Amid pandemic and social upheaval, these Black Stanford athletes are making time for mentorship

Sitting in a classroom in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa, an 11-year-old Ousseni Bouda made a decision that might’ve changed his life forever. That particular day the choice was between school or attending a soccer tryout. 

So he left in the middle of class and headed for the field. 

A month later he was on a bus en route to Ghana to join the Right To Dream Academy, where he spent four years before making the trek to the United States. As a high school student at Millbrook in New York, he quickly adapted to his new home and made sure people knew exactly who he was, setting soccer records, piling up goals and gaining national notoriety. Awarded 2017-18 Gatorade National Player of the Year his junior season, he brushed aside offers from schools like Duke, Wake Forest, Georgetown and committed to Stanford University. After his debut campaign for the Cardinal last season, he was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

“From the first time I went to the academy in Ghana the main goal was to provide opportunity and support for us to succeed, and then come back to give back to our community,” Bouda told Yahoo Sports. 

It’s something that’s always been important to him, which is why he used to coordinate with Millbrook coaches and teammates to gather used cleats, balls and jerseys to provide kids back home with better conditions to play soccer. Now, thousands of miles away from the places he previously called home, he is finding a different way to be as impactful off the field as he is on it.

Bouda and other Black Stanford athletes have been involved in an initiative called The Big Homie Project, helping to provide youth in underrepresented communities with mentorship. Co-founder Jacqueline Diep tapped not only athletes in building her network, but also professionals in fields from tech to medicine. Her goal is to use the powerful and influential Stanford community, which has a vast group of notable alumni, to drive change. And she found a perfect location where in the span of 3.5 miles the difference in quality of life is impossible to ignore. 

Ousseni Bouda is one of several Stanford athletes involved in The Big Homie Project. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Ousseni Bouda is one of several Stanford athletes involved in The Big Homie Project. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

This past February, The Big Homie Project hosted a Black History Month event at the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula in East Palo Alto. According to the United States Census Bureau, Black and Latinos make up 74 percent of the community in that city. Head south toward Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto and that same demographic doesn’t even represent a combined 10 percent.  

The discrepancy is alarming but a big reason why these student athletes didn’t hesitate to join the initiative. Paired with kids of all ages, the Stanford representatives were able to loosen up, share their stories and even learn a thing or two as well. Showing — not just telling — kids of color that someone that looks like them has achieved success is one of the most powerful ways of sparking motivation.

“Trying to help them understand the sky’s the limit, even though it might not seem like it, but they can get as far in life as they want,” said Stanford women’s soccer player Madison Haley, a two-time national champion. “It was so much fun, I think they really appreciated us coming out. I really enjoyed just talking to them, learning about their lives and seeing where there is a need for us to help out.”

In these times, the need is dire. 

For DiJonai Carrington, a former Stanford women’s basketball standout, the connection was spiritual. Not long after February’s event, the 5-foot-11 guard started a weekly virtual bible study group with the intention of creating a safe space. What she didn’t know is that by just promoting it on her social channels, she was going to garner the attention of teammates, rivals, mentees from The Big Homie Project and people far as New Zealand and Australia. 

“Wanted to have discussions to show that we’re all dealing and struggling with a lot of the same things,” Carrington told Yahoo Sports. “Having a community, especially during the initial phase of quarantine — some people were living by themselves and had nobody to talk to. The group was just really encouraging for a lot of people all across the board.”

Dijonai Carrington transferred to Baylor in the spring, but the former Stanford women's basketball player has stayed connected to The Big Homie Project. (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Dijonai Carrington transferred to Baylor in the spring, but the former Stanford women's basketball player has stayed connected to The Big Homie Project. (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Stanford athletes called to action amid social upheaval

Stanford women’s soccer players found themselves on a Zoom call for about an hour and half addressing all the flashpoint issues of the past couple months — the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, the protests, the flawed system. It was a mixture of anger and emotion along with support and the desire to be more proactive. Then they did just that. Without their coaches knowing, the team crafted a statement and ran it by their media operations contact, who was given the green light by university higher-ups. 

“Silence is no longer an option for us, as a team, and we’ve made that decision,” Haley said. “We’re obviously Stanford student athletes, but we’re more than that. With everything that’s going on, we want to really promote all those other things that are meaningful in our lives, and right now that’s showing solidarity with the Black community.” 

A team going behind coaches’ backs to post about Black Lives Matter might not have happened years ago, and definitely not at Stanford. That’s an indication the tide is actually shifting. It’s forcing difficult conversations to happen. It starts through education of the youth, through real life action — an objective of The Big Homie Project.

For Bouda, who is the only Black player on the Stanford men’s soccer team, it circles back to where he came from.

“Growing up, most of the soccer players I saw from my country were all about driving flashy cars, watches, nice clothes,” said the 20-year-old. “I see a cycle where everyone wants that lavish lifestyle and everyone thinks they’re gonna be that one successful player, then they come to a tough realization down the road.

“I hope I can be looked at differently. Soccer only lasts for a short period of time, I have bigger plans.”

Madison Haley has won two national championships with Stanford women's soccer, but her work off the field is even more important. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Madison Haley has won two national championships with Stanford women's soccer, but her work off the field is even more important. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Athletes redirect time and energy during pandemic pause

Just because news coverage of the still-daily protests has slowed down, and the flooding of black squares on Instagram came and went like most social media fads, doesn’t mean there isn’t major work left to be done. With college sports on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s allowing athletes to dedicate their attention elsewhere. 

Kyla Bryant, who is one of three Black women on the Stanford gymnastics team, is using her time to work in her community. She has linked up with other Black athletes to create a platform where they can educate on voting, absentee ballots and what’s going on outside of the sports world.

“It’s such a misconception that student athletes have it easy, especially at a school like Stanford. You have to politely check people,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “I worked my ass off to get here. That’s why it’s so important to have Black representation in these communities.”

Carrington, who transferred to Baylor in the spring, shared similar sentiments.

“I’m drawn to serve communities that need it the most through activism and social work,” she said. “People are racially ignorant and it might be a matter of them being afraid to ask questions or say the wrong things, but I think this time has been beneficial in that sense of educating. I too have grown and learned so much more.”

Tucked in the shadow of Silicon Valley, there are communities like East Palo Alto that see schools like Stanford as unattainable. So initiatives like The Big Homie Project could effect lasting change, long after the pandemic and the headlines have moved elsewhere.

For more information on how The Big Homie Project is helping bridge network and opportunity gaps for youth in communities of color, visit here.

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