I am overjoyed to say that I have reached my first goal of raising $3,000 for Diversify Ice! Thanks to everyone who saw my mom’s Facebook posts, heard my D’var Torah at my bar-mitzvah, heard about my project from other people, or found my website in some way. Thanks to those who ordered a pendant, or donated to Diversify Ice directly. I have decided to set a second goal for 2021. My next goal is to raise an additional $2,000 for a total of $5,000! This will continue to help The Diversify Ice Foundation in their mission to break financial and other types of barriers.
Thank you also for helping raise awareness of the lack of diversity in skating. I still see too few Black and brown figure skaters skating in the rinks where I practice and compete. For those of you new to my website, when you buy a pendant the net proceeds go to Diversify Ice. The money raised helps Black and brown figure skaters get resources they need to skate at the highest levels of U.S. figure skating.
Recently, I had my Bar-Mitzvah, a coming of age ceremony that comes at the age of 13 for Jewish boys. This is an excerpt from my D’var Torah, the final part of my Bar-Mitzvah, where I give a speech that connects to my Torah portion and my Bar-Mitzvah Project:
Shabbat Shalom everyone.
In my Torah portion, Exodus, chapter 14 verses 15-25, The Israelites are trapped, with the Egyptians behind them, and the sea in front of them. God helps Moses part the sea, and creates a barrier between the Israelites and the Egyptians, stopping the Egyptians from capturing the Israelites during the night. The Israelites made it across the sea, escaping the Egyptians, and they were finally free.
Even though they were free, they were not content. A little later in the Torah portion, the Israelites complained to Moses about not having enough food, and shortly after that they complained about not having enough water.
This Torah portion shows how the road to freedom is rarely short and easy. For example, the Israelites faced many challenges after they left Egypt. They had to cross the parted sea with the Egyptians chasing them. Once the Israelites reached the other side of the sea and found themselves in the wilderness, they complained about not having enough food and water.
In this part of the Torah, the Israelites escape from slavery, but find that they still do not have everything they need. For them, they do not have enough food or water. And do not have homes to live in. This can connect to what happened, and still happens to Black people in America. African Americans also were once enslaved, but once they were released from slavery, just like the Israelites, they were still not truly free. For example, less than 60 years ago, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Why? Many southern states required Black people to pass a literacy test to vote. The test was given by white people who did not want the African Americans to vote, so the judges were often biased. The Voting Rights Act made it easier for Black people to vote by outlawing literacy tests as a voter registration requirement. This was just one of many big steps taken to level the playing field in society for African Americans. However we still need to fight against discrimination of all kinds.
My Bar-Mitzvah Tzedakah Project also connects to this big idea that freedom is not always what it seems, and is rarely immediate. I am making and selling mosaic pendants on my website, skatependants.org. I started working on this project to raise money for The Diversify Ice Foundation, an organization that raises money to help Black and Latino figure skaters who want to compete at the highest levels of figure skating get the resources and coaching they need to do that. My starting goal was to raise 3,000 dollars, and thanks to donations from so many of you, I have already raised around 2,400 dollars.
Diversify Ice is an effort to fight back against the discrimination of African American and Latino skaters. One of the challenges they face in the figure skating world is trying to feel like they belong. A lot of African Americans who might want to figure skate may feel like figure skating is not a sport for them because they see so few people who look like them in the sport. Skating is also very expensive for some families. This is why The Foundation was created to address these and other barriers.
Before my bar mitzvah project, I thought I was pretty aware about racial discrimination and bias in our world. But when I started working on my bar mitzvah project, I realized I still had so much to learn. Several weeks ago, in English class, we were discussing a certain part of the short story, American History. In the story, a 12 year old Puerto Rican girl named Elena becomes friends with the new kid on the block, a white boy named Eugene , with the only house that has a lawn, and trees. Shortly after they become friends, President John F Kennedy is assassinated. The kids are all sent home early from school. It was the same day that Eugene had invited Elena over to his house for the first time. When Elena reaches the house, Eugene’s mother greets her, and then turns her away, showing disdain towards Elena because she lives in El building, the large apartment where many Puerto Ricans live. The mother gives the excuse that since they are moving soon, her son does not need any friends. In my class, we were asked why Elena was turned away. My classmates made several guesses, taking the mother’s excuses literally. I finally spoke up, I said,” she was turned away because she was Puerto Rican, and the mother was white.” Before I started my project, I would have not immediately made this assumption. My project taught me to better spot examples of systemic racism and racial stereotyping. You can contribute to my project by going to skatependants.org to support Diversify Ice.
The African American experience in America links to what happened to the Israelites when they escaped slavery. The Israelites did not have enough food and water, and had other challenges in the wilderness. Similarly, the African Americans also had challenges, even after they were officially freed from slavery.
What can we do to make it easier for racial and religious groups who face discrimination and barriers? For starters, when you see or hear racial stereotyping or other similar incidents of bias, try and do something about it. Don’t just stand to the side. The next step would be to take action to help repair the damage that has already been done to society by racism and religious bigotry. For example, you can learn more about the challenges faced by racial and religious minority groups and support organizations working to address those challenges.
These are two books that I think would be really good for someone who wants to learn more about race and racial issues. The first is Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. The second book is one I just read, called The Black Friend, by Frederick Joseph. Stamped really gave me a lot more information about the history of racial discrimination, while The Black Friend taught me more about Fredrick’s own experiences as a black kid growing up in a predominantly white high school. I would recommend both of these books to people of all ages, starting at the age of 12.
I am happy to say that I have reached my first $1,000 fundraising milestone. I have sent a check to Diversify Ice and it will arrive soon and go towards helping sponsor more skaters. Thank you to the people who have bought pendants, and I hope that as more pendants are bought, that I will get closer to my next milestones. I also send thanks to the Fleming and Renton family, who helped us make a lot more pendants, and invented the Team USA Pendants.
I recently had a conversation with Bryant McBride, who happens to be a neighbor of mine, and helped create the 2019 documentary, Willie, about Willie O’Ree, the first Black hockey skater in the NHL. Confession: It was easy to get this interview because I’ve known Bryant since I was a toddler; he ran the games at our neighborhood’s annual pancake breakfast. Bryant, who is Black and a former vice president of development at the NHL, helped get Willie into the NHL Hockey of Fame. We sat down for more than an hour in my front yard – socially distanced, of course, and talked about Willie, Bryant’s own career in hockey and at the NHL, and racism in America. I recently watched his film and it widened my perspective of the lack of diversity in hockey and in skating in general. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:
Me: How did you get into hockey?
Bryant: It was really where I was raised. I was born in Chicago, but then my parents moved to Sault Saint Marie in Ontario, Canada. When I was five, I was just surrounded by it. It was just part of the community, it was what everybody else did. So, I tried it, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is so much fun.” And I just really fell in love with the game. It’s one of those few experiences, you may see it when you are skating, where, you’re just there. You’re not thinking about homework, or anything else.
Me: How did you go from being a player to being in the NHL management?
Bryant: School. I went to good schools. Some people, when they interview for jobs, say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a big fan.’ that’s good, but that’s not going to get you the job. What is going to get you the job is if you are a really good writer, analytically. You’re resourceful, you just figure stuff out no matter what. You know, that’s just what gets you those jobs. So, knowing about the sport, caring about the sport, knowing about all the elements in it, Definitely helps. But I did well in high school, worked really hard. And then I went to West Point, and I went to the military part of West Point, that’s hard to get into, and I established myself there. I didn’t stay there, I left, because I did not want to be in the army. So I left, but when I was there I was elected class president. I was the first Black class president at West Point. I transferred to Trinity College, and then I was lucky enough to be class president there as well. And then I got a fellowship to the University of California. And I studied there, and then I went to graduate school at Harvard, I went to the Kennedy School at Harvard. And then I worked in finance and real estate, which I really didn’t like, I found it really boring. I was like, “Eek, I want to work in sports.” And I saw that the commissioner had been hired and I got in front of him and said, ‘Hey, this is what I can do ,and I think there is an opportunity to grow this game, in unique ways.’ And he liked me, and offered me a job.
Me: And were you playing hockey all throughout this?
Bryant: I played hockey all throughout my senior year in college. So I played college hockey and did really well, we won the championship.
Me: What got you interested in increasing diversity in the NHL and what challenges did you face?
Bryant: It was really my parents. They were incredible role models and teachers. My mom used to say, ‘“If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” I took that to heart, so when I got to the NHL, I was like, “Wait, I am the first Black executive at the National Hockey League. I wasn’t hired to diversify the game, but I’m here, if I am not going to do it who is?”
Me: How did you meet Willie O’Ree?
Bryant: It took me two years to hire Willie, that was how I met him. Trying to get him to help me diversify the NHL.
Me: How did you get the idea for the documentary?
Bryant: From the woman who directed it, her name is Laurence Mathieu-Leger. About three years ago, Willie called me up, and he said, “Hey, I am going to be honored at the Boston Garden, for the 60th anniversary of my first game in the NHL, would you and your family like to come?” And I said yes. So, we went, it was a really fun night. We were talking and the commissioner, Gary Bettman, was there, and I turned to him, and I said, “We have to get Willie in the Hockey Hall of Fame.” And Gary said, “You know what, you’re right but I can’t influence that as the commissioner, but, you’re right.“ So right away I started working on it, the goal was to get Willie into the hall of fame, not to make a documentary. And then I told my neighbor, Laurence, (She is a filmmaker,) and she said, “hey we should make a documentary about this.”
Me: How can hockey and skating get more Black and brown kids into the sport?
Bryant: ‘It’s really about access and opportunity if you want to figure out how to get more people of color to skate. That’s the way I did it in hockey, just figuring out ways to break down the barriers, the barriers of equipment, the barriers of cost, the barriers of access. What I’ve found, what I’ve always found, when kids get access, they really flourish. When they don’t get opportunities, that’s when they don’t do well and they stagnate. So let’s give them the opportunities to flourish.”
Me: “Yeah, that’s kind of the interesting thing I noticed about Diversify_Ice, the organization I’m doing my website for. They’re helping Black and brown skaters skate. They’re kind of doing it in the second stage. Figure Skating of Harlem, they’re the people who are actually getting people into skating. Diversify_Ice find the kids who have the opportunity.’
Bryant: “It’s getting kids when they’re 5 or 6 years old. That’s really when you’ve got to get them. This is why skating and hockey are so important., the most important sports you can play and practice. I’ll tell you why, especially for kids of color. People will tell me, ‘what, are you kidding? We’re not welcome there.’ I’ll say, “you don’t understand.’ No one is born with skates on. It’s a great equalizer. You’ve got to figure that out.’
Bryant: What’s the first thing that happens when you get on that ice?
Me: You fall and learn to get back up.
Bryant: That one little act, you fall and get back up, you know why that’s so important?
Me: Let’s say someone says you can’t do something. You don’t just stand there and take it. You get back up and say, ‘I think I’m going to try that anyways.’
Bryant: That’s exactly right. It’s a muscle. Just like you work on that muscle to do a triple axel. You got to do it again and again and again. Constantly, that act of falling on your butt and getting back up, falling, getting back up, it’s resilience.
Tai Babilonia is a former pairs skater who skated with Randy Gardner. She was the first partially African American skater to win U.S and World titles. Her first coach, Mabel Fairbanks, who was never able to compete because she was black, still made it into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
Like me, Tai started skating with a partner at a young age. She is an active supporter of Diversify Ice. I am so happy that she took notice of my project!
This is my tzedakah project, which is part of what I am doing to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah. Tzedakah can be both social action and fundraising, and the purpose of tzedakah is to help people who are in need. A Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a coming of age ceremony for Jewish children at the age of 12 or 13. Thank you for coming to my site, I am so excited that you are helping in this goal. In the days to come, I will post more facts about diversity in ice skating, so come back to my site to read more about it.