By David Steele
The members of the Howard University men’s basketball program knew they had taken on a monumental task when they chose their social justice project for the 2022-23 season. They just didn’t know the details of its enormity, not until they started getting personally engaged in the people, places and goals involved.
The project is Black maternal health. The racial disparity in maternal mortality is one of the most shameful scourges in health care in the United States, reflected in the rate of maternal deaths among Black women growing exponentially worse in the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black mothers were 2.4 times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth than white mothers in 2019 and nearly 2.7 times more likely in 2021.
When the players accepted basketball coach Kenneth Blakeney’s challenge last fall to choose a project and immerse themselves in it, they decided early on to focus on issues surrounding the Supreme Court’s reversal last summer of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
“I was excited, but I was terrifyingly scared as well,” Blakeney said of their choice recently.
Back then, none of them knew another student at Howard felt those same emotions – Aniyah Majors-Rivera, a sophomore biology major from Wilmington, Delaware, who was going to have a baby soon. She had withdrawn from classes and did not know when she would be able to return – or whether she would.
In late January – the week of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday – Blakeney and his players spent a day of service putting together care kits at Mamatoto Village, a maternal health center run by and for Black women eight miles from Howard’s campus in Washington. They got a surprise visit and congratulations from King’s son, Martin Luther King III, at a Washington restaurant where they ate afterward.
The next day they defeated Morehouse in front of a standing room-only Burr Gymnasium crowd that included players from the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards, who had played in a holiday matinee earlier in the day – and who, during a halftime ceremony, helped present scholarship checks for $7,500 each to two Howard students who were, or were about to become, mothers and wanted to stay in school. The Warriors and Wizards provided the money for the scholarships.
One of the scholarships went to Majors-Rivera, who returned to campus for the game believing she was just going to be one of the “mothers of Howard” acknowledged by the team; she did not know what was awaiting her at halftime or that NBA players would be involved.
“I had no idea. I just started bawling my eyes out,” Majors-Rivera said.
On the Friday after the holiday game and halftime scholarship award, Majors-Rivera gave birth to a daughter, Surài Nilan Ewell Rivera. That morning, the players, coaches, managers and staffers closed their practice by gathering at midcourt and giving a shout-out to Majors-Rivera on video: “H-U, you know!”
Seeing the recording added to the joy of her day.
“Even after the event, it was family,” she said.
Everything the Howard men’s basketball program has done for its project has been designed to be more than an event, more than an appearance, more than a news release. That includes the scholarships to Majors-Rivera, 20, and fellow student NaKeisha Rawlings, who is 32 and raising a 5-year-old while taking classes and aspiring to go to law school. Mamatoto Village also has promised to stay in contact with both scholarship winners and encouraged them to take advantage of its services.
The scholarships sprang from an idea by two team managers, Ta’Niyah Smith and Ashley Foston, who took it to Daniel Marks, who joined the program in September in the new position of chief program strategist.
Marks had come from the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, and as much as he leveraged his connections with the league to bring the Warriors and Wizards on board, he made sure the young managers were engaged at every level, including speaking to officials with the two teams and choosing a maternal health care facility to partner with.
“They were right by my side all the way,” he said.
The scholarship idea ultimately grew in scope, Smith said.
“It was just an idea, and it kind of snowballed into a huge project that turned into everything it turned out to be,” Smith said. “We just kind of dreamed big and kind of hoped and prayed that everything would turn out how we hoped it would, but I think it became bigger than any of us has anticipated.”
As they collectively strategized ways to extend the Black maternal health project into the neighboring community, Foston said, she and Smith realized that nothing would be more direct than assisting mothers right there at Howard, and their unique challenges, including continuing their education.
“If I was in her situation, I don’t know if I could be the one doing it,” Foston said of the scholarship winners. “So seeing someone that is living that life, it just shows you that everyone’s path is truly different, and you can never assume anything about anyone.”
She said it also alerted the players to what their commitment to the project really meant.
“A more short-term goal we had was to start helping others on campus, and to do it so quickly after announcing the project was really helpful for them, to know that what they’re doing is impactful within our community,” she said.
The overall goal of the project is to make it more than a surface campaign, and other activities are being discussed for coming months. The day of service was exactly that: The players not only participated in a roundtable discussion with Mamatoto Village co-founders Aza Nedhari and Cassietta Pringle and their staffers and volunteers, they also squeezed into the storage room, rolled up their sleeves and packaged essential items for expectant and new mothers into about 240 specialized kits to provide to clients at the center and their homes. That included unpacking and wrapping 8,000 diapers and sorting 30 loads of laundry.
It was hard work, educational and far from a quick meet-and-greet.
“Transparently, we really did want to make sure it wasn’t performative,” said Mariah Oates, Mamatoto’s director of communications and advocacy. “We don’t want that – we don’t want extra publicity to make things feel performative. That’s not what we are as an organization.”
Yet getting the public support from Howard overall and the men’s basketball team specifically has sent a vital message, Nedhari said.
“It’s almost like you’re introducing your brand or your organization to a new segment, to a new population of people who might not have been aware of this issue,” she said. “People want to talk about it, because you have young Black men who are interested in something that in many ways will affect them, or may affect them, or may even be affecting people in their own lives that they weren’t aware of, maybe even affected their own mothers and were not aware of that journey, either.”
The men on the basketball team understand why their voices on their issues matter. It is why they chose Black maternal health as their project this season. They quickly narrowed their focus to Black maternal health for the reasons Nedhari noted.
“That’s what this is all about, doing work in your own community,” said team captain Jelani Williams, a senior transfer from Penn and a Washington native. “I’m the product of a single mother, one of three, and my mom had me at a pretty young age, a little bit out of college, so a little similar to Aniyah’s situation. So I can relate to her situation somewhat.”
Reece Brown, a junior from Albany, New York, and a transfer from UNLV, felt a personal connection during the visit to Mamatoto Village and the roundtable with the staffers.
“I got to talk with them, learn a couple of their individual stories, the reason why they do what they do. I feel like it was a part of me,” said Brown, whose mother, Kristin, died of cancer in 2021. “I always had a very special relationship with my mom, so I know how important that is, to help people out that don’t have equal opportunity.”
Blakeney, a Washington native, has given his players a social justice project in each of his four seasons as Howard’s coach and was instrumental in bringing in Marks, who he has known from his previous basketball stops, to help organize the project. Blakeney has always left it up to the players to choose their project, though – and this one was as intriguing but out of his comfort zone for him as it was for them. Thus, his nervousness about their choice.
“I was afraid of the backlash,” Blakeney said, noting the “divisive” atmosphere fueled by last year’s midterm congressional elections and the continuation of the social and political disruptions of 2020. “That was the part that really scared me, that a group of Black student-athletes at an HBCU was swinging for the fences about Black maternal health.”
Yet the way everybody in the program has not only embraced it but put in real effort has helped elevate this year’s project beyond its usual impact, particularly in public awareness. The splashy social media campaign generated extensive local and national media coverage. It increased exposure of Mamatoto Village, which has received strong corporate and political support and is planning to expand its already state-of-the-art 5,200-square-foot space in the upcoming year, to a new audience.
And it brought Majors-Rivera to the attention of the basketball program, almost inadvertently.
The day after they went public on social media with their project on Jan. 2, she saw an Instagram post by Howard freshman Shy Odom. Majors-Rivera was already searching for help to pay her school debts.
“I just responded to what he posted. I just told him I wanted to know about the program. Then Coach [Blakeney] reached out to me the next day,” she said.
The scholarship wasn’t even a done deal at that point, but Marks, Smith and Foston were working on making it happen behind the scenes, even out of the view of the players and coaches. Odom said he just wanted to help her, but since he didn’t have specifics at the time on how they could, he forwarded her request to Marks and the program.
“It wasn’t about the scholarship, she just wanted to see if she had any contacts that could help her,” Odom said. “I didn’t think we would be able to help, but God works in mysterious ways.”
Fast-forward to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Majors-Rivera was holding a giant check on the basketball court, weeping with joy.
“I said to myself, ‘This is real. They’re really willing to help me, and I really didn’t have anybody to help me,’ ” Majors-Rivera said.
She has set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to help with tuition costs not covered by the scholarship and is now motivated to start a program to help mothers in her same situation. Plus, she and Mamatoto Village are now aware of each other, with the center promising to follow up with her and their staffers meeting her at the game that day.
It all evolved from a project taken on by young Black men, a group that everyone in the Black maternal health community wants to get more involved, and one that at least one Black mother least expected to find help from.
“The basketball team – huh?” Majors-Rivera said with a laugh. “Going to Howard, of all people, the basketball team?”
David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith’s 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.