WASHINGTON – On August 8, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the group that owns the Washington Mystics, announced a new initiative called FORWARD8. Pronounced “For Ward 8,” the initiative will offer economic and educational opportunities year-round for people in Washington, DC’s Ward 8. According to a Mystics news release, its “pillars,” or main objectives, include expanding STEM education; promoting health, fitness, and nutrition; and community outreach.
Ward 8 is the area of DC in which the Mystics’ new arena is located, and it is also one of the District’s least affluent wards. As of 2017, the median household income in Ward 8 was $32,000, less than half the DC average. Forty-seven percent of children lived in poverty, nearly double the rate in DC overall, and less than 16% of Ward 8 residents had bachelor’s degrees compared to 57% throughout the District. Ward 8 is 90% black, 3% Hispanic, and only 5% white—similar to the WNBA, in which 84% of players identified as people of color in 2018.
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At the Mystics’ game on August 8—a 91-78 victory over Indiana—several organizations based in Ward 8 were in attendance to educate fans about their services, and fans could purchase FORWARD8 t-shirts for the first time. Proceeds from the shirts will benefit the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that offers training and job placement for Ward 8 residents.
At halftime, Mystics owner Ted Leonsis spoke with reporters about FORWARD8 and his long-term vision for community involvement in Ward 8. Postgame, I also spoke with Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, who made headlines earlier this year when she held a media blackout to raise awareness of gun violence in Ward 8, about the new initiative.
When the Mystics decided that Ward 8 would be the best place for a new arena, Leonsis said, there was initially some skepticism from the community. But “now, there’s zero skepticism; there’s more, ‘We’re a part of this.’ … I sense a lot of pride.” Monumental Sports & Entertainment (MSE) turned the tide by engaging with the community. “We made a commitment … to be really, really good neighbors. We spent a lot of time before we decided to come out here going community groups talking to moms, talking to students, talking to teachers.”
It also helped that Mystics players had been active in the community before relocation was on the table. Cloud said that the team adopted Henley Elementary School—the school that was victim to the violence that prompted Cloud’s media blackout—a few years ago and continues to read to students and do public events with the school. Leonsis said that because the players are so “organically supportive” in the community, it pushes MSE to increase its own involvement. FORWARD8 is the culmination of that.
Leonsis characterized FORWARD8 as a way to “formalize the way we give back to the community.” He explained, “This is a campaign to really package up all of the work that we want to do here … [and] shine the light on all that’s good in this community.” Cloud applauded the new initiative, saying, “It’s great for Monumental to kind of put their money where their mouths are. When we moved into this community, Ted made a promise that, you know, he would give back to this community and not lose sight of why he moved in: to provide jobs and to provide opportunities. … I think FORWARD8 is a great way of doing those things.”
The strategy going forward, according to Cloud, is to keep a consistent spotlight on Ward 8. Even in the offseason, when many Mystics players go overseas to supplement their WNBA paychecks, Cloud says she will figure out opportunities to keep “using my platform” and “still be integrated with the community.” Many of those opportunities may be related to sports; Cloud specifically mentioned basketball clinics as a possible option and noted the power of sports to unify people. “It’s been an oasis for me in my life,” she said, “So it can be an oasis for these kids too.”
Leonsis also emphasized that FORWARD8 would be a long-term commitment, not a flash in the pan. “We’re in this for the long haul,” he said, comparing it to the economic development that followed after MSE moved its teams into Capital One Arena, the Mystics’ former home in the more affluent Ward 2. Leonsis’s long-term goal is deceptively simple: “We want the jobs, we want the dollars to be flowing to local businesses. We want to be hiring local people.” Cloud echoed Leonsis’s long-term vision, but said that the team and MSE are having an immediate impact, too. “You can see it when we work with kids—it makes a difference to them.”
FORWARD8’s objectives sound great on paper, but its success will depend on how much Leonsis and MSE turn words into action and continue to get buy-in from the community. So far, he said, the Mystics’ new arena has “done everything that we’ve imagined” on the court. “We have home court advantage … it’s loud, it’s exciting, it’s a lot of energy.” The goal of FORWARD8 is to create a similar home-court energy for the local economy in Ward 8. Just as fans are coming to Mystics games this season and creating a championship-level environment for the team, the hope is that one day, Ward 8 will be thriving economically, on par with the top regions in the greater DC area.
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