Early education helps us ‘Make history now’

Greenwich-Voices-JohnsonDuring the past two weeks, the New York Times, Daily News, Amsterdam News, Newsday, Ebony, NBC News, The Root, and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show all did feature-length stories about me and the organization I run — the not-for-profit Black Fives Foundation.

Also, by proclamation of the mayor’s office, Feb. 10, 2013, was declared Black Fives Day for the City of New York, and I received a special recognition award at center court during halftime of an NBA basketball game at the Barclays Center from the general manager of the Brooklyn Nets.

“Barclays Center is a crossroads for Brooklyn and honoring the Black Fives is a great way to bring sports, Brooklyn’s history, and our community together in a meaningful way,” said the arena’s developer and majority owner Bruce Ratner.

This is unprecedented media coverage for almost anyone, but especially for us, since we’ve been doing pretty much the exact same thing for the past 16 years — researching, preserving, exhibiting, promoting, and teaching about the pre-1950 history of African American basketball teams while honoring its pioneers and their descendants — with no such fanfare. What changed?

The difference is that we shifted our approach. Instead of operating a commercial entity, which performed worthy deeds, as we had in the past, we created the aforementioned foundation to better express our efforts. Its mission is to use this important history for the teaching of life lessons in areas like leadership, character development, educational advancement, culture and arts appreciation, and health awareness.

We have a great board of directors, which includes the Stanford- and Harvard-educated descendant of one of the pioneers from that historical era. Our slogan is, “Make history now!”

Operating through a foundation reconciles the inherent conflict between running a business that wants to “do good” and the need to generate business income unrelated to social cause, for survival. Those were too many hats to wear at once. Our goal now is to seek revenue via grants, corporate partnerships, fund raising, and individual contributions allowing us to provide programs and services — including exhibitions, presentations, clinics, and teaching tools — to schools, community centers, camps, and groups without cost to them.

Recently, I conducted such a program at the Barclays Center, along with Nets guard C.J. Watson, for some local elementary school students. It consisted of showing the kids a collection of vintage basketball equipment (including a laced ball, kneepads and kangaroo leather shoes), discussing the ways the game is different (and the same) today, and then letting them play pickup basketball, but with one mind-bending caveat — they had to play by the pre-1915 rules, namely, that a player who had already dribbled the ball could no longer shoot it, or else it would be a turnover.

“The rules they had to play by back then, some of the players in the NBA today wouldn’t last,” Watson said afterward.

Mind-bending, yes, but this simple exercise teaches adaptability, coachability and teamwork, essential building blocks for life, in a fun and engaging way. The youngsters were riveted and, rising to the challenge, began self-officiating in a supportive learn-as-you-go way which was Brooklyn-style — that is to say, by whatever it takes.

Kids will do whatever it takes, given the chance.

The early-childhood educational engagement of students is vital, impacting everything from test scores, health, social awareness, and future incarceration rates to college achievement, business success and civic leadership, all of which correlate directly to local, regional and even national economic viability and competitiveness. We should do whatever it takes — like continuing to invest purposefully in education — to ensure that this happens, for one and for all.


Claude Johnson is a local business owner, author, and former Democratic candidate for the Connecticut General Assembly. You may follow him on Twitter @claudejohnson and @blackfives.

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