The Starting Block: Building Community and Careers is not a Game

the starting block, community
Getty

 

When we think of a career in sports, most people immediately flash on being the next Drew Brees or Sean Payton. Yet outside of playing and coaching, there are myriad career opportunities in both professional and amateur athletics.

“There’s legal, marketing, sports medicine, administration,” enumerated Arnie Fielkow, co-founder and board member of The Starting Block, a nonprofit with a focus on opening doors to non-athlete sports careers for local young people.

Fielkow served as an executive with the New Orleans Saints and the National Basketball Retired Players Association, so he knows intimately the business of sports. But helping young people follow in his career footsteps was only part of the motivation behind the organization.

“We’re using sports as a vehicle to bring people together,” he explained, adding that program participants are drawn from the local Black, Jewish and Latino communities.

“We’re breaking down what have become barriers in our society over time,” concurred Morris Mintz, another Starting Block board member. “Communities tend to build certain ideas about other communities, and that’s where the barriers get built. But often they’re built on perceptions that are not correct.”

To get past this, The Starting Block brings together these young people from diverse backgrounds, but with the common interest of sports careers. The organization then takes it one step further by conducting many of its programs in the cultural and religious facilities of these different communities, including St. Augustine High School and Touro Synagogue. In this way, there is a real first-hand experience of their peers’ environments.

This aspect of the program is augmented by curricular components that include teaching Black, Latino and Jewish history and traditions. Additional partners in designing the lessons include the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.

While the overarching goal is building community and leadership, the specific goal is definitely preparing participants for possible careers in the field. To this end, The Starting Block partners with the Center for Sport at Tulane University.

“They’re learning from one of the best in country,” observed Fielkow, “and at the high school level, they’re getting an education that they don’t usually get until college.”

Once they have completed some of the baseline professional learning, participants are paired with local sports businesses and organizations for shadowing opportunities, giving them direct exposure to that side of the equation.

The program runs for two years. The first cohort of students began classes this year, and a second group will be selected next year. Participants are recommended by area high schools and nonprofits, and complete an on-line application form to be considered. There is no fee for participating. Mintz noted that there is a particular focus on attracting “kids with fewer opportunities than others.”

The Starting Block grew out of Fielkow’s own career and life experiences, as well as his long-time friendship with the late chef Leah Chase.

“She and I used to talk about all kinds of different topics,” he recalled, “and after she passed, I wanted to do a joint initiative with her family and my family. I approached the Chases with the idea, and they supported it right away. We brought in the Mintz family right after that.”

The Starting Block draws its name from the piece of equipment that track athletes use to brace their feet at the start of a race, which enables them to get off to a stronger, faster start. It’s an apt metaphor for the work the organization does to help launch careers.

While the business side of sports may not offer the astronomical salaries that professional athletes often command, it provides well-paid jobs that are not cut short by injuries or age. Nor are the qualifications quite so rarified. “You don’t have to have great athletic abilities to be a great sports manager,” pointed out Mintz.

While the career skills that the participants learn are exceptionally beneficial, the value of the life skills they acquire may be even greater.

“Hopefully they learn that they can disagree with people but it doesn’t mean they are bad people,” Mintz said. “They can have discussions, give and take ideas, and learn more about what their own beliefs are. They can learn to rethink some things.”

“It’s a great opportunity for those who have an interest in sports and might want to make it a career,” noted Fielkow. “Meanwhile, we’re bringing together three communities that don’t actually know all that much about each other and building relationships.”

The dismantling of barriers has extra value for anyone considering working in this arena, which is more diverse than many industries. More important to Fielkow and Mintz, it simply feels like the right thing to do.

“We’re not born bigots,” Mintz stated firmly.

 

Categories: Neighborhood Biz