Over the years, the Celtics have taken pride in their initiatives to combat racial injustice and social inequities, but last spring they realized their approach needed to be evaluated.
On May 25, George Floyd was killed after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 10 minutes despite Floyd’s pleas that he could not breathe. Within days, a small Celtics task force was on a videoconference formulating a renewed action plan.
“The George Floyd incident just highlighted to all of us that we need to do more,” Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca said. “It was a clear call to action that we needed to double-down on the programs we’d already started, and that what we’ve done just wasn’t enough.”
For the Celtics, it became important to dig deeper into the root causes of the societal issues, and to use their financial resources and well-respected voices to effect change. After countless hours of meetings and discussions, the franchise in September unveiled Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, a 10-year, $25 million initiative that would be guided by a franchise-wide task force to combat these systemic problems in the Greater Boston area.
And now, just six months later, despite the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, real and noticeable changes are already being sparked by this multi-layered social justice initiative.
“What we’re attempting to do, even though it’s no one’s expertise and no one’s day job, is work that we’re passionate about,” Allison Feaster, vice president of player development and organizational growth, said. “We want to first represent those and be good stewards of those who hold our brand near and dear. It’s incumbent upon all of us to invest in that community when we know there’s social injustice and racial inequities that pervade that community. We have to act.”
More than 100 members of the organization joined committees that created programs focused on six pillars: equity in education, economic opportunity and empowerment, equity in healthcare, criminal justice and law enforcement, voting and civic engagement, and building bridges between communities. The groups also sought feedback from and partnered with other community leaders and organizations.
“We’re all involved in trying to make ongoing change that will last and continue for a long, long period of time,” said president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who is on the equity in education committee. “It’s not a one-time mandate or PR function. It’s really meaningful change, and it’s good to be part of it and see everybody in the organization embracing it.”
By breaking the focus into segments, this massive plan could become somewhat less daunting. Yes, it would all take time, but time was needed to truly make it effective. This was not a search for instant results.
“The plans of the committees are very ambitious, and I think the resources are there and the will is there,” assistant general manager Mike Zarren said, “so I think we’ll be able to pull it off.”
Zarren, for example, is a co-leader of a voting and civic engagement committee. The group partnered with MassVOTE, a non-profit aimed at increasing voter participation in the state, to launch a multi-layered voter registration plan in areas of need.
Sometimes the power and visibility of the Celtics was essential, such as when the team broadcast its voter registration Web page on video boards during games in the Orlando bubble last summer, leading to thousands of new registrations. Other times, it was more grassroots. When the group realized that its target audience might not have internet access, or might not be watching a Celtics playoff game on cable television, it distributed informational door hangers in communities of need.
Celtics players recorded a PSA, and many registered to vote themselves, and team employees volunteered as poll workers.
Also, the Celtics and Vistaprint teamed up to launch a $1 million grant program for small, Black-owned businesses. They plan to offer grants of about $25,000 to approximately 40 businesses. The process started late last month, and hundreds of applications poured in within days. The Celtics will work with the NAACP to identify the businesses that will receive the grants.
“This is different than anything we’ve done from a community standpoint,” said Dave Hoffman, the Celtics’ vice president for community engagement.
The equity in healthcare committee has recently been focused on the COVID-19 vaccine, with a focus on fair access as well as working to alleviate the mistrust of vaccines in Black and brown communities.
The Celtics recently recorded a panel discussion that included medical experts and members of the team.
“We have access to these world-class medical experts, so let’s ask questions on behalf of the Black and brown community that they may ask if they had the access themselves,” Hoffman said. “This is different from a ‘Take the shot’ campaign where you say ‘Hey, everyone look at this person you recognize. You can see them on a video taking a shot and you should take the shot, too.’ It doesn’t actually address the root causes of the concerns.”