Grammy-winning artist Mya takes it to the streets in ‘5th Ward’ The singer opens up about acting, a cherished moment with Gregory Hines — and even a one-way ticket to the stars

At just 18, Mya Marie Harrison’s 1998 hit “It’s All About Me” skyrocketed up the Billboard rhythm and blues charts, with several other top-selling tunes soon to follow: “The Best of Me,” “Take Me There” and “My Love is Like … Wo.” Sultry lyrics combined with an infectious sound and dynamic dance moves led to two platinum albums, as well as a Grammy award in 2001 for best pop collaboration with vocals for the No. 1 pop cover of Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” which also featured Lil’ Kim, Pink and Christina Aguilera. In a fickle industry that’s the home of either great acceptance or unkind rejection, 20 years later, Mya is always making strides. She’s appeared in CBS’s NCIS and will soon appear in Lazarus, along with Sean Riggs and Costas Mandylor.

The Washington, D.C., native’s latest project is Urban Movie Channel’s original 5th Ward, in which she stars as Mina. The show is set in the center of a historically black neighborhood in Houston, where Mina is a single mother of two children desperately trying to make something out of nothing. Staying true to the authenticity and raw imagery of H-Town, the show is an in-depth look at city life behind headlines.

Mya connects deeply with her on-screen character, especially when maneuvering through life’s many obstacles and detours — she left a major label in 2007 to become an independent artist and creator of her own label, Planet 9. She says it has been both challenging and rewarding.

The Undefeated chatted with the woman so loved (she has close to 2 million people in her social community, and that’s just Twitter and Instagram) that hip-hop blog impresario John Gotty instituted #MyaMondays.

How were you able to connect to your character, Mina, and the script?

My business partner, J. Prince, was born and raised in the 5th and has done wonderful things for his community. And being the oldest sister of two brothers in my family, I looked after them. I applied that dynamic to my character, Mina.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since becoming an independent artist?

Whatever makes you feel alive is going to carry you, make you go harder, and will give you the drive needed to succeed. When you love something, you will go after it, and no one will have to force you to do anything. Regardless of numbers, titles, sales, support or budget, I love music. This is why I’m still going, and my 13th and 14th projects are coming soon!

If your entire life could be summed up in the title of one of your songs, which would it be?

A song I wrote with Tricky Stewart called ‘Nothin’ At All.’ The song speaks to the journey of life, which is filled with winding roads, and ups and downs. But at the end of the day I wouldn’t change a thing, because in this current moment I am breathing, I am alive and I am happy. The things we consider mistakes or failures are the blessings that propel us to move forward into a better space.

“The things we consider mistakes or failures are the blessings that propel us to move forward into a better space.”

Who was your childhood hero?

My parents, first and foremost, and the women in my family, who I’ve watched sacrifice so much. However, I would also say the man that actually had a conversation with myself and my parents long ago. [He] pulled me aside to offer business advice: Gregory Hines. I performed at the Smithsonian, and he walked onstage during my segment and began going toe to toe with me. … He saw something special enough to dance with me.

What’s one thing about you that’s embarrassing?

I am goofy as heck! I can get really silly and go overboard sometimes. It’s very corny. I don’t allow too many people to see that side of me, but when I go there, I go there (Laughs.)

What’s one habit you wish you could shake?

I wish I could shake carbs. I’m in the process of retraining my brain and body to eliminate unhealthy carbs like pasta and rice and instead substituting them with quinoa and wild rice. It’s so hard to shake those things that instantly fill you up and make you feel satisfied.

The last stamp on your passport — and for business or pleasure?

Nassau, Bahamas. It was all business. I worked the entire time. I completed a photo shoot for both my single and album, as well as filmed a mini video for the single.

What’s a place you’ve never been that you want to visit, and why?

Outer space. I’ve been intrigued by outer space since I was 4 years old. My label is called Planet 9, and I study a lot regarding astronomy and astrological symbolism. Being able to look down at our planet and experience it from a different perspective would be an ultimate life experience, even if it’s just a one-way ticket. I’m fine with it because I think it would be very peaceful to me.

How did growing up in Washington, D.C., shape you into the woman you are today?

Washington, D.C., is known as Chocolate City! We are the land of go-go music, and it’s rich in culture. The diversity there has definitely shaped my outlook on the world and inspired me to want to travel and pursue a career that allows it. Although I attended a multicultural high school in Maryland, my roots are in Chocolate City, which is the black community. In a place where laws are made and bills are passed, you can walk a couple of blocks from the White House and end up in the projects.

“Regardless of numbers, titles, sales, support or budget, I love music at the end of the day. Nothing has destroyed that or come in the way of it.”

What’s one thing you would tell your 15-year-old self?

I’d definitely tell 15-year-old Mya to always define everything for yourself. Look to no other person to do that for you. When I say define everything, I mean beauty, success and validation. What it all means to you and what your happiness consists of. Don’t look to everyone else’s model of how they define those things to shape your decisions or your life because everyone is not meant to have the same life. I constantly have to remind myself of this because we can get lost in the sauce and look to societal standards. Always be programmed to think for yourself, think independently and define everything for Y-O-U.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The Stop: Racial profiling of drivers leaves legacy of anger and fear From ministers to pro athletes, they all get pulled over for “Driving While Black”

An idyllic afternoon of Little League baseball followed by pizza and Italian ice turned harrowing when two police officers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, stopped Woodrow Vereen Jr. for driving through a yellow light.

A music minister at his church, Vereen struggled to maintain eye contact with his young sons as one of the officers instructed Vereen, who is black, to get out of the car and lean over the trunk, and then patted him down. Vereen could see tears welling in the eyes of his 7- and 3-year-old sons as they peered through the rear window. He cringed as folks at a nearby bus stop watched one of the officers look through his car.

He never consented to the 2015 search, which turned up nothing illegal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut sued on behalf of Vereen, alleging that police searched him without probable cause. Last year, two years after the incident, he received a settlement from the city. His tickets — for running a light and not carrying proof of insurance — were dismissed.

Yet the stop lives with him.

Traffic stops — the most common interaction between police and the public — have become a focal point in the debate about race, law enforcement, and equality in America. A disproportionate share of the estimated 20 million police traffic stops in the United States each year involve black drivers, even though they are no more likely to break traffic laws than whites. Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely than whites to be searched by police, although they are no more likely to be carrying contraband.

Across the country, law-abiding black and Hispanic drivers are left frightened and humiliated by the inordinate attention they receive from police, who too often see them as criminals. Such treatment leaves blacks and Hispanics feeling violated, angry, and wary of police and their motives.

“You’re pulled over simply for no other reason than you fit a description and the description is that you’re black.”

Activists have taken to the streets to protest police shootings of unarmed black people. Athletes, including NFL players, have knelt or raised clenched fists during the singing of the national anthem at sports events to try to shine a light on lingering inequality.

Vereen had always told his children that the police were real-life superheroes. Now that story had to change. “Everything I told them seems to be untrue,” said Vereen, 34. “Why is this superhero trying to hurt my dad? Why is this superhero doing this to us? He is supposed to be on our side.”

The first time my now-28-year-old son was stopped by police, he was a high school student in Baltimore. He was headed to a barbershop when he was startled by flashing lights and the sight of two police cars pulling up behind him. The stop lasted just a few minutes and resulted in no ticket. It seems the cops just wanted to check him out. My son’s fear morphed into indignation when an officer returned his license, saying, “A lot of vehicles like yours are stolen.” He was driving a Honda Civic, one of the most popular cars on the road.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped. And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Shaken by cases in which seemingly routine traffic stops turn deadly, many black parents rehearse with their children what to do if they are pulled over: Lower your car window so officers have a clear line of sight, turn on the interior lights, keep your hands visible, have your license and registration accessible, and for God’s sake, let the officer know you are reaching for them so he doesn’t shoot you.

Drivers of all races worry about running afoul of the rules of the road. But blacks and Hispanics, in particular, also worry about being stopped if they are driving a nice car in a modest or upscale community, a raggedy car in a mostly white one, or any kind of car in a high-crime area. It affects everyone, from ministers and professional athletes to lawyers and the super-rich.

“It’s been more times than I care to remember,” said Robert F. Smith, 55, a private equity titan and philanthropist, when asked how often he thinks he has been racially profiled. Smith, with a net worth of more than $3 billion, is listed by Forbes as the nation’s wealthiest African-American. Yet he still dreads being pulled over.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped,” he said. “And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Rosie Villegas-Smith, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Phoenix for 28 years, has been stopped a couple of times by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies, who are notorious for using allegations of minor traffic violations to check the immigration status of Hispanic drivers.

In 2011 federal investigators found that the department pulled over Hispanic drivers up to nine times more often than other motorists. The stops were part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants ordered by Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff from 1993 to 2016.

Courts ruled the stops illegal, but Arpaio pressed ahead and was found guilty of criminal contempt in July 2017. President Donald Trump — who has stoked racial tensions by bashing immigrants, protesting athletes, and others — pardoned Arpaio the following month. Arpaio recently announced plans to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The statistics on traffic stops elsewhere are spotty — neither uniformly available nor comprehensive — but they show the same pattern of blacks and Hispanics being stopped and searched more frequently than others. The disparity spans the nation, affecting drivers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Men are more at risk than women, and for black men, being disproportionately singled out is virtually a universal experience.

A 2017 study in Connecticut, one of the few states that collect and analyze comprehensive traffic-stop data, found that police disproportionately pull over black and Hispanic drivers during daylight hours, when officers can more easily see who is behind the wheel. Many police departments have policies and training to prevent racial profiling, but those rules can get lost in day-to-day police work.

“One reason minorities are stopped disproportionately is because police see violations where they are,” said Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who runs the Police Department in LaGrange, Georgia. “Crime is often significantly higher in minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. And that is where we allocate our resources. That is the paradox.”

Too often, officers treat minorities driving in mostly white areas as suspect, Dekmar said. “It’s wrong, and there is no excuse for that,” he said.

“I felt embarrassed. Emasculated. I felt absolutely like I had no rights.”

Robert L. Wilkins was a public defender in 1992 when he and several family members were stopped by a Maryland state trooper while returning to Washington, D.C., from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago. The trooper accused them of speeding, then asked to search their rented Cadillac. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s your problem?” the trooper said when they objected to the search on principle.

The trooper made them wait for a drug-sniffing dog. As Wilkins and his family stood on the side of the highway, a German shepherd sniffed “seemingly every square inch of the car’s exterior,” Wilkins recalled. Before long, there were five or six police cars around them. At one point, Wilkins, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, noticed a white couple and their two children staring as they rode by. He imagined that they thought the worst: “They’re putting two and two together and getting five,” he said. “They see black people and they’re thinking, ‘These are bad people.’ ”

Wilkins filed a class-action suit alleging an illegal search and racial profiling, and the state of Maryland settled, largely because of an unearthed police document that had warned troopers to be on the lookout for black men in rental cars, who were suspected of ferrying crack cocaine. The settlement required state police to keep statistics on the race and ethnicity of drivers who were stopped. A second suit forced police to revamp their complaint system. Those changes brought some improvement, and racial disparities in traffic stops in Maryland were cut in half.

What lingers, though, is the indignity and anger that drivers feel over being singled out. “There’s a power that they want to exert, that you have to experience. And what do you do about it?” Smith said. “There’s an embedded terror in our community, and that’s just wrong.”

About this story: The Undefeated teamed up with National Geographic to ask people of color across the U.S. what it’s like to be racially profiled during a traffic stop, and the ripple effect such incidents can have on families and communities. This report also appears in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine and online at

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.”

King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ explains the rage over the NFL anthem protests and the persistence of racial injustice Re-reading the famous letter today shows how much still needs to change

On Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., The Undefeated will present Dear Black Athlete, a one-hour special on ESPN featuring conversations with athletes and community leaders about social justice. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the program will be taped at Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King spoke and led civil rights marches. Below, we examine the meaning of King’s letter in today’s racial climate.

Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail in a narrow cell on newspaper margins, scraps of paper and smuggled-in legal pads. He had no notes or reference materials. Yet, King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest and searing critique of moderation continues to resonate in a nation still divided by race.

In 1963, the letter spoke truth to white clergymen who called him a troublemaker for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, to confront that city’s harsh segregation and racial violence. In 2018, King’s tract stands as a beacon to a new generation of activists impatient with injustice perpetuated less by flush-faced bigots than by the ostensibly colorblind institutions that structure our society.

King’s letter famously said creating tension was necessary to the work of nonviolent protesters, and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He called out the white church for being an “arch supporter of the status quo,” and castigated its ministers for urging members to comply with desegregation because it is the law, not because it is morally right and “the Negro is your brother.” He also expressed grave disappointment with white moderates, whom he described as “more devoted to order than justice.”

The letter was “prophetic,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racial extremist groups. “King really calls out systemic racism and, particularly, systemic anti-black racism. And, of course, it persists today.”

Brooks hears echoes of the white clergymen who accused King of inciting violence in the stinging criticism of NFL players who protested racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem.

“What they have done is in the tradition of nonviolent protest. It forces people to have a conversation,” she said. “But the pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ They are like the outsiders that the clergy mentioned in going after King.”

King’s letter was written nearly a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but Alabama’s largest city operated under its own rules. Black people could not work or try on clothes in downtown stores. They were given used books in separate schools, and made to wait in separate waiting rooms at public hospitals. Those who challenged the established order risked the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan or other terrorists who enforced apartheid so savagely that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Today, the city is no longer segregated by law, and violent racists no longer run amok. But segregation remains: Many whites fled the city, and its schools are 99 percent black and Hispanic. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. Then there is the racial wealth gap, income gap, unemployment gap, school achievement gap, incarceration gap and life expectancy gap. It is a story common to many parts of the country.

“The pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ “

Birmingham is now led by Mayor Randall Woodfin, 36, a proud Morehouse College graduate who is among the more than 10,000 black elected officials serving across the country.

“It is hard to read King’s letter and not want to re-reread it and re-read it again,” he said, calling it the civil rights leader’s seminal piece. Not only does it lay out the steps, from self-education to negotiation, that should precede protest, Woodfin said, but it also makes a historical case for why black people are impatient for real change.

“We have black leadership now. But some of the things Dr. King was talking about as it relates to poverty and better education and opportunity, they still exist,” Woodfin said. “We need to be bolder in correcting things we know are not working for many people.”

Better education funding, longer school years, seamless coordination between schools, libraries and recreation centers are some of the things that Woodfin thinks could help. “We are not spending enough time with our children,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce development, that entire pipeline from birth until young people cross that stage.”

But winning support for such initiatives is difficult in Birmingham, much like it is in Detroit or Baltimore or East St. Louis, Illinois. The city alone does not have the wealth to pay for those things, and white taxpayers in neighboring communities do not see problems in places like Birmingham’s as theirs. If polls are any indication, almost none of those white suburbanites see themselves as racist. But they are the present-day equivalent of the moderates King wrote about, minimizing the importance of discrimination in the ongoing struggles of places like Birmingham.

Seven in 10 African-Americans surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll cited discrimination as a reason blacks have a harder time than whites getting ahead, a view shared by just 36 percent of white respondents. A series of independent studies have found that black people still face discrimination from the criminal justice system, from employers, from real estate agents, and from banks and mortgage companies. Yet, when asked about the racial fairness of institutions fundamental to American life — courts, police, the workplace, mortgage companies — white people are much less likely than African-Americans to say black people are treated unfairly. White evangelicals, who are most prominent in the South, were the group least likely to perceive discrimination against blacks, according to a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 36 percent of white evangelicals reported perceiving a lot of discrimination against black people.

Growing up white in Birmingham, the Rev. Jim Cooley said segregation was a way of life that as a child he never stopped to examine. “It was a different planet then,” said Cooley, who is now pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. One of his predecessors, the Rev. Earl Stallings, was among the eight clergymen who signed the statement that prompted King’s famous letter.

“I remember seeing separate bathrooms and separate water fountains as a youngster. I guess it was a tribute to my parents that I did not think of it as this is ‘upper’ and that is ‘lower.’ My impression was that there was some natural reason for this that I did not understand.”

Now he knows better, and he thanks King for helping to transform his city. He says the new Birmingham is evident in his own church’s growing racial diversity and the fact that its black organist causes no one in the congregation to as much as raise an eyebrow. He also sees black and white people coming together in civic groups to address the city’s many problems.

Still, Cooley acknowledged that huge racial disparities remain. Some are no doubt the result of Birmingham’s long history of racism, he says. But he thinks the gaps have as much to do with educational shortcomings and social isolation that he said also hinders many white people.

“If I walk around my neighborhood, there is an English couple. A man across the way is involved in the Sons of the Confederacy. There is an African-American doctor. Next to him, an Indian veterinarian and a Chinese pharmacist,” Cooley said. “There is less friction now, for sure. While everything was so drastically race-driven 50 or 60 years ago, now it is about opportunity and education. And that cuts across all kinds of racial strata.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, 67, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist Angela Davis and Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a nurturing world of high aspirations tightly controlled by the constant threat of racial violence.

“When we went downtown, we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register,” he recalled. “No police, firemen, nothing. It is hard to understand if you were not there just how dramatically different the world was then.”

Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was arrested and held for five days for taking part in the “Children’s Crusade,” waves of demonstrations that King launched not long after he was released from the Birmingham jail.

“When we went downtown we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register.”

Hrabowski brings the lessons he learned then to his work as president of UMBC, a public university just outside Baltimore. During his more than quarter-century at the university’s helm, he has turned the once nondescript commuter school into one of the nation’s top producers of African-American doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.

That has not happened by accident. Hrabowski had made it his business to mentor and support black students and those from other underrepresented groups. Hrabowski promotes his school with evangelical zeal and brings at-risk students to campus to help them learn the habits of academic success. He promotes his sharpest science nerds as if they were rap stars, and he singles out basketball players with high grades so they can be seen as both athletic and academic role models.

He shed tears of joy in November when a black woman from suburban Maryland, 21-year-old Naomi Mburu, was named UMBC’s first Rhodes scholar. And when the university opened its new basketball arena and events center last weekend, he made sure Mburu strode onto center court, where she was introduced to the crowd at halftime.

It’s his way of battling the pervasive injustice he once endured in Birmingham.

Hrabowski noted that back when King penned his letter only 2 or 3 percent of African-Americans were college graduates, as were roughly 10 percent of whites. Now, according to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of African-American adults are four-year college graduates, as are almost 37 percent of whites.

“We’ve made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s letter, yes we have,” Hrabowski said. “You want to acknowledge that progress. But a lot of people are left behind, and to solve that we have to look at the unjust policies that Dr. King talks about. Just because it is in the structure, doesn’t mean it is just.”

How the Warriors become the wokest team in pro sports It’s a combination of all that winning, Oakland’s place in the black power movement and these unusual times

There’s a moment during his conversation about athletes and activism at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green seems to shift his weight. Green, who was in town to face the Celtics later that November night, has altered his game day routine to be at the lunchtime event, which was initially scheduled for a classroom, but had to be moved to a conference center when more than 500 students signed up.

He takes the stage wearing high-top designer sneakers and a long-sleeved fishtail shirt. He folds his frame into a large wooden chair and fumbles with his microphone. “I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be speaking at Harvard. It’s like a dream come true,” says Green, before settling into his talk: Athletes should only champion issues they’re passionate about, he says. He discusses the pervasive tensions between young people and police, and the need to continue to educate himself about social justice.

When a student asks for a response to those who say he should stick to basketball, Green leans forward, drawing closer to the crowd. It’s an opening for Green to issue a philosophical declaration, a Contemplation on the Nature of Athlete and Society, although more social media–friendly.
And he delivers.

“That’s funny,” Green says, after pausing a moment. “People say athletes shouldn’t speak politics. Well, I find that funny, because everyone thinks they can speak basketball.” The crowd erupts in applause. It’s an authoritative answer from a guy with a 7-foot wingspan, extending to his full proportions in a completely different arena. And it’s representative of what we’ve been watching the Warriors do over and over, in high-profile ways, during the past year.

Black athlete-activists are not new, of course. Boxer Jack Johnson punched through racial barriers in the early 20th century, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Althea Gibson was the first person of color to win a grand slam title in 1956, and a dozen years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved, black-power fists atop the medal stand in the Mexico City Olympics. In 2015, a protest by the Missouri football team over racism on campus forced the resignation of the university’s president, and the following year, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPY awards to urge athletes to speak out against injustice. A host of WNBA players, including Maya Moore and Tina Charles, have worn T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter.

But these were individual athletes fighting for a cause, or teams engaging on one issue over a limited period of time.

The Warriors are something else entirely: They’re the NBA’s winningest team, in possibly the country’s most progressive market, with the most politically outspoken players and coach, during the most racially polarized period in two generations. It’s an evolutionary development in the power and influence of the American citizen-athlete, with commensurate risks to their reputations and livelihoods. (See: Kaepernick, Colin R.) The Dubs are not simply basketball superstars, they might just be the most progressive—the most woke—team in the history of professional sports.

It was a morning in late September, one day after Warriors guard Steph Curry told reporters at the team’s media day that he’d vote to skip the traditional NBA champions White House visit, and Curry’s wife, Ayesha, was waking him up, laughing.

“Trump tweeted about you,” Ayesha said.

“I reached up to grab my phone,” Curry remembers now, “and I had about 20 text messages.” President Donald Trump had rescinded the yet-to-be-issued White House invitation, tweeting at Curry that since he was hesitating, “invitation is withdrawn!”

Suddenly, Curry, the family-friendly face of the franchise, was at the center of one of the year’s biggest sports and politics stories.

The team had planned to meet that day at its Oakland practice facility to decide collectively about whether to make the trip. Instead, the day unfolded in a mixture of both gravity and weirdness. Curry recalls the next several hours being “surreal.”

“I’m like, ‘He said he’s not inviting you. We can still go,’” Green says with a laugh. “We really, honestly made a joke of it.”

More than three months later, before an early-January practice, Curry seems unbruised by the incident—and no less supportive of his team: “When I talk about just being informed and thoughtful and passionate about what you believe in, we have guys all up and down this roster who kind of fall into that category.” His own thoughtfulness springs from a childhood during which his mother, Sonya, shared experiences of growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Radford, Virginia. “The family as a whole had a lot of run-ins with police and things like that in Radford and a lot of racism growing up there,” Curry says, “so she has a lot of stories around that.”

“But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”—Warriors GM Bob Myers

His father, Dell Curry, is the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets. And while the family was well-off, Steph says he was always conscious of being black—and his obligations to the black people around him. He attended a small Christian high school; of the 360 kids there, maybe 14 were African-American.

“We all sat at the same lunch table,” he says, “so we had a very tight community group that understood we were different in that space. I think we learned to protect that identity a little bit and celebrate it and have each other’s back.” And when he played AAU basketball with black kids from area public schools, he came to understand the differences in the worlds they inhabited—how some families struggled to put gas in the tank for an out-of-town tournament, but also that “we all had some common ground that we could appreciate about each other.” It was a figure-it-out-together quality, for the team, for the culture, that he took into adulthood.

And though last fall’s Twitter firestorm was unusual because it pitted Curry against the president of the United States, it was only an extreme example of what many players on the Warriors are doing.

Last summer Curry and forward Andre Iguodala, who have invested in tech start-ups, organized a technology summit for NBA players. “I’m trying to bust down a door” for my people, Iguodala says. In October, after ESPN reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair had likened pro football protesters to “inmates running the prison,” Green posted on Instagram that because of its historical freight, the NFL should “stop using the word owner.” Other players, including forwards David West and Kevin Durant, have found purpose or purchase to speak about history and their growing racial awareness. Coach Steve Kerr routinely talks about politics at his news conferences, and last February he tweeted, “I subscribed to The Washington Post today because facts matter.”

Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala high five during game.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

What gives them the cover and authority to stray so far and so publicly from the topics society typically wants to hear from people who play basketball for a living? One could say it’s their birthright as citizens to exercise the democratic mandates of civic participation and engagement in service of that foundational American imperative to form a more perfect union. But, sike nah. It’s all that winning they be doing.

Barring calamity, the Warriors are favored to advance to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. And winning, Green says, strengthens them in a number of ways: “No. 1, you got so much attention at all times. No. 2, you’re a champion, they want to see what you got to say. You’re doing something so great that it gives you even more of a voice. … No one cares what a loser has to say.”

They’re a talented team, says general manager Bob Myers, “with a variety of leaders of high character,” and that affords them a degree of buy-in for their off-court views. “But at the same time, I think it’s something you have to protect. It seems to work for us because we win. But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”

America tells itself a story that success—in sports and elsewhere—is predicated upon competitiveness, discipline, hard work and character. Sports is as essential as religion to reinforcing those values to the nation, says Harry Edwards, an author, activist and consultant for the Warriors and 49ers, who organized the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights that ultimately led to the protest in Mexico City. It has scribes, departed saints (Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach) and hallowed halls of fame. “It has sacred implements,” he says. “The ball that Hank [Aaron] hit over the fence when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, which people will pay millions for.”

When winning athletes—let alone winning black athletes—question the validity of mainstream definitions, it sets up an acute civic dissonance. Kaepernick or Carlos or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf become heretics and are punished as such. But the all-I-do-is-win-win-win Warriors have amassed so much cultural capital that they are not only worshipped, they’re widely heard.

All that discipline, smarts, true-grit stuff? Their winning proves it works, Edwards says. But their activism challenges whether it works for people in Oakland and East St. Louis and the South Side of Chicago.

The fact that they get to keep saying it is not only because they’re winning—it’s because winning in the Bay Area is a whole other thing.

Outside his DOPE ERA clothing shop (During Oppression People Evolve, Everyone Rises Above) in North Oakland, Mistah F.A.B. (aka Stanley Cox) muses about whether the Warriors are, in fact, the most politically progressive team ever. He’s a rap artist and community activist who once did a freestyle rap about the Warriors that foreclosed that option to anyone who has thought about trying it since. Now he recalls Smith and Carlos and cites the Clippers wearing their warm-up jerseys reversed to protest racist remarks by then-team owner Donald Sterling in 2014. But “I can’t even think of a team in contention for social relevance,” he says, “in the way the Warriors are demonstrating now.”

Some of that stems from Oakland itself. For more than half a century, Oakland and the Bay Area have been synonymous with the black consciousness movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. They’ve welcomed the Free Speech Movement, anti-war protests and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. The cities by the bay have been an incubator for gay rights, anti-fascism and Black Lives Matter.

Sitting behind the baseline of Court One at their Oakland practice facility, Durant recalls the poor D.C.-area neighborhood where he grew up, noting the ways his head has changed in the time he’s traveled from there to here. “You can feel that culture when you get here,” says Durant, who signed with the Warriors in 2016 and was last year’s Finals MVP. As a child, he lived off Pennsylvania Avenue, “so you could drive 10 miles from the front of the White House … and you’re gonna run into where I grew up.” He knew where that street in front of his house led, who was living there and what it meant to be the head of state, he says, though he often tuned out all of those civics lessons, along with anything else that was happening off the court.

Kevin Durant waves to fans while holding the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy through the community that he grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

He calls his neighborhood 95 percent black with “80 percent of us living in poverty” and says he was so hell-bent on getting out that he turned a blind eye to the ways people were struggling to make it. It was a part of his soul he kept on ice, and he sometimes wishes he could tell his younger self to open his eyes and offer a little more hope and joy “to people who struggled, the way I struggled.” Because black joy is resistance.

“Just walking around downtown Oakland, just driving around East Oakland, getting to the game every day, you could just tell that somebody fought and died for these streets that we were riding in,” Durant says. Once you know that, you can’t unknow it. Some wonder if that community connection will continue after the Warriors move to San Francisco’s Chase Center for the 2019-20 season. For now, though, Durant is focused on what’s before him: “You can appreciate the people that built this community. And it’s not because of the Warriors, but I think we do a really great job of adding onto something that was already incredible. The Warriors now, especially with the team we have, we are kind of carrying the torch for being the socially conscious team. There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”

Before every practice or shootaround, the Warriors players gravitate to a group of 20 chairs in a corner of the gym near the weight room. Kerr stands in front of the group and talks about the practice plan, the upcoming schedule and other matters. Unlike most other NBA teams, “other matters” sometimes includes Trump’s latest tweets, the Alabama Senate election or the reign of the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

It’s a little Woke U in front of the TV where they watch game film, a spur-of-the-moment conversation guided by the events of the day and the passions of those who feel like speaking up. They share what they know and bookmark what they don’t for further reading after they change out of practice shorts and shirts.

Kerr is part of a small contingent of white coaches with a reputation for being thoughtful and outspoken about race, politics and social justice. The group includes Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, both of whom Kerr played for, as well as the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy.

“When I came here, I had a feeling that Coach Kerr was kind of open-minded about everything,” Durant says. “And I heard the organization was that way. But once you get into it and we talk about Trump winning the election before practice and before a game, and if we won a championship, what would happen—that stuff gets your mind thinking about what is going on outside the gym.

“And it has all our minds moving and working. And now I’m just caught up on everything that’s going on in the world. When you’re naive and when you just think about what you’re passionate about and what you love every day, you tend to forget about what is outside. Coming in here gives you a taste of both: your love and passion but also the real world. I love it.”

“There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”—Kevin Durant

Says West, a two-time All-Star: “Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.” For years, without media attention, West has been engaged in his own demonstration during the national anthem. He stands last in line and a foot behind the rest of his team, in silent protest over issues of race, education, infant mortality and black life expectancy.

Before coming to the Warriors as a free agent in 2016, West says, he expected Green to be outspoken and had heard Curry was well-read. But Kerr’s interest in politics and his support of players’ curiosity and engagement was, for West, a revelation. “He just blurts out, like, ‘Morning, fellas, look at this crazy s— going on in Alabama.’ You know what I mean? Just like that, he jumps right out there.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with guard Stephen Curry during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2017.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

One day in mid-December, a reporter is sitting with Kerr along the Court One sideline and asks about Democrat Doug Jones’ win in the Alabama special election over Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Kerr starts cautiously, then builds momentum: “I think it’s interesting that it just felt like a moment that we could hold on to some hope. But I don’t want that to sound like a liberal/conservative issue, because it really is not for me. It’s character. And I don’t even know Doug Jones. I just know that he doesn’t molest young girls, and so that’s a victory.”

Against a background of bouncing balls and other ambient gym noise, Kerr begins a small tangent on the fall of the Roman Empire and the dangers of internal decay. The part of him not consumed by basketball is fixated on history and politics, and it’s a focus he encourages in others. “Not only is it important from the standpoint that we’re all citizens and human beings and we should know what’s going on in the world, but it’s also important for the players to have balance in their lives.”

Clearly, though, nothing animates him like gun control, some of which has to do with family history. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was killed by gunmen in 1984. But Kerr says he’d feel passionately about the issue anyway. It’s insane, he says, “that we can’t come to a place where sensible gun control makes sense to people, that we can just live in a country where 500-plus people can be shot from a hotel room floor and yet the very next government measure is actually to loosen the gun measures.”

“Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.”—David West on his relationship with his coach

Kerr says he’s guided by a Popovich expression—by an accident of birth—as in, “By an accident of birth, you’ve lived the life you’ve lived, I’ve lived the life I’ve lived. It’s important for all of us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” He says his ability to empathize has been shaped by travel and the diversity he’s experienced as a teammate of black and Latino players. “It’s like you’re thrown into this locker room with people who have lived a totally different life and see the world differently from you. It’s incredibly healthy.”

And the guy who hired Kerr? He cosigns it all. “Who am I to tell them what to feel, how to think?” Myers says. “All I would say and what we tell our guys is, educate yourself, try to speak intelligently on something. Research it, try to look at both sides. Then, whatever you’ve gotta say, say it.”

The Warriors have just beaten the Mavericks 112-97 on a December evening, and Iguodala, who finished with two points but a game-high 10 assists, is standing at his locker. He’s talking not about the game but about the past, and the situational awareness he needs for the present and the future.

“I know about people who grew up the way I did, and I know about their struggle and I know about things that are set up for them not to succeed,” says Iguodala, a 14-year veteran who grew up in Springfield, Illinois. This is the way life is set up, he tells his 10-year-old son: “You’re black, you’re an African-American man,” so you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings.

And you have to choose the things you allow into your head. Iguodala has recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle and has just finished Things Fall Apart, the classic African novel by Chinua Achebe. “I curate everything that comes into my brain,” he says. “Though there’s still some BS in there, like some funny stuff. I’m still fighting that.”

It’s that determined curiosity that distinguishes the Warriors, says Edwards: “What is singular about the Golden State Warriors, and it’s the only thing that you can really ask and legitimately project about a team like Golden State, they’re the greatest, most informed, the most intelligent, the most critically and vitally political of their era.”

It’s an era shaped by images of police shooting citizens, a video canon watched by players, who recognize that their own privilege and relative immunity doesn’t extend to people who look like them, or to anyone else they love. It’s an era in which fundamental national questions we thought had been asked and answered about race and equality are being re-engaged.

It’s also an era in which athletes, especially in the NBA, have both financial power and the ability through social media to connect with millions worldwide. They can hit send without a coach’s or general manager’s permission, or third-party translation. Even Ali couldn’t spread his message without intermediaries.

The times have both framed the issues and compelled the responses. Like the men and women who came before them, the Warriors are responding to what the moment calls for.

Black-athlete activism began with the struggle for legitimacy, then access, then dignity and now power. And those struggles existed in a broader context. You can’t talk about Jackie Robinson and the integration of sports separate from the civil rights movement. You can’t talk about Jim Brown or Arthur Ashe without Black Power. And now you can’t talk about Kaepernick, the national anthem protests or the political levitation of the Golden State Warriors without the frame of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Green tied a critique of the word “owner” to the history of white men and slave labor, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called on him to apologize. Green responded by saying, “I don’t expect him to understand. … He don’t know the feeling I get when I turn on the TV and see an unarmed black man got shot by a white police officer.” Those comments instantly became part of the national race conversation.

But that, Kerr says, won’t always be the case. “The inevitable downturn will come,” Kerr says, “and when we’re not winning at such a high rate, maybe there will be a different reaction” to their words, to their positions on social issues and the athlete-activists publicly creating new forms of influence in America.

Kerr says the Warriors don’t spend time thinking about that future or their place in history. Instead, the most woke coach on the most thoughtful team in the history of pro sports encourages his players to meet this standard: Say what you feel, “as long as you’re true to your convictions.”

The history will take care of itself.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Hawks guard Malcolm Delaney is donating more than 400 coats to schools in his hometown The Baltimore native was moved to donate after students wore coats to keep warm in classrooms

When Atlanta Hawks guard and Baltimore native Malcolm Delaney learned that former NFL linebacker Aaron Maybin was seeking donations of coats, gloves, hats, thermals and socks for students in his hometown, he swiftly answered the call.

“Aaron is the guy who sets the bar, and hopefully all of the other athletes — or don’t even have to be athletes — can match, or just to open their eyes about the city,” Delaney said.

As students brave rough winter weather, wearing coats in classrooms no warmer than 40 degrees, Delaney has decided to donate more than 400 coats. The Burlington department store chain was moved by Delaney’s gesture and offered to donate an additional 200 coats to two other local schools.

“I grew up in Baltimore City Public Schools, and I knew exactly what he [Maybin] was talking about,” Delaney said. “It just sparked something, and I was just going to do something. Growing up in the city, I had friends who didn’t have coats and I have been in situations where I had to wear my coat to class because of the cold. Fortunately, Burlington heard my idea and they felt that they wanted to match my donation, and instead of one school we got three schools. They came through, and the principals to all these schools were open to take something out of the coats.”

Delaney wanted to make sure to make a direct impact. To put his plan into action, he contacted his agency and his best friend, Desman Thomas. For Delaney, having a team and being in a position to help children is probably one of the most important things after family.

“I heard that the kids needed so many different things, and then the reports came out about space heaters and then some schools said they couldn’t even use the space heaters, so Desman is that guy who let us know exactly what they needed.”

The recipients of Delaney’s donations include Gardenville Elementary (Delaney’s alma mater), Afya Charter Middle School and Harford Heights Elementary.

Delaney said having the opportunity to give back to children in his hometown is “very gratifying.”

“I always did stuff, and I always thought that if I made it I would always give back because there weren’t a lot of guys before me who I could say actually helped me or my friends out in the process of trying to achieve our goals. So me making it and having the ability to do it, I try my best to do it, and just having people around me that are on the same page with me and they’re just as passionate about it as me is easy to do, ’cause Baltimore city is very tough with picking the right team.”

Delaney is also passionate about the school system as a whole.

“I think just the attention needs to be paid more to the structure of these schools,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of schools that aren’t in good condition, so I think that’s something that needs to be addressed. And the heating system and the air conditioning, that needs to be priority. I also think the kids should be comfortable going to school, and it’s already enough to have to deal with an inner city of Baltimore, period, but once you add into consideration that some of these kids don’t even have coats to go to school, and once they get to school that there’s no heat, that just makes the learning environment a lot tougher. So I think just addressing this problem is a start, and then after that I think, you know, we still got to beat up the Baltimore city school system and try to get some more things done, because we might have one.”

Delaney played professionally overseas after college for teams including Élan Chalon, Budivelnyk Kyiv, Bayern Munich and Lokomotiv Kuban. In 2016, he earned an All-EuroLeague first-team selection.

Delaney signed with the Atlanta Hawks on July 15, 2016, and made his NBA debut in the team’s season opener in October that year.

Kevin Durant: A letter to my neighborhood The NBA Finals MVP reflects on growing up, giving back and the pleasures of going home

I hail from Seat Pleasant, Maryland, a predominantly African-American town of about 5,000 people just east of Washington, D.C., that certainly has had its share of struggles. If I could talk to myself when I was a young man growing up there, I would say that having tunnel vision when you’re passionate about something is a gift and a curse. While I knew how bad my surroundings were, and how tough it is to make it out, I had a laser focus on achieving what was necessary to leave my community. I didn’t want to abandon my hometown, but there was always something going on: police brutality, poverty, crime. In order to get out of this mess, I ultimately had to turn a blind eye to what was going on. I had to ignore it. And I felt like basketball was the only way I could get out of that wreckage.

Looking back at my childhood, I wish I would have just opened my eyes. I lived in a 95 percent black neighborhood with 80 percent of us living in poverty. But I didn’t really have the maturity or the voice to get involved back then. Today, I realize that my achievements are rare for somebody from my neighborhood. Today, I know that I can give a lot of hope to people who feel like they don’t have a way out. While I have regrets that I didn’t realize this earlier, today I can make amends to my community by providing hope and joy to people who come from where I come from and that struggle the way I struggled. Now I am aware of the problems.

When we’re given the gift of a great environment where people care for us and support us, it is our duty to give it back. We need to invest in our own communities. Invest in our kids.

I am in an unusual place—I feel like I’m living two lives, one as an NBA player and another as a black man from an impoverished neighborhood.

After winning an NBA championship, I was in the optimal position to help inspire my hometown. I brought the trophy back last August and saw that the people in my neighborhood were happy about it. It meant everything to me that the people of Seat Pleasant showed up for my championship parade, especially because it was on a weekday in the middle of the day. Usually, people have to work and go provide for their families. I thought about my mom’s struggle and how she could have never shown up to that celebration back in the day. Seeing my community’s reaction to my success proves that if we’re put in good positions by being given the necessary help and resources, we can flourish.

There’s just so many loving, caring and amazing people in Seat Pleasant. But it’s difficult to sustain the foundation of happiness in our souls when our surroundings bring out ugliness. When we’re given the gift of a great environment where people care for us and support us, it is our duty to give it back. We need to invest in our own communities. Invest in our kids. I believe communities will blossom and our country as a whole will be better because of it.

There are many great people who are trying to fight their way out of the struggle. For people like me who come from that struggle, it’s relatively easy to give money back or say how much we care. It’s a tough job, however, for us to really put our feet on the ground and put our imprint on those communities. But it is not an unattainable ideal.

Sadly, back home there is little progress. People are stuck in the same cycle every day, surviving minute by minute. I have been blessed to see the other side. Once given financial freedom, the world opens up. Your eyes open up. Every community needs resources, and those resources give people opportunities to do things they are passionate about and get their minds focused in the right direction. It has a trickle-down effect: a better household, a better community and a better future for our kids.

If I could give some advice to the youth of Seat Pleasant, it would be to find something that you love and do it as if your life depends on it. It sounds cliché, but it’s really that simple. If you put your mind to it, have faith and seek support, all with the foundation of a strong work ethic, the world will open for you. And once the world is open for you, then the conversations with close friends and family about how we can effect further progress in our communities will come from your own fulfillment, joy and freedom. So try to find your passion every day. See what the world has for you.


Kevin Durant from Seat Pleasant

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!