Black History Month (BHM) began last weekend. Last month we raised the question here if the Twin Cities pro and college teams would be “authentically engaged” in this year’s observations rather than offering their annual perfunctory gestures. Happily, at least two local teams seem to have taken this challenge seriously.
“It is more than just February,” University of Minnesota Associate AD Mike Wierzbicki stressed. “It is [Black alumni] telling about [how] coming to the U of M prepared them for life, and to be successful after their experience at the U. We want to welcome and celebrate our alumni throughout the entire year…throughout every sport and every season.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves this year were “very intentional” in their BHM efforts, said Social Responsibility VP Jennifer Ridgeway. Additionally, all 30 NBA teams this month will wear custom Black History Month warmup shirts featuring words selected by players that reflect Black history and culture all month long. These t-shirts are available for sale at NBAStore.com, and all proceeds will go to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.
“We will be hosting a series of events” for both Timberwolves staff and players throughout this month, Ridgeway announced. She credits Sianneh Mulbah, the team’s chief people officer, who worked with Northside Achievement Zone CEO Sondra Samuels on a North Minneapolis Black history tour this month for team employees.
“She [Mulbah] is African American [and] has been a significant influence in terms of putting together meaningful and impactful events on behalf of our organization,” Ridgeway said. “This is offering an opportunity for our staff to be engaged and exposed to the richness of our community in North Minneapolis.”
The Wolves actually kicked off its BHM observance last month with a video that featured Timberwolves’ Robert Covington and Karima Christmas-Kelly of the Minnesota Lynx, Ridgeway reported. “They sent a message to all Boys and Girls Clubs in the Twin Cities really encouraging youth to create art to display the meaning of Black history.”
“We just collected all the art created by the youth, and that art is going to be displayed at our Wolves home games during the month of February,” Ridgeway said. “The youth who submitted art will be receiving tickets to attend the games as well.”
“We’ve got [a] full month-long celebration to honor a variety of African American alumni in athletics that began Sunday during the Minnesota-Rutgers women’s basketball game,” U of M’s Wierzbicki continued. “We have 20 honorees that we will honor throughout the month each day Monday through Friday. Our tagline is ‘Celebrating Those Who Made Us Great,’ using both biographical information and short Q&As on its website,” he added.
“We also will do a Black History Month specific celebration at the men’s basketball [on Feb. 19]. Whether it’s hockey, basketball or gymnastics throughout the month, each game we will have an in-game recognition on different athletes,” Wierzbicki stressed.
He also pointed out the school’s recent hiring of former Minnesota soccer player Simone Kolander as campus and community partnership coordinator. “Having her as a catalyst has done some amazing things for us,” the Gopher associate AD said. “I wanted to make sure that I give her some credit for all the work she does in this program.”
It seems that both the Gophers and Wolves have taken our authentic engagement suggestions to heart. As Wierzbicki explained, “We look at it more than just being about February, to just educate our own fan base and to embrace and celebrate across all different communities about the amazing things our [Black] student-athletes have done here in their careers.”
Ridgeway concluded, “We really have been intentional in three core areas of focus: education, inclusion, and wellness. It is definitely at the heart at what we both celebrate internally and externally.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.