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Stanford athletes inspire local youth through East Palo Alto mentorship project

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Playing on the NCAA stage, Stanford student-athletes are given a national platform. What they choose to do with that platform, however, is up to them. Some choose to inspire the next generation of athletes through impressive performances in competition. Some aim to be academic and athletic role models by connecting with young fans. Others, however, have done both — as in the case of men’s soccer sophomore Ousseni Bouda, women’s gymnastics senior Kyla Bryant, women’s basketball alumna DiJonai Carrington and women’s soccer senior Madison Haley through The Big Homie Project in East Palo Alto. 

All four took part in the program’s Feb. 25 Black History Month event, which allowed high school students to connect with several members of the Black community whose backgrounds in diverse career fields helped them serve as inspiring examples to the initiative’s mentees. 

Although the program took place over four months ago, discussion topics — such as systemic racism and other issues that disproportionately impact the Black community — are more relevant than ever given the increased conversation on race nationwide following the murder of George Floyd.

This type of community involvement is nothing new for several of the athletes, including forward Haley.

“I was seeking additional opportunities to ‘pay it forward’,” Haley said. “Community service has been a large component of my life since I can remember.” 

Spearheaded by Bay-Area native and USC alum Jacqueline Diep, The Big Homie Project aims to connect high school juniors and seniors in East Palo Alto with professionals in a wide variety of career fields such as medicine, tech, education, sports and entertainment.

Diep frequently collaborates with Stanford athletes, including for last December’s , Hoopin’ with Santa. For the basketball-specific community-clinic, she enlisted the help of Stanford men’s basketball’s Daniel Begovich, Neal Begovich, Sam Beskind and Isaac White.

The Big Homie Project’s website affectionately dubs mentors — like those basketball players — “Big Homies” and cites its intentions as working to inspire kids to “reach their full potential through mentorship and opportunities” in a community that has been left behind by the rapid growth and opulent wealth of neighboring Palo Alto. 

Nearly 13% of East Palo Alto residents hover at or below the poverty line, and the city’s median income of just under $65,0000 is less than half that of Palo Alto. 

Between Palo Alto High School — where over 70% of students participate in Advanced Placement coursework, according to US News— luxury car dealerships and a picture-perfect downtown area, the city leaves no room in visitors’ minds for questions of the area’s wealth. 

Neither does Stanford, a university known for its intimidating acceptance rate and one of the nation’s largest endowments of $27.7 billion.

Yet financial prosperity and consequential opportunity is not the only areas in which Stanford and Palo Alto differ from their easterly counterpart; the former two communities are home to significantly fewer Black residents.

Just 7% of Stanford’s undergraduate student body and a shocking 1.6% of Palo Alto’s population identifies as Black or African-American, compared to nearly 12% of the East Palo Alto community, according to U.S. Census data. In conjunction with wealth and education disparities in the three communities, their racial composition illustrates systemic inequality that has recently fueled protests worldwide.

“[I]t can be very intimidating as a minority student,” said Malcolm Debaun, a Black orthopedic surgery resident at Stanford Hospital, who has collaborated with Diep along with other members of Stanford Medicine. “[I] think that it’s important to have a support system and have a community…within the greater academic world where…you have people that look like you, that have similar experiences as you.”  

Thus, the idea of connecting East Palo Alto students with successful and inspirational professionals, athletes and others (who look like the students themselves) has become a central idea for Diep. That’s where Bouda, Bryant, Carrington and Haley come in. 

Growing up as a black gymnast in Georgia, Bryant remembers many of her childhood experiences as shaped by her race.

“I’m always in the minority,” Bryant said. “I’ve always been a girl that…can count on one hand how many black people were in my class.” 

“[S]ome of the time… I was the only [Black gymnast] on my team,” she said. She also remembers “knowing that [she] had to do ten times better to get my seat at the table.”

A Science, Technology and Society major, Bryant recognizes that the stage on which she performs is being watched by many more than just the attendees of her team’s meets. She cherishes the messages she receives from fans on Instagram, praising her as an inspiration to their daughters. Over the course of three years of collegiate competition, Bryant has collected numerous accolades, including multiple All Pac-12 honors and WCGA Second Team All-American on floor.

For her, becoming involved in the Big Homie Project, both as a participant in Black History Month celebrations earlier this year and as a long-time mentor for students, was a no-brainer. 

“I want kids — in particular kids who look like me, who are African-American — to know that…they are people who have a seat at the table,” Bryant said. 

A similar sentiment rings true for Haley, who also participated in the Black History Month celebration.

“Black is beautiful and powerful,” Haley said. “In life you will always have supporters and detractors. Believe in yourself and never let anyone steal your joy or confidence.”

Like Bryant, Haley’s three years at Stanford have showcased her dedication to soccer and her academics, which has manifested in called to the full United States National Team training camp in Nov. 2019 and earning United Coaches Scholar All-America first team honors. She was also a significant contributor in Stanford’s 2017 and 2019 NCAA National Championships.

In addition, her dedication to community involvement and utilizing her platform — especially in conversations of social inequality — continues to shape her actions off the field. 

“As a Stanford student-athlete, we are taught to always demand more from ourselves and from each other,” Haley said. “This has an academic, sports and social context. The latter often elicits uncomfortable or difficult conversations; however, just because these conversations may be difficult, does not mean they are not worth having.”

Aside from facilitating some of these more difficult conversations, The Big Homie Project helps students build relationships with Stanford athletes and others through fun, bond-building activities in hopes of lessening the network gap that exists in the underserved community.

“We could get closer to [the kids], talk to them, [play] games along with them — [including] basketball and soccer,” Bouda said of the Black History Month Celebration.

Bouda, a Burkina Faso native who also speaks four languages, hit the ground running at Stanford after being named 2018 Gatorade Player of the Year while at the Millbrook School in New York. On the Farm, Bouda earned All-Pac-12 first team honors and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

Despite the triumphs at Stanford, Bouda had a long and difficult path to get to his current position, and he recognizes the potential he has to inspire youth in similarly challenging situations.

“I beat the odds from the type of background I came through,” Bouda said. “I think there are a lot of kids like me who want to be in the same position.”

“[I] feel like it is a responsibility for me to give them a good example for them to follow.”

Contact Savanna Stewart at savnstew ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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