EXCERPT of Virus City from Big Shoulders Books
Lemone Lampley, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Interviewed by Christy Margeson
Now in his 50s, Lemone Lampley was originally raised in Southeast Chicago. After accepting a basketball scholarship and graduating with his bachelor’s degree from DePaul University, he played professional basketball in Europe for eight years before returning to his hometown to work as assistant director of athletics at his alma mater, where he also earned his master’s degree.
During that time, Lampley founded the not-for-profit MOCCHA, Men of Color Connected for Higher Achievement, which provides mentoring opportunities for underserved young men of color in the Chicago community. He refers to MOCCHA as his labor of love.
Lampley appeared for this Zoom interview from the dining room of his home in Frankfort, a south suburb of Chicago. Dressed in a neat, collared shirt, he was eager to talk not only about his own life, but also about the impact of 2020 on the young men of his organization and community.
He smiled and laughed often, sometimes using air quotes when speaking. When addressing racial-justice issues, he took longer pauses, repeated phrases for impact, and sometimes shook his head.
I WAS ENCOURAGED to start [MOCCHA] when I was working on my master’s degree at DePaul, by one of my professors, after she saw a lot of the work that I was doing, which was pretty much geared toward mentoring young African American males.
She encouraged me to start this work back in 2014, and we officially became a 501(c)(3)80 in 2015. In May of 2016, I ended up leaving my full-time job at DePaul, where I had worked the previous eleven years as a director of development for athletics, to run this organization full time.
There’s a gentleman, Steve Sarowitz81—he and his wife have actually helped fund MOCCHA. They saw something in me that they thought was important, and they’ve allowed, through their giving, for this organization to be around for five years.
I consider it a labor of love, because I was once a young African American male myself, and I know some of the pitfalls and some of the issues that they deal with. We’re not the only solution, but we definitely want to be part of the solution, working with some of the underserved young men and specific communities in Chicago. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
A lot of our activities, specifically face-to-face, in person, were canceled [in 2020] due to the pandemic.
I think our last activity was late February. The Chicago Bulls hosted the all-star game down at the United Center.82 We had a group of young men that we were able to take to that event, and then, the rest of March, the pandemic really hit hard.
We did a summer basketball camp down at East-West University [in 2019]. We were scheduled to do that [in 2020] and had to cancel. Our normal gala that always happens in October was canceled [for 2020]. Our collegiate tours to universities, we couldn’t do.
For the most part, all the activities were shut down for health reasons. We tried to stay in contact with a lot of the young men via telephone calls, via online social media, things of that nature. But it really had an effect on how we operated as an organization. We had to pivot and deal with the changes that were very necessary in order to preserve health and wellness. I’m sure all other organizations had to pretty much operate under the same premise—start doing stuff online, communicating, hosting seminars, keeping the platform through social media.
In addition to the fact that [the young men] weren’t able to meet with us, they were unable to meet with their friends in school. They were unable to meet with family members that maybe they were used to seeing, whether it’s at a family reunion or a family gathering.
I think the socioeconomic issue was also pretty severe. A lot of parents had to go on unemployment. For a lot of the [young men in our organization], going to school was not only a place where they could get educated, it also gave them an opportunity to get breakfast and lunch. A lot of young men in underserved communities relied on those breakfast and lunch opportunities.
In general, [it was] just a very difficult year. We lost a lot of lives through COVID as well. I don’t have family members that died of it, but some family members did contract it, and some close friends did pass away from COVID-related situations. It was pretty sad. It lets you know how short life can be.
Usually, around the first or second week in October, we do a gala for our young men where we recognize those that distinguished themselves academically, athletically, socially. It also served as a fundraiser. We would have two-hundred- to three-hundred-people events, and we would give out awards.
We ended up doing something online. We did a digital discussion called, “The Effects of the Pandemic and Social Injustice, and How Has that Affected African Americans?” We had some very prominent people [as] featured speakers on the panel. We had Rashard Johnson, who is the president and CEO of the Advocate Hospitals.83 We had a gentleman named David Booth, who is the vice president of operations for the NBA.84 Then also a local gentleman named Bob Hawkinson, who owns the Kia Hawkinson dealership out in the south suburbs.85 We discussed different things that affected us throughout the year—very fruitful.
I thought the digital discussion was very informative because we had a president who was in charge of a whole hospital staff, Mr. Rashard Johnson. And definitely [hospital workers’] lives were changed by an inrush of people with COVID, and dealing with those that are on the front lines to try and get people healed, while still trying to protect themselves.
He dealt with that, and he as a leader, specifically an African American leader, was able to work through that and still come out pretty good. It was just a heroic effort. In that panel discussion, we showed that despite what was going on, you can still make a difference in your area. Wherever you are, you can still be a voice for social injustice.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons we had David Booth. The NBA allow[ed] a lot of the athletes to utilize their platform. They had opportunities to be interviewed by media sportscasters. They talked about some of the social injustice that went on or that they’ve seen.
[Athletes] were allowed to—in lieu of having their names on the back of their jerseys—put clauses like “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice.” Then [painted] on the court, they have Black Lives Matter.
The NBA allowed even their coaches, Black and white, [to] come out and speak about some of the well-documented cases. Breonna Taylor down in Kentucky, obviously George Floyd.
I can still remember, they interviewed the coach of the San Antonio Spurs. His name is Popovich. Caucasian guy.86 He came out and said some very strong things. He said [that] to see what happened to George Floyd, as a white person, didn’t make him feel good at all.
Despite the tragedies that we saw, it gave America an opportunity to [address] some of the realities that we are facing as a country, in a divided country.
I think that if you are just human, you could see some of the things that took place were just really, in my opinion, not right.
A lot of times, out of negative things, positive results come. To actually see footage of George Floyd being killed on national TV, even though it’s pretty grotesque, America saw it. We saw it. We saw what happened with Breonna Taylor. We saw so many other killings that took place throughout the country.
It gave us an opportunity and a platform to discuss issues that we really need to discuss. Not just as Black Americans, not just as white Americans, but as just human people, trying to make choices that we think are going to better influence us and progress going forward.
Before technology came on the scene, in terms of being able to actually video-record incidents, we heard a lot about injustices, but we couldn’t see it. But now, with the advent of the smartphone and the cameras, we can actually see what is taking place in some cases.
I don’t remember where I was [when I heard about George Floyd’s murder], but I do know that when I got a chance to see some of the footage—[it was] very disturbing.
It’s hard to watch a man calling out for his life and just having his life snuffed out by somebody that says they serve and protect. It wasn’t good. And then the Breonna Taylor case in Louisville, Kentucky, came out, and what we heard or saw from that case wasn’t good as well.
And I want to be specifically clear: I don’t think all policemen are bad, Black or white. I don’t think mankind itself is all bad, Black or white.
People say, “This isn’t an America we know.” Well, if you look at history, it is. This is the America we know. And we’ve seen it countless times throughout history, where things happened that really shouldn’t happen.
I think once we come to grips with what the reality of the situation is, we can better deal with it. Unfortunately, sometimes we turn a deaf ear to it, or we put on our blinders and we say, “It’s not real. It’s fake news.” But it’s not.
We’ve heard about it, but now to actually see it, we get a snapshot of some of the injustice. And I think that if we’re all going to live together, and as peacefully as we can, we need to realize that there does need to be changes made in terms of the laws in this country, some that are not fair and just.
I’m gonna be honest. You feel anger, you feel rage, especially when it’s somebody that looks like you.
Seeing those images [of George Floyd], they weren’t good. You got him pinned down, he can’t do anything, and then I think what’s more disturbing than that is that you got three or four other officers that are on the scene and they’re just sitting there as well. They’re the co-conspirators, or they’re complicit with what’s going on.
This man is calling out for his life. You’ve got people screaming, “Let him up! Let him go! Get off of him! He’s not doing anything!” And this officer just— I think it’s anywhere from eight to ten minutes that he had his knee on the guy’s neck, basically killed him right there. I don’t know [how] much more you need to see or say when you see something like that.
Where is your compassion? I mean, this guy is a crook? OK, arrest him, put him in handcuffs, put him in a car, move forward.
Just makes you feel helpless, you know. Like, really? This is where America has gotten to? I think it was just disturbing. That would be the word. If I could use any word, it was disturbing to see that. Disturbing.
I support the right to protest, but in a lawful way. I in no way support opportunists who go out and loot and steal, maim people, bust windows of innocent business owners for no reason other than you’re upset and/or you’re there to steal and rob.
I will say this: I think that a lot of times when you have people that feel oppressed, and they feel that there’s not going to be change, you put them into a situation where they force themselves to do stuff that’s not right. And they know it’s not right, but they feel, “This is the only retribution I’m going to get.”
Negative things get the most public space on television or social media. But it’s not the right way to handle situations, and in no way do I justify anybody that’s out there looting or burglarizing or setting stuff on fire, all in the sacred name of “protest.”
That’s not a peaceful protest. I don’t think that does anything beneficial for those people that feel oppressed. I think there is a better way to handle it.
It takes away from the real issues that need to be dealt with. We saw a lot of tragedy happen in this country. Specifically, toward the end, with what happened down in DC at the Capitol.87
I’m hoping that, going forward, we as a people can do better. There’s a saying in the world, “When you know better, you do better.” And we do know that there needs to be some things done a lot differently than we saw in 2020.
I think people have to get out and vote—not only at the national level, but at the local level—[for] those officials that are running for office. Investigate, do your research, see what laws that they’re enacting. I think the polls are one way that we can help change things that are happening in America.
People that were fed up with the past administration, they went out and voted in numbers to make change. I’m hoping for a good change.
I’m actually looking to have a Zoom conference with some of our young men from MOCCHA, and one of the things we’ll be looking to discuss is, how has the pandemic, as well as the social injustice that we’ve seen, affected them, specifically as young men of color.
It was something that we faced as a world that we didn’t see coming. How we acted or responded to that, trying to help save lives and make lives better for people of all creeds and color, is going to come through an act of passion and love.
I still believe that out of this difficulty that we’ve seen, there are going to be some very positive things that happen afterwards. I would encourage not just our young men, but all the other young African American males to continue to have hope, keep your dream, and work hard.
Hard work always pays off. My dad always told me that as a young man.
I would say [to the young people] that despite the negativity you’ve seen [over the pandemic], continue to aspire to succeed. I think the opportunities are there, and don’t let one specific time in your life hold you back from accomplishing what your dream is. Continue to pursue your dream despite the pandemic and the social unrest that you’ve seen in 2020. Because I think if you do, on the other side of that, you’re going to see a brighter path, a brighter future for yourself.
80 A 501(c)(3) is a nonprofit organization in US federal law, exempt from some federal income taxes. Source: https://www.501c3.org/what-is-a-501c3/
81 Sarowitz is the founder of online payroll firm Paylocity. Source: https://www.forbes.com/profile/stevensarowitz/?sh=577eeda543a0
82 The 2020 National Basketball Association All-Star Game was played on February 16, 2020, at the United Center in Chicago.
83 Rashard Johnson is president of both Advocate Trinity Hospital, in Chicago, and Advocate South Suburban Hospital, in Hazel Crest, IL, which are part of Advocate Health Care, the 10th largest not-for-profit, integrated health system in the United States. Source: https://www.nmqf.org/40-under-40- awardees/2020/rashard-johnson
84 David Booth’s official title is NBA vice president, Basketball Operations. Source: https://www.nba.com/ news/malik-rose-david-booth-nba-vice-presidents-official-release
85 Bob Hawkinson is the owner/managing partner of Kia Hawkinson in Matteson, Illinois. Source: https:// hawkinsonkia.com/sales-team
86 Gregg Popovich, head coach/president of the San Antonio Spurs NBA basketball team. Source: https://www.nba.com/spurs/gregg-popovich
87 On January 6, 2021, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to object to the counting of electorial votes from the 2020 election. Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/01/06/ capitol-hill-riot-heres-everything-we-know/6573033002/
The interview above is an excerpt from Big Shoulders Books’ Virus City, a collection of interviews that capture the oral history of Chicagoans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click the above cover for more info!
BIG SHOULDERS BOOKS and SLAG GLASS CITY are projects of the DePaul Publishing Institute.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · November 2022
Header image— Electron Microscopic Image of a Coronavirus: Original Image Source— U.S. National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases
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