even without racial differences, not everyone feels like they’re American too.

Tell me about your work with the D.R.E.A.M (Dominican Republic Education and Mentoring) Project?

I always wanted to do something for the youth in my home country, so I fell in love the D.R.E.A.M Project. The organization is kind of like a YMCA where the kids get education and job training. A lot of the kids are orphans and are growing up through hard times.

Together we’ve launched a theater arts program for these children. The talent that comes through these kids out of hardship is just amazing. The kids play instruments and are so good at so young. I knew we had to create a space to feed their talent so it could be used as a way to express themselves [and heal]. D.R.E.A.M Project has created a school [that they’ve named after me] and now these kids get to write their own script and tell their own story through performance.

Taye Diggs is working with us now too. I encourage people to take a trip to the Dominican Republic and share moments with these kids. It’s truly a remarkable experience.

French Montana opens up about building schools in Morocco, soccer, his new video ‘Famous’ and more The Bronx-raised rapper talks emigrating, his sophomore album and lessons from his mother

Hip-hop artist French Montana loved two things as a child: sports and rap. Born in Rabat, Morocco, he played soccer, which afforded him an opportunity to see life in other places.

“Soccer gave me my first opportunity to experience the world,” Montana said. “I got a visa to play in Spain, and when I went there I was like, ‘Wow, there is a world outside of Africa.’ So when I came back, I knew I had to leave Africa to become what I wanted.”

Born Karim Kharbouch, his dream of leaving Morocco came true at 13 years old. He and his family emigrated to the United States. New York City became his new home right in the heart of the South Bronx, where he learned to speak English. He soon became the primary breadwinner of the home after his father moved back to Morocco, leaving his mother and younger brothers in New York.

In his latest single, “Famous,” off of his sophomore album Jungle Rules, he portrays his own background: a mother speaking to her child and wanting to protect him from the troubles that come along with fame.

The “Famous” music video debuted Jan. 18 and was shot in Morocco. In the video, Montana walks the streets of Morocco’s Blue City, Chefchaouen, styling customary Moroccan garb and passing kids playing soccer. He also visits his grandmother’s grave. The artistry of the lyrics is further matched with the beautiful, sun-kissed Moroccan landscape throughout the video.

Wanting to pay it forward, “Famous” is more than just a song — it sheds light on where Montana came from. Growing up, his family faced economic hardships, and he is giving back by building more schools for the kids in Morocco. This comes as an extension of his first-ever Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, “Unforgettable,” where he shot the music video in Uganda and later became inspired to give back. He partnered with Global Citizen on a health advocacy campaign with Mama Hope Foundation to provide health care for new moms and babies in Uganda.

Montana got his start in the music industry when his mixtape debuted in 2007. By 2010, he’d made a full splash with the hit “Choppa Choppa Down.” In 2013 he released his debut studio album, Excuse My French. He is the founder of Coke Boys Records, which later became Cocaine City Records. In 2012, he joined forces with Bad Boy Records and Maybach Music Group.

In between music rehearsals, Montana linked up with The Undefeated in Brooklyn, New York, to reflect on “Famous,” growing up in Morocco, his relationships with Diddy and Jay-Z, and his reaction to President Donald Trump’s comments about immigrants.


When did you realize you were famous?

When I walked into my mama’s job and told her that she didn’t have to work anymore. That was my claim to fame.

What was the inspiration behind your song ‘Famous’?

A lot of people think I’m singing to a girl, but I’m not. It’s more like a mother talking to her child. Like when you’re young and your mother doesn’t want you to play outside near the corner because she’s scared of trouble and all the hurt that the world can bring. She doesn’t want you to be famous but stay her little baby, because in the game there’s a lot of things that come with it, like the snakes, fakes and low-flying angels.

What is behind the good-works initiative tied to the music video for ‘Famous’?

We shot the video in Chaouen. It’s like the pearl of Morocco, the Blue City [because of the blue-washed buildings of the town]. When I lived in Morocco, it was about a three-hour radius to any school. Kids there know when they grow up they’ll go straight to the field, so a lot of them don’t even know how to read the Koran properly. So I knew that I wanted to come back to Morocco and open up a couple of music schools to open up lanes for kids to learn new things.

Why is giving back to Africa important to you?

God blesses you to bless other people. The moment you stop doing that, he’ll take everything away from you. I feel like I can shed light to where I come from, especially from me living in Africa for 13 years and then witnessing firsthand how the people in Uganda really need our help when it comes to health care and [the necessities of life]. That shouldn’t be questionable or a privilege.

Diddy donated $200,000 to the Suubi “Hope” Health Center as part of the Unforgettable health care campaign that you started last year. What was his decision behind that?

Shoutout to my big brother Diddy, that’s my best friend. He’s seen the vision from day one and said here’s a gift for you. Him helping my cause is better than buying me a car. That’s how you receive your blessings, in helping others who can’t help themselves. There’s no greater joy in life until you can help someone that has no motive at getting anything back from you.

What has Diddy taught you?

Never put all of your eggs in one basket. God only blesses people with good karma, so I feel God has blessed Diddy to become one of the wealthiest moguls. Last time he dropped an album was 10 years ago, but he still ranks as Forbes’ highest-paid hip-hop artist.

Can you elaborate about the call from Jay-Z about ‘Famous’?

Jay had asked me to send him the album, and when he heard it he said how ‘Famous’ was his favorite song. He knows what the song means because it can also be a father talking to his daughter. He wants to take [his daughter] Blue to the Blue City [Chaouen] too.

Where do your music influences come from?

Life. Feelings. The vibrations. When you’re at the gym and you’re on your last two sets but you do five more because that song came on, or when you’re chillin’ and that song plays that echoes what you’re going through and you start to cry. It happens to everyone. Music is the only language that your body and the world speaks.

You did some acting in FOX’s Empire. Are you hoping to do more acting in the future?

As far as films, I started the Cocaine City DVD series [back in 2002, which gave a glimpse into the lives of rappers like Remy Ma, Waka Flocka and Lil Wayne]. I directed about 16 episodes before I got into the mix [and was in front of the camera showing my rap game come-up]. So film has always been a top love alongside music.

I just finished directing my own movie, Respect the Shooter [in collaboration with A$AP Rocky]. It’s basically about a bunch of guys trying to make money. Michal K. Williams, Chris Brown, Fabolous, Snoop [from The Wire] and myself are all in it.

Who’s your favorite athlete?

Mike Tyson. He was raw and never held anything back.

As an immigrant yourself, what are your thoughts on President Donald Trump’s recent comments about immigration?

Trump is treating the states like it’s Trump real estate — where you have to be qualified to move into one of his buildings. A great leader spreads love, and he’s not doing that. I feel a lot of the real heroes [in America] come from other places. They weren’t born here; they come from different parts of the world. He’s going to last four years, and then we’ll move on to the next president.