Savion Sims, a 17-year-old junior at Waggener High School in Louisville, Kentucky, chuckled when he described his impressions of Glen Arbor and the Sleeping Bear Dunes after nine members of his basketball team traveled to northern Michigan for a long weekend in mid-June.
“It was like one of those shows you see on television. It was a different lifestyle. You didn’t see any rundown parts,” he said.
“You have to be rich to live there. We didn’t see many other black people.”
Sims beat his Waggener teammates in a footrace down the dune at the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive overlook. During their trip the hoopsters hiked in the National Lakeshore, kayaked the Crystal River, paddleboarded, swam and boated in Fisher Lake, and joined Glen Lake high school basketball players for a barbecue.
The city kids and country kids also scrimmaged each other on the hardcourt—where their different life experiences and racial backgrounds gave way to the common language of basketball: man-to-man defense, rebounds, dribbling up court, bounce passes, jump shots, and layups. Sims, who alternates between small forward and shooting guard at 6 feet, 2 inches tall, was impressed by the caliber of his opponents but also spoke proudly of Waggener’s press defense.
“We force a lot of turnovers. We’re always flying around the court on defense. We can’t play lazy.”
Basketball may have been the common bond between Waggener and Glen Lake players, but the opportunity for a meaningful racial and cultural exchange is what inspired close friends Michael McDonald and Bryan O’Neill to launch the trip. McDonald, a Louisville native who currently lives on Fisher Lake, is married to Glen Lake alum Kenna Semple McDonald, whose parents, Dan and Jan Semple, long ran Glen Eden resort. O’Neill is Waggener High School’s head basketball coach. Dozens of Waggener alumni have gone on to play college hoops.
“What I want is for white people to view black people differently,” said McDonald. “Unfortunately, white people up here don’t see black people. It starts with seeing each other.”
McDonald and O’Neill joined a group of basketball coaches last year called Kentucky Coaches Advancing Racial Equity (KCARE), which seeks to improve race relations in Louisville and break down stereotypes and racial equity barriers. One of their calls to action was the killing of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman, by white police officers in Louisville on March 13, 2020—just as the nation was shutting down to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police two months later, reinvigorating the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement and sparking deep, sometimes painful, discussions about racial inequality and structural racism in the United States today.
Workplaces, organizations, and schools—including here in Leelanau County—are devoting attention to train and equip their staff with diversity, equity and inclusion tools, and to acknowledge the presence and importance of non-white people here in this region.
The Waggener High School trip to Glen Arbor also benefited O’Neill’s players because it exposed them to green spaces and the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
“It’s important to look at environmental justice and equity in terms of access to parks and beneficial places,” Sonja Stanis, associate professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Missouri, told the Glen Arbor Sun. Stanis has visited Sleeping Bear Dunes multiple times. “Green spaces are a big part of that. Time in nature does so much for our mental health, our physical health, and our cognitive health. It’s important to have access to those spaces.
“Minorities and low-income communities often have less access to parks.”
An eye-opening experience
Kentucky Coaches Advancing Racial Equity brought guest coaches from Division 1 college basketball programs, and also police officers, to speak with high school players in an attempt to improve relations following Taylor’s death.
McDonald, who is white and played high school hoops in Louisville on a mostly black team, felt a call to action after reading black author Ta-Nehesi Coates’ case for reparations for African-Americans. Talk was fine, but he wanted black teenagers from the city to meet white teenagers from northern Michigan, eat together, play together, and compare life notes. If they scrimmaged on the basketball court, that was fine too.
“Growing up, I had role models, I had help,” said McDonald. “Some of these kids don’t have that.”
Of the nine Waggener basketball players who traveled north, one had a brother who was murdered, another has a father in prison, McDonald added. Many come from single-parent homes.
Discussions about a Waggener trip to Glen Arbor advanced through last summer and into the fall. But stymied by COVID, Louisville schools didn’t reopen in-person until May. The Jefferson County Board of Education approved the trip just six days before it left.
“We felt that since there’s such a racial disparity, we wanted a trip,” said O’Neill. “For our young men, this was an eye-opening experience to see a completely different place. None of them had been to Michigan, and we took them to arguably the best part. They got to experience things they’ve never done. Who knows if they’ll get that opportunity again.”
Prompted by the McDonalds, the Glen Lake community welcomed the guests from Waggener High School with open arms. Crystal River Outfitters donated kayaks, Chris Touhey offered his boat, Todd Ciolek and Jason Homa of Cherry Republic brought food. The Semples, too, were instrumental in finding accommodations for everyone.
“The cool thing was that when we got to Fisher Lake (after the scrimmage with Glen Lake), the kids were just kids,” said O’Neill. “To these guys, the racial differences didn’t matter to them. Because racism is taught, it’s not innate. They’d say to each other, ‘Hey, you want to go out on the lake or jump on a paddleboard?’ They were just being kids. They didn’t care about skin color.”
When the food came off the grill, O’Neill and McDonald had to break the high school kids’ natural inclination to sit with their own teammates and mix up the two groups.
“I grabbed two or three of the Glen Lake players and said, ‘You guys go sit over there’ and I moved my players back here. And they started talking,” said O’Neill. “When you break bread with someone, barriers start to break down and you get to know someone on a different level.”
On the long drive home to Louisville, and kids being kids, O’Neill’s players mostly slept. At one point, one of his players, Isaiah Smith, confided, “Coach, I don’t know about that kayaking thing, but I’m glad we at least tried it.”
17 Blocks to Sleeping Bear Dunes
O’Neill and McDonald aren’t the first to bring inner city kids to the National Lakeshore.
Two years ago, Ann Arbor native and filmmaker Davy Rothbart also brought 50 kids from Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Detroit to camp at Sleeping Bear Dunes—as part of an annual trip to rural destinations they hadn’t experienced before. On the same weekend in August 2019, Rothbart premiered his film 17 Blocks at the Traverse City Film Festival. The movie features a D.C. family he befriended in 1999 who live just 17 blocks from the U.S. Capitol, an area considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation.
“What can we do to change the outcomes and just change things up for kids that grew up in this neighborhood? Broaden their perspectives,” Rothbart told the Northern Express in an interview. “Expose them to some new things. Give them sort of a bigger sense of possibility.”