As protests over the numerous deaths of Black residents at the hands of police continue across the country, Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall knows that her organization cannot remain silent. Last week, the team held its first Courageous Conversations event to spark a dialogue about systemic racism and discrimination. It included staff members and community leaders, like the heads of the police department and the school district. These discussions are important to Marshall, not only because of her leadership role at the Mavericks and within the city, but because of her lived experience as a Black woman in America. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
The Mavericks held a public discussion last week about race outside the American Airlines Center. How did that come about? I pulled the leadership team together and said, ‘Okay, let’s talk about what’s going on in the country.’ Because as a leader, I just feel like you have to do that when you have something this big going on in the world. It’s just like the COVID crisis. Let’s talk about how people are feeling.
I have three African American men who are on my leadership team and that call ended up being them expressing what they’re feeling. They started talking about their experiences and sharing some things that others on the call just could not believe they’re going through. Of course, I start talking about my sons and the fact that it was one of my sons who told me about Ahmaud Arbery. And it was one of my sons who taught me about George Floyd. At the ages they are now, which is 28 and 37, this stuff is very real and they pay attention.
I was honestly praying, which is what I do every day, and just said, ‘Okay, Lord, give me the wisdom and guidance to lead this team.’ And since I have been having conversations, my boss had been having conversations, my leadership team, they were having conversations with their folks. I said, ‘You know what? We need to have a community conversation because we are a sports team. Sport is a great unifier. We unite people on a regular basis during the season, 41 times a year. So, let’s just use our arena or our big parking lot and bring some folks together to just talk so people can listen and learn about just this whole Black experience in the country and then unite around some kind of action plans we can do to try to move the race conversation and this issue forward.’
This was originally just supposed to be for Mavs staff? Yes, it was originally for my staff. But then, I started saying, okay, well, actually I want to get the chief of police out there and I want to get DISD Superintendent Dr. Hinojosa. What I wanted to do, and what we ended up doing, was to talk about systemic racism, because this stuff is systemic, some of this oppression, some of these injustices. I wanted to talk about the systems and yes, the criminal justice system is one piece, but why not talk about all the systems? I want to talk about the education system. I want to talk about the child welfare system. African American kids make up 22 percent of the population here in Dallas, but they make up 48 percent of the foster care population.
So, we had education, criminal justice, public policy, healthcare, housing, child welfare, and employment. I wanted them to actually talk about the status of Black America as it relates to each of those systems. I wanted them to provided one or two action plans.
What did you personally get out of the conversations you heard? I’m normally an optimistic person and I felt very optimistic about the fact that we want to do better as a community. I actually think we want to do better as a country. And I think we’re going to be forced to do better as a country. Because even if you look at who’s protesting out there, it’s a very diverse group of people. At one point, my son was in the protests in Los Angeles and he’s not the protest type, if you will, but I don’t think there’s a type right now.
I think these young people, and they’re very diverse, they are saying this is what happened to George Floyd, that foot that was on his neck, that, in my opinion, symbolizes a foot that has been on the neck of African American people for hundreds of years because of slavery, because of Jim Crow, because of the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration—I’m about to go on and on. This generation of diverse people, they’re saying, ‘No, we are going to have equity, equality, and justice, and we’re not standing for this.’
That’s why I think this is different. And I left the conversation thinking this is different.
I have these young African American men in my life, my nephews, my two sons, obviously my husband, then I got these guys working for me. So, I’m just feeling all this pain with these guys. I got a call from my son on Sunday and he was literally crying. He was breaking down. He just couldn’t take it anymore. Somebody made a racial comment when he was online having a church service. And it just got to him. It’s like, when is this going to end? And then he called me and I prayed with him. And then two days later he was leading the protest in L.A. With our conversation, I got to channel that emotion here.
When you see what’s happening with officers around the country, even here recently in Dallas with Botham Jean and in Fort Worth with Atatiana Jefferson, how do you reconcile your relationship with the police? Well, I can make it personal. I think about my 37-year-old nephew, who quit his corporate job to get back in shape at 30 years old because he wanted to go back and serve as a police officer. And he sent me a picture last week and he says, ‘Auntie, I’m good. I’m dressed up, I’m getting ready to go protect the protesters.’ And then every night he sent me a note about how many protesters were out there because he’s in San Francisco. And it was like 10,000 plus one night. I just pray for him.
I grew up in a public housing project and I think about the officer who took me to school during desegregation. There are always bad apples in there. And I’ve seen so many videos of police officers condemning what those officers did. And it’s a shame because it cast a bad shadow on 800,000 of them. And yes, what happened with Botham Jean was horrible and we actually protested outside his apartment with the police last week. And so that’s horrible. And so, there are definitely policy changes and institutional changes, systemic changes that need to be addressed.
If a kid gets a bad teacher, they’re not going to die. That’s why this is so painful, because one bad apple causes death. That’s different from a bad teacher or a bad person on my staff. But those police officers are taking it very seriously. So that’s how I reconcile it. That’s how I reconcile it. I think about my nephew. He’s going to work every day to protect and to serve.
But my husband is George Floyd. My son is George Floyd. My nephews are George Floyd. My players, the coaches, the Black men who work on my team. I mean, this is real. I am Breonna Taylor.
What’s the next step for the organization going forward to combat all of this? I’m taking these initiatives that I heard about yesterday and then the ones that we’re already talking about. I’m talking about above and beyond all the stuff we’ve been doing. Okay? Because truly, truly we were at a point in time. Now it’s a moment where we’ve got to take it up quite a few notches. And so, we’re going to be talking tomorrow as an organization, some of us, about what else can we do to try to make a difference with some of these systems, like a holistic approach to addressing these inequities and disparities.
We will continue to drive, listen, learn, unite. So, we’ll sponsor and we’ll continue to have Courageous Conversations. I don’t want to put a timeframe to it, but you just kind of know when it needs to happen.
So that’s why I’m optimistic. I’m like, you know what? We are going to do this. Dallas is going to be the model. Now, I’m sure all big cities are saying that right now, which is a good thing. Wouldn’t that be nice to have a big race about trying to be the model around equity and equality, justice? That’s a good race. That’s a good little competition to have. So, as you can see, I’ve got a lot of passion.
We don’t just work here. We don’t just play here. We live here too. We’re community members and we’re going to make a difference.