Thunder putting words into action with a program aimed at young, black students

By Michael Kinney

In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and the unrest that sprung from it, companies across the nation were being confronted on where they stand on racial issues. The Oklahoma City Thunder and their top brass was no different.

In June when Thunder General Manager Sam Presti was asked what the franchise wanted to do to help fight systemic racism in the United States, he didn’t have a specific answer at that time. But he knew it was going to take more than words and hollow promises.

“I think what we need more now than words are actions,” Presti said June 7. “And the steps that we often take in these situations often revert to short-term solutions to what is really a problem that’s plagued this country for centuries. I think, number one, forum to communicate; number two, education; number three, action that can be scaled to actually effect change over a long period of time but also things like opportunity, social mobility.”

The first major step in putting those words into action became a little clearer Tuesday when The Oklahoma City Thunder and CAA Sports introduced the Thunder Fellows Program. The Thunder say it’s a partnership designed to unlock new opportunities in sports, technology, and entertainment for Black students in the Tulsa area.

“I am all for the fellow’s program,” said Cory Young, a teacher’s assistant at Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High . “I feel it presents untapped exposure to both the black community but also to the Thunder. With more exposure comes much-needed opportunities.”

According to the Thunder, the program will be guided by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. It will be comprised of two groups of students: Fellows (Black students from regional colleges and universities) and Young Leaders (Black students from 8th-12th grade in Tulsa area schools). 

The Thunder Fellows Program, which is a 501(c)(3), will make its home in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District and will launch in 2021. Its goal, according to the team, will be to create creating a clear path to future career opportunities in professional sports and other lucrative industries.

“Our organization is deeply committed to social justice and the actions that are necessary to create better opportunities for the Black community, now and in the future,” said Clayton I. Bennett, Thunder Chairman. “I am proud that the Thunder Fellows Program will both provide tangible learning for the future, and also serve as a symbol in the Historic Greenwood District. We will work tirelessly to make this a program that will create change for generations to come.”

Spurred on by the on by the death of Floyd and other unarmed black men at the hands of the police, the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the 300 deaths associated with it has gained more attention in the past couple of months as country comes to grips with the racial history of the nation.

According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, it has been estimated that rioters decimated more than $200 million of Black property in today’s dollars.

“It is time for us to come to terms with the devastation of this atrocity,” Presti said. “Our hope is that the Thunder Fellows Program captures the spirit of the Greenwood District while helping to launch and create future opportunities for local area Black youth. Our goal is to effect long-term sustainable change in our entire state and provide future-proof skills that can be leveraged for economic empowerment and mobility. We are grateful for the partnership with CAA Sports, and thank the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and the George Kaiser Family Foundation for their guidance as we look forward to being a part of a change that is long overdue.”

The Thunder wanted to focus in on the youth of Oklahoma when they created the fellow’s program. In order to make long term changes, they decided to start at the root and help close the opportunity gap for Black students in Tulsa. 

In the 2018-19 school year, on the Oklahoma State Testing Program, 8th-grade math proficiency of Black students in Tulsa County was nine percent and dropped to seven percent for economically disadvantaged Black students. The gaps increased when evaluating SAT/ACT data for 11th-grade students for the 2018-19 school year in Tulsa County, where only seven percent of Black students met college readiness benchmarks in math, while economically disadvantaged Black students dropped to five percent proficiency.

“Looking closely at the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission’s mission to re-establish the Historic Greenwood District to economic viability, we saw an opportunity for the Thunder and CAA to support closing the opportunity gap for Black students in Tulsa through mentorship and skill development, while simultaneously building a pipeline for these young men and women to careers in sports, entertainment, and tech,” said Mike Johnson, CAA Sports Executive. “We look forward to working closely with the Thunder on this important program and creating career opportunities for these future graduates in our organizations and industries.”

The curriculum offered through the Thunder Fellows Program will aim to close these gaps and increase the odds of high school and college completion through mentorship, skill development, and the provision of practical experience, stated the Thunder. Students will be exposed to a variety of disciplines within Thunder basketball operations, where they will work on real-world projects for the organization. 

“I’m 41, and unfortunately, I don’t see an end to systemic racism any time soon being that it’s been here my entire life,” Young said. “I do however feel that we can make improvements toward bridging the gap between races. I feel blacks need ownership in order for this gap to be leveled. This program can help. As a teacher of all races, our black population is just as intelligent and deserving of opportunities as any other race. It could result in a better, more diverse and well-versed community as a whole.”

Photo by Cory Young/Forever Young Photos

Story by Michael Kinney/Michael Kinney Media

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