Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a lot more on his mind these days than the sport.
For more than a decade, he’s been focused on introducing underserved students to a STEM education, which is science, technology, engineering and math. Blacks and Latinos are underrepresented in the field, in which workers tend to earn more than non-STEM workers with similar education levels.
The Covid pandemic has made his mission even more urgent. Students of color are seeing the biggest learning loss amid school closures, a McKinsey & Company report found in December. That translates into a hit on future earning power. “It’s a social justice issue; giving kids a better idea of where they can go with their education,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
He began his nonprofit Skyhook Foundation, in 2009 to provide those educational opportunities to 4th and 5th graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Typically, the students attend a camp for five days and four nights in the Angeles National Forest and get an immersive learning experience. The attendees are largely English language learners and participate in free or reduced lunch programs.
When the pandemic hit, the foundation adjusted and used eco-vans to bring the camp to individual recreation centers and playgrounds, while remaining socially distant.
“We try to give them their first experience with science and let them know it’s not something exotic, it just takes application and they can learn a lot,” the six-time National Basketball Champion said.
“It’s been very gratifying for me to see the light turn on with the kids, when they started to realize what’s possible and where they can go with this information.”
Yet there are still several obstacles in Abdul-Jabbar’s path, namely the ability to reach more children. There is currently a six-year wait list to get into Skyhook Camp. There is also a lack of WiFi access and computer equipment for many.
For Anthony Chan, the organization’s treasurer and former chief global economist for J.P. Morgan Chase, that means doing what they can to meet those needs. The foundation has partnered with corporations, including the Panasonic Foundation, which was recently awarded the Global Business Alliance’s Corporate Social Responsibility Award for its work with Skyhook.
“Kareem and I both grew up in housing projects,” said Chan, who is Hispanic.
“I saw all the challenges there and how easy it was to basically fall into the cracks.”
In addition to lack of opportunities, there is the issue of understanding money matters, he added. “If you give them financial literacy, this income inequality debate that we’re talking about today instantly disappears quicker than Houdini can make it disappear,” Chan said.
Abdul-Jabbar hopes to look back on what he’s done with his life and remember the children he’s helping instead of “gazing at the sparkle of jewels or gold plating celebrating something I did a long time ago,” he once said after auctioning off his basketball memorabilia to help fund the foundation. “I would see my legacy as being a success when the kids that we’re trying to reach end up with jobs as engineers, and scientists, and inventors,” he said.
“That’s going to make me feel good.”