By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — When the Wabongo Leadership Council accepted a $35,000 donation Friday from the VanVleet Family Foundation, there was a moment where their smiles while holding the oversized check were exchanged for a grave, solemn look.
It’s a look that Matthew Simpson and other members of the leadership council had noticed in a multitude of historic photos of Black leaders. Each year when the council takes students on tours through historically Black colleges and universities, they take at least one photo with that look to pay respect to their ancestors and emphasize the sincerity of their efforts to uplift young Black people.
“We call it an ancestral gaze. Every time we take a picture we always make sure we have one where we represent that intensity and the seriousness about what we do every day,” Simpson said. “It’s an homage to our ancestors, and that’s making a statement about how seriously we take the work.”
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Next week, Wabongo will lead its sixth tour of historically Black colleges and other institutions of higher learning. There will be 30 students who take the tour. This year, it’s being made possible by the VanVleet Family Foundation, which donated $35,012.90 to the council on Friday at the newly opened Jenkins Community Resource Center.
“We had been kicking it around as a group how we could expose our youth to additional opportunities that aren’t around, and we discovered that it’s already being done in our community,” said Susan Danforth, VanVleet’s mother. “What better way to kick it off than to partner with somebody who’s already doing it and doing it well.”
The VanVleet Family Foundation was established by Fred VanVleet, an NBA All-Star and NBA champion who graduated from Auburn High School in Rockford, to build on the legacy of ordinary people doing extraordinary things because someone invested in their dreams.
Wabongo is a Swahili word that loosely translates into meaning that Black people are thinking people, said Simpson, the vice president of the council’s board. The nonprofit organization launched in 2013 with a goal to build leadership capacity in the Black community centered around education, community and economic development, and health and wellness. This is the first college tour the organization has held since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“When Fred left Rockford, he went on to pursue higher education, and basketball was the vehicle that he used to take him there,” said Josh Patterson, president of the Wabongo Leadership Council. “We’re trying to do the same thing for the rest of the young people in Rockford with a 56-passenger bus, taking them to historically Black colleges and other higher-education institutions across the country.
“That was the synergy and natural alignment that we saw, really wanting to build on the legacy that Fred is building on the court and off the court.”
This year the students will visit Alabama A&M University, Stillman College, Talladega College, and Tuskegee University.
Many of the students who go on the tour later enroll at the colleges they visit. Some have even been admitted during the tour itself, said Anquanette Parham, director of community engagement for Wabongo.
She said the experience for Black Rockford students can be powerful when they go to HBCUs and see the majority of students, educators and administrators who look like them.
“They see themselves mirrored … not just on the sports team at the school, but all over,” she said. “That’s a very powerful experience as well for students to see that.”
This year’s tour is filled, but students are typically accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis after completing the necessary application. The tour is intentionally not limited to the highest-performing students or those soon to graduate. Some students, Parham said, may have been performing at average or below average until they were inspired during the tour.
“They’re bit with the bug and they come back home and turn it around and actually become really interested in school, really interested in their education and actively planning for the next level,” Parham said. “You may not be a great student, but you can be exposed to a phenomenal opportunity that turns your life around.”