You’d expect that when Susie Kay chooses one word to describe herself, she’d use a cheesy buzzword— empowered, determined, motivated, driven. That’s how she appears. Instead, she laughs, “I’m such a yenta. I just love bringing people together.”
Kay is just that. She doesn’t work a full, frustrating day to come home and volunteer on her pet project for any other reason except that she lives for it. I almost hoped when I met her that she would have a flaw. I didn’t find one.
For the past 10 years, 35-year-old Kay has been teaching American government to seniors at H.G. Woodson High School in Washington, D.C. All the students are black, and the number of other white teachers can be counted on one hand. She works double time, co-directing a project she created five years ago for these kids.
Hoop Dreams is an entirely volunteer project that brings inner-city youth and D.C. big shots together for year-round basketball play. The games culminate in a June tournament that raises money for scholarships, which are awarded to students for both academic achievement and effort. This June, the annual tournament was attended by 2,000 people and raised half a million dollars. Every penny of it went to the 105 Woodson students whose applications were approved.
Simply by her presence at Woodson High, Kay has been building her own bridge across the Anacostia river, Washington’s dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. She tells anyone who’ll listen the true secret to racial reconciliation: personal relationships. “People don’t want to hear it, because it sounds so simple,” commented Kay. “We’re not making huge waves. We’re just chipping away, day by day.” Thus the Hoop Dreams tournament expanded into a full-fledged experiment in community unification. Personal relationships from the game forge internship and mentoring opportunities, and to date Kay and her team have helped match up 100 students with positions at companies like USAir and Coca-Cola.
“It has everything to do with breaking stereotypes,” remarked Kay. “If everyone lets their guard down for a minute, it is clear that there are some really great people out there, that you wouldn’t have otherwise met.”
On one occasion, Kay brought in her friend Ari Fleicher, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and a spokesman for the Republicans’ Contract with America. The students were “a little confused. I mean, there he was, a white Republican Jew, all of the cardinal sins, and they loved him. And he couldn’t get enough of them either.” Fleicher now gives two $500 scholarships a year to students going on to study government, law or public service.
President Clinton has publicly praised Hoop Dreams for its racial reconciliation. A core of 100 volunteers offer mentoring and career assistance and, recently, Princeton Review became a Hoop Dreams partner, offering many students the course for free. Their scores shot through the roof (up an average of 150 points), proving to Kay that the college application process typically favors the student who can afford courses like Princeton Review.
Kay was taught tolerance and understanding at home, even before she encountered with anyone from outside her “storybook childhood.” Her father was Jewish, married to an Italian Roman Catholic. Simply watching their marriage, Kay learned that two people from different backgrounds could put their cultural differences aside.
Kay remembers her first few months at Woodson as “awesome.” Sometimes she felt a little out of place. “All of that melts away, though, as soon as you make your first connection. I have never had so many long, deep conversations as I did those first few months, and so many of them were about race. The students needed someone that they could talk openly with for the first time.”
Kay is the first to admit it hasn’t been easy at times. One of the hardest, a period she refers to as the “O.J. Simpson/ Million Man March month.” School-sponsored speakers from the Nation of Islam were making anti-Semitic remarks, and the school was at “the height of anger.” Kay kept working. “The reason that so many people find this so hard is that they give up after one incident. You know, there are white guys who have never had to deal with any ‘ism’. They get so rattled after one comment.” Her advice? “Suck it up.”
When asked if all of this would have been easier if she hadn’t been white and a woman and Jewish, Kay gives her signature laugh and says, “Yes, yes, yes!” Some men have suggested that they could pull off Hoop Dreams better than she. Kay always invites them to try, but nobody’s done it yet. “This is not for the faint of heart.”