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Sounders embrace the Black community beyond Black History Month

The club’s Social Justice Platform is their guide for the future.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The Seattle Sounders filled calendars for folks around the Puget Sound with events honoring Black History Month throughout February. Those events ranged from an interview between Steve Zakuani and OL Reign forward Jasmyne Spencer, to putting up $250 tabs at 10 Black-owned businesses in the area over the course of the month in a collaboration with Intentionalist, “an online guide to intentional spending that supports small businesses and diverse local communities.”

While the events took place during Black History Month, the club’s commitment to the community is much more than a one-month thing. As Kimberly Aigner, Sounders VP of Social Impact explained, “with the [Social Justice] Framework, it’s something we’re really going to live and breathe in order to make a stronger and more equitable community this year and for future years.”

Part of the effort on the part of the club to invest in the community is a partnership with the Northwest African American Museum. That partnership involved a continuation of the “Books & Balls” giveaway events, an existing series that started in 2020, which combined the museum’s Knowledge is Power children’s book giveaway program giving “carefully curated books that share the richness of Black history and culture for all children. These books center, reflect, and affirm Black children, and are written and illustrated by Black authors and artists,” with the RAVE Foundation’s One Ball program that aims to provide children with high-quality soccer balls.

“We realized our strength is using our platform to elevate individuals and experts, and then to listen to those voices,” Aigner said. “And so the next step was let’s identify who these experts are ... so we said OK, we have some great resources in our back yard with our local museums, whether it’s NAAM, or the Wing Luke Museum, or the Burke Museum.”

The relationship between the Sounders and NAAM started when LaNesha DeBardelaben, President and CEO of the museum, was brought in as one of those experts.

Aigner described the beginning, saying, “LaNesha actually came in as a speaker for our staff and did an internal session about the history of racism in Seattle, and then she also spoke about voting rights and it was timed with the election. So along with talking to her we also saw that there was an opportunity to collaborate, as we also want to center efforts with youth, with BIPOC youth, and they have this Knowledge is Power program, and so that’s when we said, hey, we have this One Ball program with our RAVE Foundation, where we try to provide access to youth. So if you’re trying to provide books to similar youth, often the same youth, can we collaborate on this Books & Balls program?”

They started with Giving Tuesday in December, and since then have distributed over 700 soccer balls, and even more books.

According to DeBardelaben the partnership “has been joyful. It has been rewarding, enriching, it has been transformative for our communities to have this opportunity for both academic fitness and physical fitness to be provided to them, fully complimentary, right in their neighborhoods, and to see these two organizations have such enthusiasm for community. It’s really an inspiration to see these Knowledge is Power books and soccer balls giveaway pop-ups, because during difficult times such as a global pandemic hopeful moments like these giveaways matter the most to communities.”

The partnership goes well beyond having two similar, easily combined outreach programs centering the city’s youth. “When we consider the world of sports, and when we consider the work of museums, there are so many parallels,” DeBardelaben described. “Sports are activities that open minds and change lives through teamwork and self-discipline and focus and practice and opportunity. And so it is a joy to see this partnership grow in such seamless ways, and I think it’s because our values align. The values of NAAM and the values of [Sounders] are in such agreement with one another that it just makes sense for us to serve our community together, opening minds and changing lives one book and one ball at a time.”

These giveaways, providing kids with a ball and a book that reflects their value back to them, are even more than the hopeful moments they provide on the day of the event. They can be an avenue of self-improvement, or a passageway to another place or a new experience.

“They get to take a piece of the museum and a piece of the ball game with them ... When I think about books, I think about the world of possibilities,” said DeBardelaben. “And athletic balls are the very same thing ... you can imagine yourself being anywhere with these tools of imagination, and that is what NAAM and [SFC] are providing: tools of immense imagination for our communities.”

The Books & Balls giveaways aren’t the only thing that’s come of the partnership between the Sounders and NAAM. Steve Zakuani joined in the museum’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day events. DeBardelaben mentioned how impactful it was to have him participate, as he “was one of the featured story-telling readers for our Dr. King Day program, and it was such a thrill to children and their parents to see a former SSFC player and current broadcast analyst to read a story about becoming a champion. The story that he read was about becoming a champion, and how we all can become champions when we all do our best and are our best. Those sorts of meaningful engagements, moments, communicate that the Seattle Sounders FC are all about equity and justice and educational empowerment.”

This has all been part of a concerted effort on the club’s part to center and embrace BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and other minority communities, as stated last summer when they issued their letter to the Sounders community asserting their commitment to social justice.

Aigner assured that this is an on-going effort, saying, “these things that we’re doing are not one-and-done things. We’re not just doing it for Black History Month and then walking away at the end of February. A peak behind the scenes is that we do want to support and promote local BIPOC- and minority-owned businesses, and so Black History Month was just the first Heritage Month of the year ... and so the goal as we approached Black History Month was, OK, what are the partnerships that we can form, and have a long-term partnership with them, but also be able to replicate some of those for consistency throughout the year.”

That could mean partnerships with other museums to help share expert knowledge, or continued work with Intentionalist in different communities, but what’s clear is that the organization is embracing a more complete view of the city of Seattle and the surrounding region, including the vibrant communities that are so often left out when we only focus on the suffocating whiteness of the Pacific Northwest.

On the heels of the prior month’s Black History Month events, the Sounders further solidified their commitment to diversity and equity by joining with other local sports teams and Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics to launch a new graduate program at the school. The program is an MBA in Sport and Entertainment Management, and will make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a priority, the first of its kind. The program will also feature “DEI professional development opportunities for faculty members and the creation of a new, BIPOC-led advisory group including students, faculty and team partners.”

With a commitment to social change as a foundational part of the club, this work will be ongoing.

“Our social justice framework will continue to lead where we’re headed,” Aigner said. “It’s Women’s History Month, with International Women’s Day on Monday, and we’re just being really intentional about what we’re doing. And so if we can elevate the voices of BIPOC and minority women on International Women’s Day and tie in those communities at times where we otherwise might not have otherwise thought to do so. We’re just trying to be as authentic as we can, and continue relationships throughout the season.”

For those interested in learning more about what NAAM has to offer, DeBardelaben explained, “the Northwest African American Museum has programming and experiences year-round for the entire family. There is something for everyone, always ... and our programming goes all the way through December. We end out the year with our very meaningful Kwanza program. And so NAAM is an institution that is for everyone. We are all about improving the quality of life for everyone in our region. We invite individuals to follow us on social media and consider joining us and tuning into our website for constant up to date information on what we’re doing.”

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