Use Sports To Change Your Life

Use Sports to Change Your Life. That was the title of a workshop hosted by the Education Committee of the Central Jersey Alumnae Chapter (CJA) of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. on Saturday, January 25th at Franklin Middle School in Somerset. Because a disproportionate number of black students become incarcerated due to increasingly harsh school and municipal policies, the goal was to show how they can use sports to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and change their lives. This is the fourth year the workshop has been offered. Event chair and CJA member Brenda Edwards Miller welcomed visitors, explaining that the purpose of the session was to enrich and expose student athletes to collegiate sports opportunities and athletic careers, motivate them to academic excellence, and afford them the chance to have a dialogue with others who’ve used sports to advance themselves. Chapter President Karen Wade Culp also greeted guests. As the parent of two student athletes who used sports to pay for education, Wade Culp encouraged everyone to take advantage of and absorb the information that would be presented today.

CJA member Myra Mitchell facilitated icebreakers for the students and their parents. Thereafter, she assigned all attendees to various labeled tables:  compassion, competitiveness, confidence, determination, focus, honesty, integrity, mental toughness, respect, and self-discipline. Attendees were asked by Mitchell to relate the assigned word to their experience in sports or in life and explain how the word helped them become the people they are today. A representative from each table group then had the opportunity to summarize their group discussion.

Edwards Miller had the honor of introducing keynote speaker Dana Brown, Vice President of Scouting for the Atlanta Braves. A proud product of New Brunswick, Brown, who played multiple sports in high school, commented that he grew up in a single parent home with 11 siblings and that he “used baseball to get out of the inner city.” He attended Seton Hall University on a full baseball scholarship and was ultimately drafted by the Phillies organization. Because of his experience as a player and his role in scouting, Brown encouraged more people to take advantage of baseball, stating that only 8% of black people play the sport. He stressed, “There is lots of money to be made,” and encouraged participants to seek athletic scholarships because “every dime helps.” He told students that they also had to be champions socially and academically.

CJA member Lori Grier introduced the panelists. Each shared information about themselves, allowing attendees to hear a little about their backgrounds in preparation for the next portion of the workshop.

  • Shaaliyah Lyons, Director of Basketball Operations for the women’s basketball program at Seton Hall commented that she was from Jackson, NJ where she played basketball and was also on the AAU circuit. She was being recruited by Seton Hall, but ultimately chose to attend on an academic scholarship. Because of her love for and knowledge of the sport, she managed the basketball team during her time there and then parlayed that into her current career. She is continuing to use sports as she works on her Masters degree, also at Seton Hall.
  • Michael Scott, founder and CEO of the PCP Network and father of Philadelphia 76er Mike Scott, admitted that he “was the guy who didn’t want to go to class” when he was growing up. However, he wanted to make sure his son was more focused and had every opportunity afforded to him. Scott’s support and guidance helped Mike achieve his dream of playing in the NBA. Scott then started his network to provide assistance to parents of student athletes.
  • Todd Sherman, owner of TCW Tennis Academy, played tennis in Miami where he grew up. He was ranked #2 in Florida, #10 in the country, and was the highest ranked black player in the sport. His mentor was tennis great Arthur Ashe. Sherman had multiple scholarship offers until he was severely injured in a tragic motorcycle accident. Although he healed and continued to play tennis, “People began to doubt me,” Sherman, said and his scholarship offers were pulled. South Carolina State “took a chance on me. I got a full ride and a degree in electrical engineering.” He played professionally for a while, then opted to teach tennis and started his own academy. “There were plenty of days I wanted to give up, but I’m still here!”
  • Rebekah Solomon, Vice Principal of Franklin High School, has direct experience in helping student athletes get recruited. Solomon urged participants to not only use sports to change their lives, but said, “Bring someone up with you and change your community.” Solomon had athletic options, but chose an academic opportunity. She promised to impress upon students the importance of academics.
  • Tiffany Thompson, an adjunct professor at Kean University who helps freshmen transition to college life, encouraged parents to continue to assist and be available for their students as they struggle with issues like time management. She was prepared to discuss areas of struggle and share strategies with students.
  • Finally, Shy Williams, a 2nd Lt. in the US Army National Guard, opened by reminding attendees ”student comes before athlete.” She suggested that when choosing colleges, students should ensure that the coach is someone who cares about them on and off the court as her coach did when she was recruited by Montclair. Williams explained that during her first semester of college, she focused solely on basketball and it impacted her grades, resulting in academic probation. She then secured tutors, focused, and ultimately made the dean’s list after saying to herself, “I am more than an athlete.” Williams subsequently had a successful collegiate basketball and academic experience.

The panelists then engaged in intense discussions with anxious parents and students. Parents participated in the Parent Athletic Circle with Scott where they discussed how to support encourage, and safeguard their student athletes. The students were broken into smaller groups and rotated around the room spending time separately with Lyons, Sherman, Solomon, Thompson, and Williams. Questions were asked, personal experiences shared, and advice given.

Dr. Jennifer Durham, Education Committee Co-Chair, closed the session by having a brief wrap-up of the day. Determination and commitment to both academics and athletics were resounding summary comments. Student athletes left prepared to explore their options and parents left with a plan to support them.

Enjoy the video of the event!

Just Mercy flyer

Just Mercy

On Sunday, January 11, 2020, the Central Jersey Alumnae Chapter (“CJA Deltas”) presented a sold out, Red Carpet event at the Reading Cinemas Manville. Hosted by the Arts & Letters Committee, the chapter held a private screening of the movie Just Mercy and over 200 guests were in attendance. Viewers were immediately impressed by a personal, on-screen welcome from cast member Karan Kendrick to CJA members and guests. Kendrick portrays Millie McMillian, the wife of Jamie Foxx’s character, death row inmate Walter McMillian. Viewers subsequently experienced a range of emotions as they watched the movie - laughing, clapping, and crying at various portions. At the conclusion, a thoughtful post-movie discussion was facilitated by Arts & Letters tri-chairs Denice Ware, Nicole Rogers, and Sheyreese Sayers. Guest panelists included attorneys Douglas Mitchell and Cathleen Price. Mitchell, a social justice advocate who specializes in criminal defense and bankruptcy law in his private practice is also Conflict Counsel for the State of New Jersey, Office of the Public Defender, where he represents both juveniles who are criminally charged and adult defendants. Price was personally sent to the screening by Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson to represent the grassroots organization he started in 1989, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). She has worked for EJI for 27 years and knew many of the characters represented in the movie. 

Topics during the discussion were thought-provoking. We learned that racial disparities exist everywhere, but the United States has the most prisoners of any country. In fact, approximately six million Americans can’t vote due to felony disenfranchisement. Mitchell commented that although there is no death penalty in the state of New Jersey, there are life sentences with no eligibility for parole due to issues of mass incarceration and racial injustices. Price spoke to the prosecutorial misconduct seen in the movie and suggested that the movie can teach lawyers how to hone their craft. It can also teach others what to expect, and help people ensure the right questions are being asked and that their cases are handled properly by counsel in their own personal matters. She noted that there has been a 500% increase in incarcerations since 1970 and an increase in the use of the death penalty. Price stated that as community members, we should be calling elected officials to express our outrage. While prosecutors in some states are elected, they are appointed by the governor in New Jersey. It was stressed to attendees that we hold our governor accountable for who he appoints and the actions they take. Price challenged us to educate people on the prosecutorial function and to advocate for which crimes should be prioritized. She added, “Cruelty never helps us get to a better place, and that one in 10 cases are exonerated. Price said that we would never get on a plane with such odds and wondered why we accept this with regard to death sentences. A viewer asked what we can do to ensure that persons who abuse their power, lie, and violate the legal rights of others don’t remain in power. Sadly, Price explained that the government is held to a higher standard of proof when it is accused of misconduct, but she and Mitchell concurred that we must vote and engage in voter facilitation.

Delving deeper into the issue of convicted felons, Price stated that a problem with the right to vote is that the administration of it is left to the states. In Massachusetts, one never loses the right to vote and machines are brought into the prisons to allow prisoners to vote. Some states allow felons to have the right to vote after a period of time such as five years, and still others strip the right completely. Price said, “It’s a disenfranchisement technique related to the mass incarceration of black people.”

An attendee identified herself as a teacher and referenced the school to prison pipeline, commenting that schools often mimic law enforcement in their treatment and criminalization of students. Mitchell explained that schools have special authority and some autonomy. As such, consulting with law enforcement doesn’t have to be the first response of schools in many incidents. He also discussed programming designed to show what it feels like to live under martial law and bringing in trauma specialists who can raise the discourse. Another guest asked what can be done to decrease incarceration for minor crimes. Mitchell said lawyers should listen to their clients because often there’s a rush to judgment. He added that we should push for diversionary programs and look at alternatives to incarceration, that we must be educated about the process, and that we must engage our elected officials. Price stated that we must begin to show up in court if we have the space and time because “our presence in he courtroom changes the dynamic.”

Overall, it was a wonderful event and viewers left with strategies to make an impact. It is important to note that Bryan Stevenson, whose mother is a member of Delta SigmaTheta, was invited but could not attend. He sent his regrets and provided a 2020 EJI calendar for each attendee titled “A History of Racial Injustice.” Each guest left with a calendar in hand.Chair Denice Ware thanked Mitchell and Price for their participation and assured them that the CJA Deltas are heavily involved in social action. She affirmed that we try to ensure a social action component to most activities in which we engage such as this Arts & Letters Red Carpet event. Ware and President Karen Wade Culp gifted Mitchell and Price with a signed copy of She Came to Slay: The Life and Time of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and gratitude was also expressed to attendees for their support of this event. The CJA Deltas left with the understanding that we have a lot of work to do…and we are ready. See our press release by clicking here.