December 9, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to grow as an equity leader. This is the 57th in a series of blogs as part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.
I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.
Following the killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright by local police officers, it is my hope that the rallying cries for systemic change and our progress on social justice in our community and beyond will only accelerate. We are sustaining our voice for change, but we must continue the work.
My 25th guest is Larry McKenzie, one of the most decorated coaches at any level in Minnesota. He's a member of the Hall of Fame for Minnesota Basketball Coaches, Minnesota State High School League and both of his alma maters, the University of Wisconsin at River Falls and Miami Beach High School in Florida.
He's universally known as "Coach McKenzie," but he embodies the memorable quote from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden who said, "A good coach can change a game; a great coach can change a life."
Coach McKenzie has led Patrick Henry High school and Minneapolis North High School, both in North Minneapolis, to a combined six state championships. But more importantly, he's changed the lives of the hundreds of young men he's coached both on and off the court. For that impact, Coach McKenzie has also been named a Bush Fellow in 2018 and a "Living Legend" by the NCAA in 2019, and it's fitting that his book is titled, "Basketball: So Much More Than Just a Game." He recently was named a recipient of a 2021 John Wooden Legacy Award by the National High School Basketball Coaches Association and the Wooden family.
A resident of North Minneapolis, Coach McKenzie also works as a charter school authorizer liaison with Pillsbury United Communities and enjoys supporting the local sports teams. I hope you enjoy Part 3 of my talk with Coach McKenzie. (you can read part 1 here and part 2 here)
Glen: Coach, I know we've known each other long enough, and I loved that sport (basketball), too. Grew up playing — certainly not at your level — and my son plays, my daughter played. And I was reflecting on the way over here, this experience I had as a young person. My dad was a high school coach, and one time he said, 'Hey, pile in the car. We're going down to catch Minneapolis North in an inner city game.' I'm guessing it was 1979, so I was 10 or 11, and my dad handed me a shot chart, and down to North we went. And I also remember on the way, my dad pulling over and picking up three young men, to give them a ride the rest of the way to the gym; they were heading the same way we were. And I'll never forget my reflection, as a young person, it was a such a unique experience. Here I'm coming in from the country, middle of nowhere, into the city, come into North, get in a long line to get into that inner city game that was jam packed. And my dad and I were two of just a handful of white people in that gym. And it put me in such a unique perspective, compared to the environment that I grew up in — small town, blue-collar, white. And I think it was an early tap on the shoulder from God to say, 'Hey, the world's bigger than you see it out in the middle of nowhere.' And as I reflected on that coming in to meet with you, it had me thinking, 'What can I do, as a middle-aged white guy, serving the Y? And how can I make the biggest possible impact?'
What are the things that go through your mind, in terms of serving community to the fullest?
Larry: The first thing that I think about is — and being very open and transparent — the one thing that Black folks don't need is cheerleaders. I remember just finishing a book by Dr. Bettina Love titled, We Want To Do More Than Survive. We need to thrive. And what she talks about in the book is having allies, right? And to be honest with you, when we go back to the George Floyd question, what I'm seeing is a lot of allies. Allies write checks, and put them in the mail, and lay down and go to sleep and feel good because they feel like they've helped. But co-conspirators are willing to take the risk, and she shares a story about a Black woman in South Carolina who climbed the pole to take the flag down. But there was a white man, who nobody talks about, who was the co-conspirator, who actually chained himself to the pole that allowed her to go up and bring that flag down. And what the white guy said is, he knew that, as a white man, him chaining himself, that they wouldn't tase her or do anything to harm her because he was chained to that pole. So that story, to me, is what we need more of, Glen. And, of course, most people listening won't know this, but you and I have been in partnership for almost the last year and a half, since the George Floyd incident, around youth education and gun violence in the community, and a few other things about finding ways to have impact. And I'm saying, what we need is more Glen Gundersons to walk with us, talk with me, as we try to tear down some of these barriers. To be honest with you, the social compact — and even in the position that we're in right now around funding — would not happen if you don't bring who you are and the credibility of the Y to the table for the Governor. Because some of the folks, he doesn't know, wasn't necessarily comfortable with, so your credibility has opened that door for us to begin to build on.
And to be honest with you, we need the Glen Gundersons of the Twin Cities to come down out of the ivory towers and walk the streets of North Minneapolis and South Minneapolis and some of the other communities, and not just talk about the disparities, but as you are, bring people and all the different voices to the table. And the thing that I like most is this: My experience in Minnesota — because there are so few of us — so many times people bring money to the table, but then they also bring the answer and forget about our expertise or my experience of working with Black boys all my life.
I think we need people like yourself to come to the table with those folks that may not have the name recognition. And I always say in my world, in education, I can solve the achievement gap just by bringing some mamas and daddies and grandmamas to the table, about what our kids need and how to deliver that. But we can't resolve some of the issues and challenges that we have if we got one group on one side, and another group on one side, and we're unwilling to meet in the middle of the bridge. And it goes back to what we talked about before, things will stay the same. And so the definition of insanity, my mentor always used to say, 'Doing the same thing, expecting different results.' And so I need you to raise your voice, in terms of saying to your colleagues, 'Join me.' We need you to bring those that think like you, that respect you, to see the work and become a part of the work.
Glen: Coach, thank you for that advice. And how do you think about the YMCA? What can the Y be doing?
Larry: I think about the spirit of Sankofa, and when you think about Sankofa and the Sankofa bird, the thing is, 'Go back and fetch it.' What do I mean by that?
I think there was a time, even in the Y's history, where they opened the doors and African-American soldiers and other people coming back from war came as a starting place for them. Looking at your model, and knowing there are some communities that we serve that the, 'Pay to play membership thing' just doesn't work. And if we want to serve those communities, is there a different model? Because I've personally never been a believer of, 'One size fits all' in anything. So if we want to have impact in those communities, and the only way to get kids in the doors is through membership, is that going to work?
So in our fundraising model, is there a way to say, 'We're going to do something different’ - Like, for example, can I get a membership through service? What can I do in my community that earns me 25 YMCA dollars that can be used toward a membership? And now I can come in and benefit from the programs in the Y, and organizations in the community like Minnesota Black Basketball Coaches Association or Heritage Youth Sports Foundation, or other organizations in the community that exist. For example, what about bringing Miki Frost's art and museum to tell the story into a North Minneapolis Y and South Minneapolis Y, for kids to see and ask questions. So I think you got to rethink the model.
It's a different time. I live in North Minneapolis, and somebody told me that there’s 12,000 kids under the age of 18 in 55411 and 55412 (zip codes). And of those 12,000 kids, I don't know what the memberships are at North community Y, but I can probably bet that it's not 1,000. So therefore, there's these kids in need, families in need, we're there, but are we really serving the community? So I would look at those designated spots and ask yourself and your team, 'How do we best serve this community?' And even when I think about the whole George Floyd thing, and the millions of dollars that people threw at it, in donation, was that the best way to serve our community? And I'll just leave it at that.
Glen: Hey coach, one thing we share amongst our passion for community is our faith. We have a shared faith, and not everyone is going to share our same faith. But that plays a really dominant role in your leadership and how you shape your work. Would you just share about that?
Larry: The first thing I tell everybody: One of the reasons I've been so blessed in my coaching career is because my playbook starts at Genesis and ends at Revelation. I'm a believer, and I'm not ashamed of it. When I was a baby, I had asthma really bad, and my grandmother made a pact with God to stop smoking to spare my life. And now it just resonates with me more. And even in the midst of my mistakes and where I fell down, He was still there. You know what I'm saying? And everything that I accomplished, I'm not afraid to say it's not me, it's because I have allowed myself to be the vessel that He uses.
I was recently having a conversation with my mom. I think when people start talking about the separator of success for me it has been my faith. And it's hard to explain to other people that are non-believers about how I've gotten here, if you don't believe. But I know that there's something much more powerful than me. Before every game, my grandmother would say, 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. If God be for you, who could be against you?' And again, I'm just crazy enough to believe it.
Glen: Coach Larry McKenzie, such a pleasure to hang with you! So grateful for your time. You are one of my mirrors, and I am thankful.
Learn more about Coach Larry McKenzie by clicking here. Look for a new “A Conversation on Race" next week.