center for teen empowerment mentors and mentees. The boston-based group is a grantee of the NBA foundation.
center for teen empowerment mentors and mentees. The boston-based group is a grantee of the NBA foundation.

The National Basketball Association capped off another exciting season with two small-market teams—the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns—duking it out in a six-game finals series. Superstar Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo took home Finals MVP, leading the Bucks to victory. It was a true redemption after the Bucks’ surprising loss to this writer’s beloved Miami Heat last year.

But the NBA has been making headlines in the world of philanthropy, too.

The NBA is known for being a relatively progressive league and its majority Black player base has been increasingly outspoken about an array of timely issues, from criminal justice reform to mental health, and we’ve been tracking the philanthropy of this latest generation of NBA stars. Some have already begun to donate in a sizable way, including Lebron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. With the bulk of their attention still focused on their playing careers, these figures have plenty of time to iron out and deepen their giving interests later.

Then there’s the NBA Foundation, incorporated in 2020, whose mission is to drive economic opportunity in the Black community through employment and career development by funding programs that generate successful transitions from school to meaningful employment for Black youth. The young foundation pledged an initial $300 million over the next decade. Each NBA team will donate $1 million annually, or $30 million collectively, over those 10 years.

In the past year, the NBA Foundation has given away $11 million in the form of 40 grants, including 22 new grants totaling $6 million in early August. These August grants were made in the Bay Area, Boston, Detroit and Milwaukee, among other cities, to organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, New Door Ventures and the Center for Teen Empowerment.

In order to do its work, the foundation has tapped Greg Taylor to serve as executive director. The New York native previously worked at W.K. Kellogg Foundation and was president and CEO of the Foundation for Newark’s Future before joining the NBA in 2013. I recently spoke with him about how the young foundation operates and what he hopes to accomplish with the NBA’s charitable arm.

Setting up a new foundation

During the 2020 NBA playoffs, with a pandemic bubble twist, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court against the Orlando Magic in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. It’s not the first time NBA players have used their platforms for social justice, but Taylor calls it an inflection point.

“The NBA was really thinking through what is our role in this time of social change and social unrest in the country… One of the strategies we put in place was the creation of the NBA Foundation,” Taylor explains.

The nonprofit veteran spent seven years at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as vice president for programs, education and learning, where he helped design the foundation’s early childhood education program. Taylor was also head of Foundation for Newark’s Future, which was tasked with carrying out Mark Zuckerberg’s famous (perhaps infamous) $100 million challenge grant to improve the public school system.

In his new role, Taylor’s focus is on Black youth aged 14 to 24. In doing its work, the NBA Foundation has focused on three strategies to carry out its mission. First, create partnerships in its 28 NBA markets between the league, corporations and companies that want to hire black kids, and nonprofits that focus on job readiness. Second, provide a pathway to meaningful employment that leads to family-sustaining jobs. And third, create storylines, using the NBA to capture and spread affirming storylines about Black youth.

The foundation’s board sports a mix of players and NBA executives, including the Philadelphia 76ers’ Tobias Harris and the Sacramento Kings’ Harrison Barnes. “Tobias Harris was using his postgame interviews to highlight Breonna Taylor and that her case was not receiving the level of media attention that he thought it should,” Taylor says.

And on the executive side, there’s private equity billionaire and Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler and one Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Ressler and his wife Jami Gertz are also backers of Alliance for College Ready Public Schools. Meanwhile, His Airness has ramped up his philanthropy of late, as well, with an interest in social justice.

The NBA Foundation focuses on grassroots and local charities that have shown a particular commitment to the communities the foundation focuses on.

Teen empowerment

One of its recent grantees is the Center for Teen Empowerment in Boston, launched all the way back in 1992 to “involve low-income, urban youth in helping to solve the most pressing issues in their communities” using a pioneering teen-empowerment model. Its theory of change focuses on four pillars: Beliefs, Strategy, Impact, and Outcomes. One key conviction is that high-risk youth must be included as partners with adults to solve youth-related problems.

“[The center] started in Boston, Massachusetts, during a very serious time at the height of gang violence, and really, the crack epidemic… One of the main things that was at the core of our work was seeing these young people as assets,” explains Abrigal Forrester, executive director of the Center for Teen Empowerment.

The center hires young people and empowers them to be change agents and strategy developers to address the needs of their communities. It works primarily in Boston’s Black and brown neighborhoods of Roxbury and North Dorchester. It also works with immigrant communities, and through the years, expanded its work to other parts of Massachusetts and Rochester, New York.

Over the past three decades, the nonprofit has received attention for its programming, including from the mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts, who asked the center’s first executive director and founder, Stanley Pollack, to replicate the model in his town.

Forrester mentions Operation Ceasefire (or the Boston Miracle), a watershed initiative implemented in Boston in 1996. Notably, for about a year and a half, no person under 18 was a victim of homicide. “We were at the center of that, with a partnership and collaboration of other agencies. All of the peace movements, the gun buyback programs… even right now in Chicago, some of that came out of the Boston miracle,” Forrester says.

As for how the Boston-area nonprofit got the attention of the NBA Foundation, Forrester and leadership were looking for ways to continue to expand its model nationally. His team had been looking at some broader national foundations and funding streams. “We said, why don’t we apply? Like, we fit right into the social justice movement that we’ve been observing the NBA talking about, and players talking about,” he adds. And of course, the rest is history.

Forrester’s biggest hope for the funds is that the center will continue to build out its capacity and reach. Its programming begins with youth coming in as organizers, and then moving up to assistants for program coordinators. He hopes that the center can continue to add more young people who go through these various phases of employment.