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Q&A: WNBA veteran Renee Montgomery fighting to increase votes and uplift HBCUs

10 questions for the two-time WNBA champion who sat out the season for social justice

Khari Arnold, NBA.com

Basketball has taken Renee Montgomery across the world.

Lacing up her sneakers in Australia, Lithuania, Israel, Russia and Poland allowed her to earn a paycheck during the WNBA offseason and experience different cultures in the process.

“They definitely do things differently than we do here in America,” she says.

In 2018, Montgomery’s itinerant career led her to Atlanta, which has a culture more akin to her upbringing. The WNBA veteran believes there are pervasive problems in the southern city, however, that are antithetical to her convictions as a Black woman.

She labeled Atlanta a “repeat offender” in regard to voter suppression.

Montgomery, 33, has been working relentlessly to increase votes in Georgia after she opted out of the league’s season restart this summer. She joined the LeBron James-led “More Than A Vote” campaign and launched her own initiative titled “Remember the 3rd.”

I spoke with Montgomery two weeks ago, coincidentally during the same time the Milwaukee Bucks staged a protest against police brutality. When I relayed the news, she voiced support for the players: “In this climate, everyone has to allow people to grieve how they want. They have to allow people to feel how they want and to say what they feel because this is a very intense time. There’s a lot going on, and as an athlete, the dynamic is uncomfortable.”

Montgomery talks about that uncomfortable dynamic, sitting out the WNBA season, getting people to vote and building up HBCUs.

(Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.)

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NBA.com: When was the exact moment you decided to opt out of the WNBA restart?

Montgomery: I would say talking to my parents the night of the George Floyd protests. I live here in Atlanta, and I just remember the protests were at my front door. I was talking to my parents about what I should do, and they were giving me advice from their experiences. That’s where the seed was planted. I was looking at the protests outside my window while also looking at it on my TV screen. I really wasn’t focused on basketball anymore after that.

What exactly did your parents say to convince you of your decision, and what were their experiences?

They were telling me not to be worried. This is what people do when they don’t feel like they’re heard. So they were calming me. My mom was in Detroit when the (1967) Detroit riots happened. She was there. She told me, “Although you’ve never been a part of a protest before, I have, and those are people who feel like they’re not being listened to.”

One of the initiatives you created while being away from the game encourages people to vote in the upcoming Nov. 3 election. How exactly will this work?

So the initiative is called “Remember the 3rd.” We’re going to host three workshops and a pep rally. The workshops will educate people on the things we might have learned and forgot, as well as the things we might have never learned. People don’t vote locally a lot of times because people don’t really care or think it affects them. They don’t know what the mayor does, for example. We want to connect that and show what it is local officials do, how it affects your everyday life and why you should feel the need to vote. We need to connect the passion we have to protest and drive that passion to the polls.

You’re also working on uplifting HBCUs, particularly in Atlanta with Morris Brown College. How did that come about and what’s your ultimate goal?

Police brutality is tearing down the Black community. Since HBCUs are a representation of the Black community, I want to build those up, and I’m starting with Morris Brown College. I’m working on trying to raise $3 million and that’s not a small task. We’ve called the initiative “The Last Yard.” Morris Brown is an HBCU with so much history. If people don’t know, they should Google. The young people probably know it from “Drumline” with Nick Cannon. That was one of the schools. But they are also one of the schools that need a lot of help right now. They have not been accredited for 20 years. Getting a school their accreditation not only starts to build that community, but it builds up the workforce since more faculty will be hired. We want to get them accreditation, but we also want to try to make Morris Brown tech savvy and tech innovative. We want to have a tech center there because the tech space is not something you always hear HBCUs leading in. Well, let’s try to change that because we all know that tech is the future right?

You mentioned police brutality. Can you elaborate more on your thoughts there?

My thoughts on police brutality is all it’s doing is breaking down the Black family. These murders are not just a murder. It’s pulling families apart. It’s torn a kid from their parents. It’s breaking the family dynamic in an already broken community. I can remember thinking my dad was a superhero when I was four years old. I was racing my sisters, and I was getting whooped because I’m the youngest. My dad came running behind, picked me up and ran me across the finish line. We ended up blowing my sisters out in the race. So if I can still remember that from when I was about four or five, can you imagine something traumatic that the kids of Jacob Blake witnessed? They’ll never forget it. Since this is happening so often and it’s constantly breaking down our community, I wondered how I can build it up. I want to do something that unifies everybody and builds up our community. We all want to create change and we all want to do something for our community.

What led you to tackle education?

There are all these different areas where you can see systemic racism. The area where I’m going to focus on is education because I really firmly believe that the more someone knows about a topic the better their perspective can be. One way or the other, you start to see other people’s views. Education to me is everything and not just because my mom was a college professor for 30 years. I lived overseas for 10 years, so I saw a lot of different cultures. We were there for six-to-seven months at a time and submerged in those cultures. They definitely do things differently than we do here in America, but that helped me see that some ways we do things in America may not be right.

What are your thoughts on top athletes going to HBCUs?

Some athletes feel if they go to an HBCU, they won’t get seen. But it’s the day and age where everything is streamed. Literally everything is streamed on the Internet. Scouts from the NBA go overseas. They have global games to go find talent, so if you are here in America, it’s kind of understood that the scouts will find you. When you talk to athletes, especially in a sport like football, one of the things that really separates different schools and universities is their facilities. You’ll see the big schools have multi-million dollar facilities. Top recruits get blown away and want to be able to use those facilities. When you see someone like a Makur Maker choose to go to Howard, you really commend it because he knows what he could’ve had and he still chose the HBCU experience anyway. I don’t want to tell athletes they should go to HBCUs, but I just think that everyone now should just give them an extra look. Give them a consideration.

How do you plan to continue “Remember the 3rd” beyond this upcoming election?

There’s a lot of different things that get decided other than elections. There’s a lot of different laws getting passed when no one’s looking. There’s a lot of activity when it’s not just election time. So that’s what’s going to be the goal for “Remember the 3rd.” It’s about remembering this passion we have right now and where we’re trying to go with it. The place we’re going is to the polls, but after that, there’s still work to be done. Voting is not the only step; it’s just the first step. Arresting the cops for wrongdoings is a step, but it’s also a band aid for the real problem. The laws in place and the laws being taken out are the real problem. So if people were educated more about what was going, they would feel more of a need to speak up and say things.

How would you like to see NBA and WNBA players work closer together on these issues?

I think this is the first year where you see so much continuity across sports leagues, not even just the NBA and WNBA. I think an example of working closer is how closely I’m working with the “More Than A Vote” campaign. Everyone knows that it’s LeBron James’ campaign. Shortly after I opted out, his team reached out to me and asked would I want to be a part of what they’re doing. With me being in Georgia where voter suppression is real, I responded saying, “Of course.” Then later, State Farm arena was opened as a polling location, and I feel like I had a real impact. That made me say, “Wow, we’re doing something here.”

You collaborated with NBA players earlier this summer when Kyrie Irving held a call to express concerns about playing. Can you talk about what you took from that?

Yeah, I was actually on the call. I think the narrative got lost along the way. I think that people were more focused on the different views that people had of how to create change rather than saying, “Wow, look at all these NBA players wanting to figure out how they can make a difference.” I left the call smiling after seeing there were that many players interested and passionate about this topic. It was beautiful. It made me feel empowered. I love that these NBA players are all excited about how they can be progressive and be a catalyst for change. Kyrie caught so much flack, but he is a man of his word because he created a fund for WNBA players knowing that some of us opted out for social justice, health causes or other reasons. I don’t know all the details of how everything played out, but I do know for somebody to do that unprompted, it says a lot about Kyrie. So we have to pay attention and make sure that we’re not creating division among people that all have the same passion. We all want to create change and we all want to do something for our community.

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Khari Arnold is a Senior Producer at NBA.com and graduate from Howard University. You can email him here . The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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