WOODLAWN — Early this month, a group of young Chicago activists from Good Kids Mad City met NBA legends like Dikembe Mutombo on a trip to Africa — but it was conversations about their heritage and social justice they’ll remember the most.
The National Basketball Players Association Foundation, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, created the More Than A Game program to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. The youth leadership program brings activists to Johannesburg, South Africa to explore the intersection between basketball and social activism.
Through More Than A Game, four teens from Good Kids Mad City met four Johannesburg teens from Tshimong, a public speaking and leadership organization. The teens participated in workshops focused on the history of Africa, Nelson Mandela’s legacy, the Cradle of Humankind and more.
The trip culminated with the NBA Africa Game on Aug. 4, where the teens were able to meet and interact with current and former NBA players through community service projects.
Good Kids Mad City formed shortly after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The group is focused on student-led youth organizing alliance for education and racial justice across Chicago and Illinois.
Carlil Pittman, 25, an adult mentor for Good Kids Mad City, said she was approached by the Players Association after speaking at an event a few months back. Sherrie Deans, executive director for the National Basketball Players Association Foundation, was in the audience.
After initially making a donation to the group, Deans reached out about the trip. He said the opportunity to travel outside of the country was “a way larger scale than we ever thought about.”
Lyzz Ogunwo, program officer for the foundation, said Good Kids Mad City was selected for their commitment to community work.
“What we’ve been seeing for the last couple of months and the last couple of years is youth activism forcing change in our nation similar to what we’ve seen in the past and we’ve seen our players taking an interest and a desire to support our young leaders,” Ogunwo said. “Through the support of some of our players supporting work to prevent gun violence we were connected to Good Kids Mad City, VOYCE, we wanted to partner with some of their young leaders to have this learning experience in South Africa really understand the history of activism, philanthropy, and civic engagement through the lens of Nelson Mandela.”
Kofi Ademola, 38, an adult mentor for Good Kids Mad City, said the trip to Johannesburg was enlightening. He said the group told the South African teens about Rekia Boyd, 22, who was shot and killed by off-duty Chicago police officer Dante Servin in 2012, the #NoCopAcademy campaign against a new Chicago police/fire/EMT training facility, and other Chicago causes the group is focused on.
“It was beautiful to be with the NBA players, but I think what drove home for us is how similar we are to our brothers and sisters on the continent and we felt like we were welcomed back home so how do we continue to build relationship and how do we decolonize our brothers and sisters here,” Ademola said.
Damayanti Wallace, 17, said she didn’t quite believe it when she first heard they would be traveling to South Africa. About a month before the trip, the magnitude of the moment settled in and she cried tears of joy. She said the 16 hour voyage began with first flying to Atlanta and then the flight across the Atlantic Ocean to Johannesburg.
“I was so happy, this is something I really wanted to do for a very long time,” Wallace said. “People that know me would know that I study Africa a lot, I study my culture a lot, so going to the continent was an opportunity of a lifetime.”
South Africa was very beautiful, Wallace said.
DJ Davenport, 16, said the opportunity to talk to the NBA players and sit so close to the court for the game was thrilling. However, news from home on a violent early August weekend — where more than 70 people were shot — put things in perspective.
Moving forward, Good Kids Mad City intends to continue to work with their new South African partners.
“I think the broader conversation we want to have around Pan-Africanism, what it means to be a part of the African diaspora, and what it means to connect to our families and communities across the continent,” Ademola said. “What does it mean for us to fight against the institutional racism here, the segregation of apartheid, what they experienced during colonialism and what it was like back on the continent, and how are we going to uplift each other’s struggles and kind of recapture that spirit that was happening in the 1960s?”