There’s a new establishment up and running in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District. Located on MLK Avenue, the Thunder Fellows Program has officially opened its doors to begin welcoming its inaugural cohort of Black students in Tulsa into its facility .
The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Creative Arts Agency (CAA) partnered together to create the Thunder Fellows program – a pipeline for Black youth in Tulsa to career opportunities in sports, entertainment and technology through a curriculum based in data and analytics. What originally began as a mere conversation between two lifelong friends is now a tangible reality positioned to make lasting, scalable change for Black youth in Tulsa.
It was the summer of 2020 when Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti and his longtime friend CAA executive Mike Johnson were on a phone call discussing the troubling murder of George Floyd and the nationwide outcries for racial equality that followed. Both Presti and Johnson found themselves asking what lasting change could look like and how they could help make it possible.
From that conversation, the concept for Thunder Fellows blossomed.
The program, led by Executive Director Cedric Ikpo, is designed to combat the systemic opportunity gap between Black students and careers in data and analytics. Through hands-on experiences and professional mentorship, the Thunder Fellows Program will work to unlock new opportunities for Black Tulsa youth in sports, entertainment and tech.
“The intent is to educate and expose our young people to data and analytics curriculum,” said Ikpo. “All with the goal of making sure that we're able to get them career ready and marketable to ultimately have access to meaningful opportunities in the sports, entertainment and tech industries.”
Since the announcement of Thunder Fellows back in the summer of 2020, the program found a brick-and-mortar home in the historic area once known as Black Wall Street. The 35-square block area of North Tulsa was once the sight of a thriving, self-sufficient Black neighborhood that was burned to ashes during the most devastating act of racial violence in American history – the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Upon entrance to the building, students and parents will be met with imagery at nearly every turn that reflects the important history of the area. Through the front door, “Thunder Fellows in Historic Greenwood” is the first thing greeting each person who enters. Through the doors of Ikpo’s office, a black and white photo stands out along the back wall. It’s a recreation of a photograph of the 1921 Booker T. Washington men’s basketball team created by a local Black artist. Standing in the middle of the photo, a head above the rest is a young man holding a basketball. His name was Dick Rowland, the young shoe shine who was accused of assaulting a female elevator operator named Sarah Page. It was this accusation that sparked the massacre just over 100 years ago.
The intentionality of the program extends beyond just its physical footprint in the Greenwood District. In May of 2021, the Thunder announced the hiring of Ikpo as the Executive Director of the program who spent the previous 10 years of his career in both the social responsibility sector and education field. Since joining the organization, he hit the ground running donning multiple hats as he prepares for the first crop of students in the fall. From commissioning local artists to help decorate the walls, to hiring local staff Ikpo has had a hand in every aspect of building the program from the ground up.
Major national companies such as Google and Wilson Sporting Goods have already committed their support by becoming partners of the program. With such backing, the Thunder Fellows program will be able to offer its students exclusive resources, including learning directly from industry leaders in the sports and tech spaces.
“We're exposing them to certain in-demand coding languages, and getting them comfortable enough to then learn more, because data, analytics and technology touches so many industries,” said Ikpo. “It touches so many types of jobs across a number of departments and so if you are proficient, competent or familiar with those fundamental skill sets, it just opens the door for so many different spaces for young people.”
With the doors now open, Thunder Fellows will officially begin searching for its first class of students. Applications are open through September 10 for 9th and 10th grade Black students from the Tulsa area. Twenty fellows will be selected to be a part of the 30-week program. For more information or to fill out an application, visit www.thunderfellows.org.