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Celtics social initiative begins with a voting ground game

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford and her ground game — the 50 people hired by the MassVote executive director to blanket neighborhoods with voter education door hangers — are in crunch time of one of the most consequential elections in United States history.


The green-and-white hangers carry the Celtics/MassVote logos and are two-sided, one in English and the other in either Spanish or Creole. The campaign targets communities historically intimidated by the voting process because of bad information and, in some parts of the country, the underlying whiff of voter suppression — or communities that simply have never been stirred to act at the polls.


Kemba Walker, who was first inspired to vote for Barack Obama, recalled early last month that he never heard much about voting while growing up in the Bronx.

“Where I’m from, nobody talks about going (to vote),” said the Celtics guard. “Nobody in school; they did not (tell) us to go out and vote. I can see why a lot of young kids haven’t voted in their lives, because that’s not something you see or hear about.”


Walker’s words are fuel for Crawford, the daughter of a community organizer in Dorchester, the cousin of South Carolina U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, and former chief of staff for her aunt, state Rep. Willie Mae Allen. All of these influences led her to MassVote, and the fight for voting equity.

Today’s toxic climate considered, the fight is both hard and rewarding, because Crawford sees gains in registrations and early turnout.

“Absolutely, yes, yes, yes,” she said. “I’m hoping we have 80% turnout. People are laughing, saying really Cheryl? We’ve never had 80% before.

“I say yeah, I’ve never lived in a pandemic before, I don’t know about you. With all of the other things, there’s a first time for a lot of things, so can we get 80%? We can do it.”


It helps that Crawford now has the support of Walker’s team. The Celtics, under the umbrella of a project called Celtics United, have committed $25 million over the next 10 years to support racial justice initiatives, with voting and civic engagement the first of the six so-called “pillars” to mobilize due to the urgency of Nov. 3. MassVOTE was identified as the logical recipient of support. As of last week 50,000 hangers had been printed and distributed.


Walker’s words address the mission perfectly for Crawford. And his status as an NBA player gives those words power.

“People, whether they vote or not, will pay attention to sports,” said Crawford. “To have them speak out on this platform so clearly, and address the issue — many of us didn’t grow up this way.

“I did, because my father was a community organizer. But many people didn’t, especially in communities that are under-represented and disenfranchised. Oftentimes their thought is, ‘How am I going to survive?’ They’re in survival mode. If you don’t see how the system is supporting you, and you’re in survival mode, and before we had early voting you only had that one time to vote from seven in the morning to 8 p.m., and if you’re working two jobs and trying to raise your family, though voting is critical to change your quality of life, they don’t see it that way. I have to feed my kids TONIGHT.

“But to hear a Celtics player say I didn’t grow up this way, this is the right way to do it now, is a fabulous, great message that will reverberate. They’re saying it from their platform.”

Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca was bothered enough by the May 25 killing of George Floyd that, by his recollection, “two or three days” later he called together a like-minded group from all parts of the organization.

“It had a dramatic effect on me. I could hardly watch that video, though I did watch it,” he said. “I can’t imagine people standing by and watching that happen — a person basically being murdered right in front of them. It had a deep impact on me and the rest of the Celtics management team and investor group.”

Michael Zarren, the Celtics assistant general manager who would oversee the voting initiative, and Allison Feaster, the team’s director of player development and a key liaison with players once competition resumed in Orlando last July, were of the same mind.

“It was almost instantaneous coming together,” said Feaster. “George Floyd was the ignition point, and almost a simultaneous light going off that we have to do something, between me, coach (Brad) Stevens, Steve Pagliuca, Danny (Ainge), Wyc (Grousbeck), Dave Hoffman.”

Hoffman, the team’s director of community engagement, has been running programs with a focus on social equity for years, and along with Feaster and regular input from the players identified six areas of concentration for funding — Equity in Education, Economic Opportunity and Empowerment, Equity in Healthcare, Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement, Breaking Down Barriers and Building Bridges Across Communities, and Voting and Civic Engagement. With the exception of the voting initiative, all are still in the planning phase, with players included on all the committees.

“Each player had different issues. Jayson Tatum was very interested in education, Jaylen Brown was interested in social justice,” said Pagliuca. “They each had different things to say, and we supplemented it by talking to many experts and came up with a 2-by-2 matrix that said ‘what are the issues, but what are the issues we can really impact?’ There’s some things that we felt we couldn’t have an impact on. The six that became the issues were the ones the players felt were really important, and where we felt we could really move the needle.” And, as the organizers discovered, there was no shortage of mouths to feed once the initiative was announced.

“The nonprofit sector sometimes interprets an announcement like ours as $25 million in checks to whoever comes and pitches. And rightfully so,” said Hoffman. “If I was a nonprofit and I saw that I’d think the same thing. But our style from the community standpoint is to be a lot more hands-on. Our plan is to utilize our resources to drive direct service initiatives in a large capacity.

“But that didn’t stop the nonprofits from calling. I got a few hundred messages, I’d say, in the first week, from all angles. I got emails, calls. I thought someone was going to knock on my front door. I was really happy to see it, because I think organizations need to continue to pay attention to the climate and figure out which levers to pull.” The ultimate barometer, though, came from the players. Not long after plans began for Celtics United, a tailwind picked up from the Orlando bubble, with the police shooting of another Black man — Jacob Blake — triggering a one-game strike by Milwaukee Bucks players. Competition was delayed for three days, players invited coaches to a Wednesday night meeting, and a debate over whether or not to resume went late into the evening. The prospect of using Orlando as a racial justice platform instead of going home — the position was eloquently stated by Jaylen Brown, a rising young star in the players association — won the day, and play resumed.

“Just because you’re confined to a space doesn’t limit the conversation and the need to work,” said Feaster. “Being there first-hand with the guys and accompanying them on their journey, it was nothing less than amazing. Impressed at what they’re able to do, and I’m in awe of some of the players who were able to use their voice and stand out like Jaylen, and Enes (Kanter) and some of the others who were tremendous using their platform.

“They are carrying the baton of folks who came before them who understand sport is not just what you do. It’s really a way of life, a way to transform values into standing up for what’s right. It’s a way to speak out. Our guys are not just athletes — they’re humans first, and they’re great role models on those things. They’re keeping the conversation going.”

For Hoffman, though, the best ideas have always come from the players. The Big Ticket Challenge, originally named for Kevin Garnett and renamed to Step Your Game up once he was traded to Brooklyn, was designed to inspire under-performing students.

“That program was borne out of a conversation with KG,” said Hoffman. “We approached him about coming to a school one day that had a bunch of kids who were doing well in school, and perfect attendance, and stuff like that. And he was like, ‘I’m down to go to the school, but if I’m going to go to the school I’m meeting with the kids that aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Those are the kids I want to get to, those are the kids I can make an impact on. Those other kids don’t need me. They’re already doing what they’re supposed to be doing.’

“(The program) essentially worked with a handful of Boston middle school students, identifying the students who were the most under-performing as it related to major high school dropout rates, like chronic absenteeism, failures in multiple academic areas, things like that. And he would challenge each of those kids personally to listen, if you do this, this and this in a classroom by this date, then you’ll come to a Celtics game, I’ll buy the tickets, and you’ll come and hang out with me after the game. He did it for a whole bunch of games over the course of the season.

“All of these kids — the kids the principal never wanted to admit he lost faith in — and KG resurrected them. He was the catalyst for them to take their grades out of academic failure or chronic absentee areas, and pull them into compliance or even better. Some kids went from getting Ds and Fs to Bs and As. That came out of a conversation one day over breakfast with him.”

According to Hoffman, “hundreds” of these students attended Celtics games during Garnett’s last season. The results were so notable, a delegation led by assistant general manager Zarren presented them the following year at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Their actions this summer considered, NBA players are probably the most politically empowered group of athletes in the world. One of the first agreements reached with owners in exchange for a return to competition was the use of arenas for voting. Though TD Garden ownership was amenable, it was later decided that the arena’s use wasn’t necessary due to Boston’s well-organized and plentiful voting facilities.

But in other cities where the need for voting access was more pronounced, the effort got off to a promising start with the announcement that Houston’s Toyota Center would host voting. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stood in line at the American Airlines Center, which opened for early voting with 50 well-spaced booths and short wait times. Detroit’s Little Caesar’s Arena was used as an election worker training center — vital in a city that had ballot-counting issues in 2016.

Alas, not every NBA city was welcoming.

Carlos Giminez, Miami’s Republican mayor and a congressional candidate, shut down the Miami Heat’s attempt to open American Airlines Arena on the grounds that the Black Lives Matter banner overlooking Biscayne Boulevard constituted a political statement. A nearby museum with tighter conditions and the lack of a parking facility was instead chosen. But the NBA’s push for social and racial justice has made a strong initial move. Crawford can feel it in her own backyard.

“It’s like being the fly on the end of a horsetail, because they have the capacity to reach way more people than we could,” she said. “The Celtics have a way bigger audience than we do. Even though we’re a statewide organization, they’re a national organization. It’s very timely, because people we may not have been able to reach, we’re reaching through the Celtics network. I’m hoping this has a huge impact.”

This story originally appeared in the Boston Herald. Check it out here!

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