How the Detroit Pistons, Detroit police and AAA-The Auto Club Group collaborated to honor MLK by introducing mentorship programming

Vince Ellis
Special for Pistons.com

As with many current conversations, the dialogue started with one of the dominant news topics of the past year.

Detroit neighborhood police officer Melanie Moore asked the female 10th grader how learning was going in the age of COVID-19.

“It's frustrating,” the 15-year-old admitted last week via Zoom. “I'm more of an in-person, visual learner so it's hard for me to look at stuff on a screen because sometimes I don't understand it.

“But my grades are good, so that's all that matters.”

As the teen explained her frustrations, hopes, and aspirations, Moore listened intently, offering encouragement.

With a nod to the legacy of peace and inclusion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Detroit Pistons, the Detroit Police Department and AAA are hoping to make these types of interactions common in the Detroit area.

The Pistons announced last Tuesday they are partnering with the Detroit Police Department to launch the Advancing African-American Teens Mentoring Program, which is supported by AAA.  That same Tuesday saw the first of a series of monthly mentorship meetings created to provide Detroit-area teens with mentors. It was not a coincidence the program commenced the day after the U.S. honored the memory of the late civil rights leader.

“This program is our way of helping to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive with the younger generation,” Pistons vice president of community and social responsibility Erika Swilley said.  “We know that there is a divide amongst youth and police officers and we are hoping that this program provides common ground for both groups, as well as a safe space to grow and learn together. 

“Launching to coincide with MLK Day just made sense.”

To get the program kickstarted, mentors from the Detroit Police Department were joined by players Josh Jackson, Delon Wright and Jahlil Okafor. They were also joined by former Piston and Detroit native Earl Cureton.

On Thursday, the Pistons held another mentoring event. It was the third community conversation moderated by PeacePlayers International, a non-profit that uses sports to inspire youth to create a more peaceful world. Players Wayne Ellington, Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Saben Lee, Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart joined the Zoom session. Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem also participated with groups like the BING Youth Institute, City Year, Detroit PAL, Detroit police, and The Manhood Project.

Involved in both events, AAA supports the mentoring program and participated in Thursday’s community conversation - AAA's involvement is driven by a belief in the Pistons’ social change efforts.

“We need more programming in Detroit where kids can express themselves and feel supported,” Josh Jackson said in the release announcing the mentoring program.  “Sports provide a platform to inspire, connect and build bridges and initiatives like this will help young people learn, grow and develop relationships that will benefit their futures.”


‘You have a plan’

To kick things off Tuesday night, Pistons Director of Youth Engagement & Development Aaron Smith welcomed teens, police officers and team officials. At first, participants were placed in breakout groups and encouraged to take part in team bonding exercises.

The next step was to assign mentors to individual teens. That’s when Moore and other mentors met teens in one-on-one sessions. After hearing about the teen’s continued good grades despite issues with distance learning, Moore offered encouragement.

“That means you're maintaining focus, which is important,” Moore said. “A lot of people simply can't even do that, which is very scary for a lot of you, but that's good. At least you're determined to get through it by any means necessary.”

They promised to remain in touch.

After the mentoring sessions, the main group had a discussion on the contributions of great Black leaders like President Obama, Shirley Chisolm, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and King.

The players joined the call and told stories of how mentors influenced their lives. They also offered advice.

Jackson, who grew up in Detroit, spoke of the importance of learning from mistakes.

“Just to try to learn something from every situation, whether it's good or bad,” Jackson said. “When I'm playing basketball, that's what I try to do. When I make mistakes out there, I make turnovers, bad passes, I take mental notes in my head, like, all right, well, I'm not going to do that again.”

Future mentoring session topics will include setting goals, ways to promote a healthy lifestyle and the importance of teamwork.

The killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis authorities forced an uncomfortable yet necessary conversation on racial inequality and the hope is the Pistons’ partnership with the Detroit Police Department will help build stronger relationships within the community. The Pistons have pledged a funding grant to the department’s new initiative to encourage community conversations.

Conversations like the one between Moore and the teen.

“I'm very proud of you,” Moore said. “At 15, you already have your mind made up on a lot of things and that's good. You have goals and that's the best thing. Especially going through this pandemic, a lot of people are lost, even adults. They just don't know what they want to do, but you sound like you have a plan.”