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New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum asks how to help Black youths in the city

NBA veteran visits the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center to talk about solutions, resources

NEW ORLEANS – CJ McCollum was sitting in a circle of chairs trying to come up with a game plan to help New Orleans. No, this wasn’t during a timeout late in a tight game for his New Orleans Pelicans. Rather, he was trying to create a game plan to help the troubled youth of New Orleans, who are predominantly African American, to try to change their lives for the better while detained at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center.

“I just want to know how we can help,” a solemn McCollum said on this Oct. 18 morning inside the center. “A lot of times we don’t really know how we can help, whether it’s finances or resources. You guys talked about the empowerment you feel with the voices, learning, the education, finding yourself with mental health. Not just to help with education, but help you to feel safe, feel comfortable and heading in a good direction.”

A 17-year-old African American resident named Renae was sitting next to McCollum in what was described as a “restorative circle” in a classroom at the center’s Travis Hill School. The youths’ last names were not given to protect their identity, and the reason they were detained was withheld. Looking straight forward and deadpan, she told the Pelicans guard and everyone in the room what the young people needed most.

“One thing we could use in the community is mentors because the people we look up to are the people that are not going down the right path,” Renae said. “We grew up knowing a lot of wrong. And if you are growing up and you don’t know that wrong is wrong, that’s what you do. You don’t have a lot of people there in the community that are doctors, teachers. We have people who work at McDonald’s and stuff like that.

“You do what you see. I’m a product of my household. I was only able to take in and give out what I knew. And all I knew was hurt. So that’s what I was giving out.”

In response, McCollum, some fellow classmates, Louisiana state Sen. Royce Duplessis, members of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition and other dignitaries expressed their approval and tried to hold back their emotions. The center’s executive director Dichelle Williams discussed Renae’s growth as a person and added that she was eldest of seven children and was working at the detention center and sending every dollar she earned to her struggling mother. After listening to her, Renae stood abruptly, began to cry and went to a room nearby. Williams left to console her.

“A lot of them had to grow up faster than they should have in terms of upbringing, in terms of them maybe being the elder sibling or the younger sibling that had to grow up fast,” McCollum said. “Resources matter, community matters. A lot of times it’s unfortunate, but you’re a product of your environment. If you’re not in the best environment, sometimes things aren’t going to work out. So just being able to hear their stories and to better understand what they’re going through, what they went through and what cycle that we’re continuing to see is occurring in our communities, that is something that needs to be said.

“You can see the wisdom in them all. You can see the growth, you can see them understanding some of the trauma, understanding the importance of mental health, which has been a consistent battle for all of us … Growing up in single-parent households, resources, siblings, mom or dad may not be in the house, one of them may be locked up. All those things impact you. And when you’re not in a safe environment, it’s hard to really relax. And these kids haven’t had a chance to really unwind. They haven’t had a chance to be kids. And when you grow up too fast, sometimes things can happen that are out of your control.”

New Orleans Pelican guard CJ McCollum (right) walks into the Travis Hill School, part of the New Orleans Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, on Oct. 18 in New Orleans.

Christian Verde/New Orleans Pelicans

The center is a juvenile detention facility for Orleans Parish, housing youth and young adults ages 13 to 18 as they await trial. Its goal is to provide “a safe and secure” pretrial detention center for youths who are charged with committing a delinquent offense. The facility includes a bedroom and bathroom for each teenager, men and women’s showers, and cafeteria meals from a chef. The center provides education through the Travis Hill School on location, medical and mental health aid, individual treatment needs and evidence-based treatment programming. It’s the only youth detention center of its kind in Louisiana.

Williams said that medical, dental and mental health care, education and food available in the center are often not available to these children at home.

“They’re children and we have to afford them the opportunity to be children,” Williams said. “We need to bring the village back to these children. Me, you, the next-door neighbor, the clergyman, the bus driver, the cafeteria worker. Everyone that engages and comes across these kids shouldn’t be afraid of them. They just really want to know that somebody cares and they want to be heard.

“They want people to know that they want to feel like humans. They have feelings and emotions on the inside. They hurt like adults hurt. We have to bring back community.”

The reason for McCollum’s appearance is his passion for juvenile justice reform. The visit was set up by the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition. The 11-year NBA veteran vowed after being traded from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Pelicans last season that he would make an impact with children in the New Orleans area and Louisiana. McCollum wants to ensure that the 2016 Raise the Age Legislation, which mandates that youths age 17 and younger are never tried as adults, never gets rolled back. The 2016 NBA Most Improved Player also wants to stop youth from being sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

In a column McCollum wrote for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, he noted that “since 2012, Louisiana has condemned three times more children to life without parole than any other state. Ninety-three percent of those children are Black. And while they are only 40% of young people across the state, Black Louisianans make up more than 80% of the state’s incarcerated juvenile population.” According to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, Black children are incarcerated at six times the rate of white children and that most of the incarcerated kids they serve live at or below the poverty line.

“I’ve been working here for years and rarely have there been any white kids here,” said Byron Goodwin, who has been the director of school operations and transitional services for the Travis Hill School for seven years.

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (center) stands with Louisiana state Sen. Royce Duplessis, members of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition and New Orleans Juvenile Justice Intervention Center staff on Oct. 18 in New Orleans.

Christian Verde/New Orleans Pelicans

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (center) listens to Louisiana state Sen. Royce Duplessis (left) speak at the New Orleans Juvenile Justice Intervention Center on Oct. 18 in New Orleans.

Christian Verde/New Orleans Pelicans

McCollum and Duplessis toured the center and its life-changing Travis Hill School.

The Travis Hill School’s 55 students range in age from 13 to 18 years old. Some students are in the school just for days while others attend for up to two years. The award-winning school has shown remarkable progress from year to year after opening in August 2016. The school hopes to “equip system-involved young people with the academic, workforce readiness, and social and emotional skills they need to be free, successful, contributing members of the New Orleans community.”

McCollum and Duplessis visited several classrooms at the school and participated in exercises with two male students and one female student. McCollum completed his visit by treating the residents to a lunch of pizza and fried chicken and taking questions. He ate his lunch and sat next to several boys who peppered him with mostly basketball questions. One of the boys said he was one of the highest-ranking boys’ basketball players in Louisiana. There was no way for him play for his high school team, however, if he was in the center.

Goodwin was ecstatic and surprised to see McCollum.

“He is the first of any pro athlete to come to the space and experience this,” Goodwin said. “The kids love that. They were able to see CJ and touch and talk to him. That was phenomenal.”

Said Duplessis: “It’s inspiring and admirable and we need more of it. We need more men of his background, position and stature as a positive young Black figure reaching out to these young people.”

The center and the school have their share of challenges. WGNO TV in New Orleans reported in August that the center has had problems with escapes and leadership. Kids are required to wear slides instead of shoes so they cannot get traction if they fight. There have also been some kids who prefer to stay at the center because the environment is better than at home. One source said visitors got the “sanitized” tour that day and that there were a lot of issues that weren’t revealed.

Duplessis said the main revelation he learned from the day is a need for a solid reentry program for kids once they leave the center.

“We have a long way to go, particularly on the reentry side,” Duplessis said. “A kid who is here for two weeks or two years, if we don’t have a reentry plan when they leave here, they can end up likely going back to the same environment that led them here to begin with.”

“A kid shouldn’t be detained to receive medical services, mental health services, dental services, educational services. They shouldn’t have to come to a facility to learn how to deal with their trauma. We need to mimic what we see in this agency in the communities. We lack that. In New Orleans we don’t have it,” Williams said.

“I think it’s about just really listening to the kids and figuring out how to do what they say. It’s best to provide things that people are actually asking for as opposed to you trying to figure it out on your own and giving them what you want them to have.”

— CJ McCollum

Aiding in Duplessis’ reentry hopes is the children’s center, which is next door.

The children’s center’s Defense Team provides the children of New Orleans with intervention, support and services needed “to help them grow up healthy and leave the legal system behind for good.” It also provides a defense attorney, investigator, social worker, youth advocate and civil litigation attorney for each detained youth. Over the past decade since its inception, the children’s center says, the arrests of Orleans Parish children have declined by 37.3%.

“They are incredibly complex children who live complex lives and facing some really big hurdles,” said Kristen Rome, co-executive director of the children’s center.

While the stakes can be high for McCollum, Zion Williamson and the Pelicans this season if they’re healthy, the combo-guard had no interest in talking hoops after this visit. McCollum was thinking about ways he could use his platform to help these troubled children.

“You always want to figure out ways to provide solutions and to provide resources, but I think it’s helpful to sometimes just digest things and really just stick to the plan, which is to learn more and educate yourself and figure out how to provide the things that you wish you had as a kid,” McCollum said. “And then you ask them the right questions. And we’ve been doing that. We’ve been doing the work and continue to do the work, continue to find the right groups and communities that want to help and figure out how to get them engaged.

“But I think it’s about just really listening to the kids and figuring out how to do what they say. It’s best to provide things that people are actually asking for as opposed to you trying to figure it out on your own and giving them what you want them to have.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.