For those people who believe that democracy is a contact sport to be played by active, engaged citizens, we are living in a transformative moment in our country’s history. Social progress is moving at a rapid pace as more people from various corners of our society are finding their voices. Modern technology, with the Internet and social media, provide fast access to increasing amounts of information, including content generated by everyday people. One does not need wealth or power to publish a point of view or organize a large-scale gathering.

Simultaneously, we are witnessing an uptick in the participation of athletes in the issues of the day. Athletes from various sports, including basketball, are finding their voices and their leadership legs through political expression, philanthropy, and affiliation with various causes and organizations. Nationally, I am amazed at the courage and fortitude from athletes like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and of course Colin Kaepernick who speak out on issues of racial justice. Brianna Stewart and Ali Raisman have been powerful voices in the #MeToo movement against sexual predators. Coaches such as Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr engage full-heartedly in the public debate. Locally, we see Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long on the front lines of social change. At 50 years old and too young to have experienced first hand the actions of Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Muhammad Ali, and Jackie Robinson, I am amazed at the degree which athletes recognize that they have a powerful perch to speak out, and while doing so may stir controversy or hurt their “brand value” in the eyes of potential corporate sponsors, they must be more than mere commodities to generate wealth.

So what does this mean for Philadelphia Youth Basketball? Well, with a mission of creating opportunities for young people to reach their potential as students, athletes, and leaders, we have seized on this profound “moment in time” by developing a series of “sport and society” social justice modules as the centerpiece of our off-court academic program. We provide our student-athletes with an opportunity to read news articles and first-person essays about athletes who are taking action in some way on a social issue. In addition to reading, we provide a forum for analyzing and debating the issues, and writing about the issues with prompts like “What would you do if you were in her or his shoes?” or “What do you think about the issue?” These modules are generating “noisy classrooms” which are filled with active learning, critical thinking, and the building of literacy skills. Young people are experiencing the joy of learning and finding one’s own voice about a contentious issue.

Our off-court program is predicated on three pillars:

  1. Emphasize youth voice
  2. Use sports and the role of athletes in society as powerful context for inquiry-based learning
  3. Do not make our academic program “feel like school”

Many sports-based youth development programs do not contain an academic skill-building element. These program providing organizations believe that through the sport itself, the important learning of “life skills” emerge. They are right. However, at PYB we believe that young people, especially those who attend under-resourced schools and live in high poverty communities, often lack access to opportunities to grapple with societal issues. The development of deep intellectual curiosity, civic inquiry skills, and finding energy through learning and discourse is lacking. These traits, through, are fundamental for a child’s development as a student, an engaged citizen, and a human being in a larger community. For our young people to prepare themselves to immerse and achieve in high school and to become college ready, they must develop an attitude and an aptitude for learning. And, it begins with a child embracing the two beliefs: first, that one’s formal and informal learning matters and should be pursued with real effort, the same as one devotes to his/her craft as an athlete; and second, that learning can be inspiring and fun. The program we have developed, and the ability of our coaches and academic mentors to bring the learning to life, is getting stronger each week.

We live in an increasingly competitive world. We also live in a world that is increasingly stratified, and oftentimes not by merit but by the “opportunity gaps” available for children of the wealthy, middle and lower middle-income families, and those living near or below the poverty line. As I see it, the best way to overcome the lack of opportunity presented by one’s economic circumstance, as unfair as it may be, is to immerse fully in the development of one’s mind, body, and spirit, and to build high quality relationships with peers and adults. It is these conditions and opportunities that we at PYB are obsessed with creating.