In Atlanta, basketball helps get youth off the streets and into their studies

The Bahá'í Unity Center offers a variety of programs - from youth basketball to computer classes - aimed at empowering and uplifting African Americans and refugee and immigrant families.

DEKALB COUNTRY, Georgia, USA - After practice, coach Thomas Robinson gathers his dozen or so school-age basketball players in a circle on the polished wooden court floor and gives them a quick pep talk.

Unlike typical coach-to-player motivational speeches, however, Mr. Robinson focuses not on their talents as a team or their handling of the ball but rather on their willingness to do academic work.

"Is there anyone who feels uncomfortable about studying?" he asks, receiving a collective "no" back from the group.

"Why?" he asks again, looking around with intensity.

"We don't want to be stupid," responds one young player.

The exchange reflects the unusual nature of the program, which is run by Mr. Robinson and his wife, Cheryl, at the Bahá'í Unity Center here on the outskirts of metropolitan Atlanta in southern DeKalb County. The STAR program, as it is called, requires its athletes to maintain a minimum median-level grade average in school. Otherwise, they are not allowed to play. And for many of the mostly African American students in this predominantly black neighborhood, basketball is a much cherished activity.

"Most youth athletic programs - and this isn't to knock them - are just about basketball," said Mr. Robinson, a 34-year-old African American lawyer, explaining that the STAR program not only requires good grades but also provides special after-school tutorial sessions. "So as an athletic institution, we function differently and, we hope, can be a model for other youth programs."

The same goal, it could be said, applies to most of the programs offered at the Bahá'í Unity Center, which include a Friday night basketball game/group dialogue session for older youth, a computer class for adults, and training in public speaking for youth and adults. All of these programs are aimed at empowering and uplifting African Americans. Also connected with the Center is a nationally recognized local outreach program serving refugee and immigrant families in DeKalb's northern region.

Founded four years ago in response to local concerns at evidence of rising violence, health problems and drug abuse among area young people, the Center seeks through such programs to address core issues facing young people and their families in a fragmented society where many families lack direction and young people are drifting into negative behavior.

"We have identified needs in this general community, needs that include training in conflict resolution, skills training, parenting training and virtues training," said Fred Ming, a director of the Family Unity Institute, a Bahá'í-run non-profit organization which sponsors the various outreach programs offered at the Center. "There is a lot of capacity out there in this community, but it is not connected. We want the Family Unity Institute and its programs to be a unity force, consolidating the capacity for the benefit of all."

Diversity in DeKalb

DeKalb County has the distinction of being the most diverse county in the state of Georgia. An influx of refugees from Eastern Europe and Asia, as well as new migrants from Hispanic regions, has raised the non-English speaking population to more than 10 percent of the county's roughly 600,000 people, who are almost evenly divided between blacks and whites.

Yet these diverse populations are largely separate, living throughout the county in neighborhoods that have become defined primarily by race. In the southern part, for example, more than 70 percent of the population is black, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. In the northern part, blacks compose less than 20 percent of the population - and some neighborhoods are nearly all white, with fewer than 7 percent blacks. The neighborhood in which the Bahá'í Unity Center is located is predominantly black - and it is that population that the Family Unity Institute mainly serves. The area is not poor, but the high level of racial segregation has left many young people here feeling bitter and isolated from the mainstream.

"This isn't a county where people have severe economic needs," said Sharon Akiele, chair of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of DeKalb County South, the local governing council for the Bahá'í community here. "But there are definitely declining social values when you have so many teenage parents, when you still have significant drug use, and you have one of the fastest growing populations for AIDS among young African American girls."

Statistical data for the county confirms the often sharp distinction between the races in terms of social indicators and problems. Scores on standardized academic tests are lower on the average for African Americans, for example, and in 1997, some 17 percent of the white women who had babies were unmarried, compared to 55 percent of African-American women.

"What those birth rate figures mean is that roughly half of the kids in the DeKalb school system are from a single parent, and probably from a relatively low income, poorly educated single parent," said Douglas Bachtel, a sociologist and demographic specialist at the University of Georgia.

Concerned about these trends, the Southern DeKalb Spiritual Assembly, which represents the roughly 100 members of the Bahá'í Faith in the district, decided in the early 1990s that something must be done. "The Assembly decided that however small we are, and however limited our resources are, we would do something for the youth - and we would do it for all of DeKalb County," said Rosland Hurley, a member of the local Assembly and a lawyer.

At the same time, Mottahedeh Development Services (MDS), a non-profit agency established by the Bahá'í community of the United States of America to promote social and economic development worldwide, had established a domestic partnership program for grassroots projects in the USA. The two groups joined forces and the result was the purchase of a former Baptist church along with its recreational and classroom buildings - which became the Bahá'í Unity Center and is owned by the South DeKalb Assembly - and the establishment of the Family Unity Institute, which operates out of the Center under the joint sponsorship of the Assembly and MDS.

The approach of the Center and the Institute is to take an overarching view of social problems and their causes. Bahá'ís view disunity, intolerance and self-centered materialism as the underlying causes of most social problems; they see remedies in the promotion of unity, tolerance and high moral standards.

Within that framework, the programs of the Institute have arisen largely as members of the Bahá'í community have come forward to volunteer their time and talents.

The STAR program, for example, had been established previously in another neighborhood by Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, who are both Bahá'ís. But the facilities of the Center and the framework of direction suggested by the Institute offered an ideal setting for their project, which has received modest local publicity and tremendous community support for its innovative approach at encouraging young African Americans to study harder and succeed academically. STAR is an acronym that stands for "scholarship, teamwork, ambition and respect."

Among young people here, working hard in school is not something that is always encouraged by peers; winning at basketball is. The program capitalizes on that second ambition by requiring attendance at tutorial session for students to be eligible to stay on the STAR basketball team. Tutorial sessions often incorporate basketball themes into their lessons. "For math studies, we might study Michael Jordan's shooting percentages, and then come out on the court and calculate our own shooting percentages," said Mr. Robinson.

Mr. Robinson, a Stanford University educated lawyer employed as a senior homicide prosecutor for neighboring Fulton County, said an important goal of the program is to keep its young participants off the streets and engaged in positive activities.

"Keeping these kids busy and in school is important," said Mr. Robinson. "Statistically, over 90 percent of youth involved in juvenile criminal justice system are school dropouts."

The program currently serves about 30 youth, aged 9 through 15. Parents say they are delighted with its double focus. "My boys love basketball," said Marie Bryant, who has two sons in the program. "They get up with the ball in their hands; they go to bed with the ball in their hands. So this motivates them to do good school work. For both of them, their grades have improved."

Umoja means unity

Another program at the Center serves older youth, aged 16 through 25, also using basketball as a motivating force. The issues addressed by the Umoja Soldiers, as the group is called, are somewhat more hard-core, ranging the gamut of concerns facing young black men in America, from police harassment to the attractions of illegal drugs.

"When we started the program, we wanted to promote a positive atmosphere for youth in this area as an alternative to just hanging out in the streets," said Adrian Hooper, 23, one of the program's founders. "And over time we started to focus on the issues and problems faced by the African American community."

The Umoja Soldiers meet every Friday night at the Center, and from 30 to 60 young men regularly attend. After a game or two of recreational basketball, the group gathers in a circle of chairs to discuss the problems and challenges the members face.

The word "umoja" means "unity" in Swahili, and it is in the "unity circle," as the program's founders call the discussion session, that the dialogue is guided toward principles of tolerance and self-respect.

"The purpose of Umoja Soldiers is to empower young African American brothers mentally, spiritually, and physically in order that we can achieve self-determination and attain unity," said Anthony Outler, 22, another founder and currently the group's leader. "The whole thing behind it is that as a people, black men have been given false notions about who they are - like for instance the whole thing about always being 'cool' and 'down' and in the way violence and drugs and alcohol are glorified or the way women are treated."

Mr. Outler said the discussion leaders suggest alternatives, urging the young men to think for themselves and to recognize their spiritual nature. "We can't just preach and say, 'don't do drugs' - that wouldn't be accepted," said Mr. Hooper. "But the discussions are more like an investigation of truth, all with a common theme, which is just not to accept what everybody else is doing."

At the present time, the other programs at the Center - such as the computer class and the public speaking sessions (which are co-sponsored by Toastmasters International) - also mainly serve local African Americans.

There are exceptions to this focus. The Institute also runs an outreach program entitled "Healthy Multi-Cultural Families" that serves Asian and Hispanic families in and around Chamblee, a city in the northern part of DeKalb County. Chamblee has recently seen a large influx of refugees and immigrants and many are deficient in English language skills. The program provides an after school tutorial for children whose poor English might otherwise retard their progress through school.

The program, which won national recognition in the form of a Martin Luther King Day of Service grant for $5,000 from the National Service Corporation in 1998, also aims to prevent injury and violence in the families it serves by providing health education and working to strengthen family bonds and uplift the status of women.

"We have found through informal interviews that many new immigrants are experiencing family violence and that women are often targets of abuse," said Carole Miller, director of domestic programs at Mottahedeh Development Services. "The primary prevention method has been to promote the development of bonds of trust, love and respect in youth and their families, through education and health-related activities for the entire family."

More than 60 families have been served by the Healthy Families program.

In another area of endeavor, the Institute has twice sponsored interfaith conferences with the idea of bringing together the various ethnic and religious groups that inhabit the county.

In the future, the Center and Institute hope to reach out increasingly to the wider community in DeKalb county.

"There are a lot of organizations that address the problems facing families and children, but there are not a lot of organizations here addressing them from a perspective of unifying diverse groups," said Ms. Hurley of the Bahá'í Assembly. "We look at this community as one, not as a bunch of separate groups. And it is our perspective that the social ills facing us require that we all come together."