Social justice: Former Stanford star Chiney Ogwumike out to make change through LeBron James’ voting initiative

Summer trips from her hometown of Houston down to Galveston were a staple of Chiney Ogwumike’s childhood. But when she and her father drove down this weekend, the L.A. Sparks star and ESPN commentator felt a surge of fresh meaning.

Ogwumike, a former Stanford All-American women’s basketball player, has found familiar settings woven through the ground-shaking events of the present: George Floyd was a fellow Houston native who attended a high school that Ogwumike once played; his funeral was also held in her hometown; Floyd’s close friend Stephen Jackson who has helped mobilize protests is also a friend of hers from ESPN, from down the highway in Port Arthur.

And Galveston, which Ogwumike remembers as a beach getaway, is also the place where the holiday Juneteenth was created when slaves were freed there in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and months after the end of the Civil War. It felt all the more poignant because Ogwumike now feels connected herself to these movements and this history through LeBron James’ voting rights organization, More Than A Vote.

“There was a lot of opportunity to be introspective,” she said. “I’ve been called every racist term there is growing up in Texas, but I survived, and it made me who I am. It made the Black community who we are. We are survivors, and now we want to do more.”

Chiney, 28, was reunited with her sister, Nneka, last season on the Sparks.

Less than two weeks after it was first announced, More Than A Vote got its website up and running for last Tuesday — an election day in New York, Virginia and Kentucky. While the nascent collaboration with James, Draymond Green, Stephen Jackson, Caron Butler, Skylar Diggins and Trae Young among others is still forming strategy, the intent is relatively clear: bring attention and change to voter suppression that has historically impugned on the political power of Black Americans.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, a frustrated James asked those in his circle for a way to channel his emotions into something to empower Black Americans. Those discussions grew into More Than a Vote, which the Lakers star and his advisers realized could leverage the relationships he has built through his media enterprise to shine a light on voting issues.

An introductory video released Tuesday used images of historically vocal athletes like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson — James’ goal is to structure the next generation of those activist athletes.

“We have incredible influence in our community. We need to use this moment to demand change,” James tweeted Tuesday morning. “I gotta be honest … I struggle with what to demand because so damn much needs to change. But I’m starting with our right to vote.”

In addition to its athlete and entertainment celebrities who will serve as spokespeople and community conduits, MTAV has tapped political and electoral experts like Jocelyn Benson, the Michigan secretary of state, and Addisu Demissie, who ran Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. MTAV has already aligned partnerships with Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote to drum up voter registration, and Stacy Abrams’ Fair Fight Action. Some components will be driving registration; some will be educating voters on fair practices; some will be drawing attention to areas where MTAV identifies a voter suppression issue.

People like Green or Jalen Rose could help in the battleground state of Michigan, or Diggins and Young in Georgia, which in many ways has become the main stage for national discussions about voter rights. Ogwumike anticipates doing work in her home state of Texas, which could be a battleground state this fall though it is traditionally conservative-leaning.
Ogwumike said she wants to help amplify women voters as well, while welcoming in a coalition of people who worry about the same issues, including white allies.

“I love being from Texas, and we say that everything is bigger, including our voice,” Ogwumike said. “We are really diverse, but because we’re so big, sometimes it takes us a little longer to progress.

“One thing I love about this is we’re all athletes who are focused on the same goal. We understand challenges and making sure we execute. … We want to better society through action, and we do that by voting,” Ogwumike said.

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