NEWARK, NJ — At a time when public figures are more public than ever, athletes who champion politically charged social causes often face a hailstorm of reactions from fans and sports leagues themselves.

Newark alumni and athletes joined panel moderator CC Minton at Newark Public Library on Thursday to explore what it looks like when sports and activism join hands on a local level.

Dale Colston, principal librarian for NPL’s James Brown African American Room and one of the event’s organizers, said this year’s panel topic stemmed from a desire to explore a complex history and tell the full story of the relationship between black people and sports in the United States. 

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“The black athlete in America was chosen because it has been very important in the history and culture of the African American experience in the U.S. They’ve been spokespeople, willingly and unwillingly, they’ve been the subject of racism, sexism and just overall unfairness,” Colston said. “Other times, they’ve been celebrated.” 

For the panelists — Douglas Freeman, Tommy Garrett, Shawn McCray and Vanessa Watson — the answer to how sports and activism meet to uplift black communities is interwoven throughout their work and personal experiences. Douglas Freeman, co-founder of the Weequahic Park Sporks Authority, found that when he set out to restore the South Ward’s Weequahic Park and designate it as a safe zone, his first task in providing safety was asking for it from the neighborhood. 

“We went from Hawthorn, Avon, Chancellor, Evergreen and talked to the young men in the neighborhood,” Freeman said. “And one of the things that people need to understand is that the community individuals that sometimes we see on the corners, they care about the neighborhood too.”

McCray, founder of the Zoo Crew Summer Basketball Program and head basketball coach at Central High School, is well acquainted with the “young men” Freeman refers to. Once a troubled youth and then young adult whose Zoo Crew program borrowed its name from the drug ring to which McCray once belonged, McCray’s life was transformed through sports and mentoring young athletes.

But prior to his transformation, his existence was not one lacking in social awareness or advocacy. In the mid-1990s, following the shooting of a young, unarmed black woman by a police officer, McCray and his fellow Zoo Crew members mobilized to call attention to the injustice.

“We marched to city hall, and the officer who killed the young lady was suspended by Mayor Sharpe James. The police officers didn’t like that, so it kind of brought more attention to us and the neighborhood,” McCray said. 

Watson, a college basketball coach who worked with Newark’s youth for 31 years, found that her brand of activism was not centered on public protest (or parks, for that matter). Instead, Watson’s radical act was self-esteem building, which so many young black girls lack as they come of age in a country where European features are emphasized as the standard of beauty. 

Between navigating dangerous households and neighborhoods, participating in a sport is often a crucial safe-space that Watson said she was proud to provide her athletes.

“You work to get them to see the big picture and make them understand that they can be ‘that’ also. I take them to games, we go to college games, and just to get them to understand that they’re just as talented and they can reach those goals just like any other athlete,” she said.  “When you put that kind of time in and you make them feel good about who they are  — I have a lot of girls who come from some really rough backgrounds, and it was their saving grace to be on their team.”