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Coach has a game plan for guiding JSerra girls basketball players through social justice issues

Just days after the death of George Floyd while in the custody of the Minneapolis police, JSerra High girls basketball coach Geoffrey Clayton knew the next move for his team.

The first-year coach hosted his players on a Zoom teleconference to give them a chance to share their feelings and explore racial and socio-economic issues. It’s a conversation he hopes to continue this school year.

The death of Floyd, a Black man who died on Memorial Day after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes, sparked protests around the world, and Clayton wanted to engage his players quickly.

“I saw kids and what they were posting on social media and I felt it was my obligation to reach out to them,” he said. “I know where my heart is and I know what my intentions are.”

Welcome to the purpose-driven life of Geoffrey Clayton, a former basketball star at Magnolia High who is helping a new crop of student-athletes find their own way through some sensitive or new topics.

As the new school year approaches, Clayton, also a student resource mentor at JSerra, said he hopes to hold more online meetings with his players and he is exploring ways to diversify the school curriculum.

During the team’s Zoom meeting shortly after Floyd’s May 25 death, Clayton presented discussion-building questions and then mostly just listened to the players, he said. The 37-year-old was careful not guide them toward a certain political viewpoint, letting his empathy as a Black man who experienced cultural diversity and racism serve as his guide, he said.

Clayton, assisted by his sister Ashley at the meeting, said his team consisted of a culturally, ethnically and socio-economically diverse collection of players. Some had little experience with the subjects of social justice and racism while others had personal experiences to share.

The forum or “counsel” as Clayton called it, helped both groups, Clayton said.

“There were a lot of kids who were just like, ‘I’ve never heard stories like this,’” he said. His own daughter, Jailynn, will be a freshman basketball player at JSerra this year.

“What happens with kids like that is if I don’t have the conversation with them, then they might gravitate to a certain side of the media and now people are telling them what to think about people like me without ever having to interact with someone with my background,” he said.

“So now you are judging me, or people who look like me, or people who are from environments like mine, without ever talking to those people about those environments and that’s where you get a lot racism from. And that’s where you get a lot of bigotry from and prejudice from. People just not knowing.”

One of the strongest testimonies from the Zoom meeting came from senior Sarah Shaw, 18. The Cal State Monterey Bay-bound forward/center shared her journey toward embracing her identity as a young, Black woman – something she hadn’t disclosed to teammates.

“When I was growing up … I always wanted to fit in and be like my (classmates),” she said. “When I got into high school, I started making new friends and branching out. I finally understood that being an African American young woman is so much more than I thought it was. Now, I’m finally accepting who I am and being proud.”

Shaw said the Zoom session also helped some of her other teammates better understand the feelings of the George Floyd protesters.

“Me and Mom went to a couple protests,” Shaw said. “I told (my teammates), ‘You don’t have to be always posting about it (on social media), always going to rallies. You just have to kind of have knowledge.’ After that happened, a lot of people did get a lot of knowledge about what a lot of African Americans have been experiencing their entire lives.

“It was a good idea to have that meeting to get more information out,” she said.

Clayton said facilitating the discussion felt like a natural move because of the way he was raised.

His parents, Jeffrey and Juanita, were strong advocates for their Black community and other races.

Clayton said both were former members of the Black Panthers Party, a multi-faceted organization that also monitored police for misconduct.

Jeffrey played football at USC and coached youth football for several years in Orange County. He also directed USC’s Educational Opportunity Program Center, which exposed under-served youth in Los Angeles to college opportunities and different cultures.

He died in mid-December of what Clayton and his family now believe was likely COVID-19.

Geoffrey Clayton’s grandmother, Jean Clayton, was a trailblazing female police officer in Cleveland who fought against sex discrimination.

Growing up, Clayton embraced the spirit of his grandmother. He loved reading books about Black activists, he said, especially the autobiography of Malcolm X by Alexander Haley.

He also often watched “Eyes on the Prize,” the award-winning documentary about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

“I feel l was born with a purpose already given to me,” Clayton said of his childhood, which included living in Watts and Compton.

Clayton did encounter racism as a youth, he said.

He remembers a racial slur spray painted in front of his house in Reseda after O.J. Simpson was acquitted. He later faced racism while attending elementary and high school in Garden Grove and Anaheim, he said.

But now a single father living back in Orange County, Clayton said he sees progress in the areas of racism and social justice. The graduate of Cal State San Bernardino believes advancement isn’t easy, but yearns to spur it along.

At JSerra, he focuses on basketball and character development.

“My purpose is always to just spread love and servant leadership,” he said. “(My parents) made me realize that people died for me to be here. People were chased by dogs. They were hit with hoses. A lot of people’s lives were passed so you have the opportunity you have today, so you can never take that for granted.

“It’s your duty, it’s your purpose, to continue the movement.”

Source: Orange County Register

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