Sue Bird, Zach Banner and Alysha Clark on using the concept of tikkun olam for social justice


This Q&A is adapted from one of eight mainstage conversations held at Z3 2020: Visions of a Shared Future, a virtual conference produced by The Z3 Project and the Oshman Family JCC of Palo Alto, California, aimed at reimagining Diaspora-Israel relations. 

While 2020 will always be remembered for COVID, in the United States it was also a year marked by historic protests against systemic racism and social injustice.

Professional athletes played a singular role during this turbulent period of self-examination, standing up for their views in a highly polarized environment. How do some connect to the traditional Jewish concept of social justice, known in Hebrew as tikkun olam? And if they are not explicitly motivated by anything Jewish, then how can these athletes inspire others to repair the world by standing up for others?

The Q&A below, which has been condensed and lightly edited, was adapted from a panel featuring Alysha Clark, a two-time WNBA champion and a former member of the Israeli women’s national basketball team; Sue Bird, an Israeli-American basketball player who has won four gold medals as a member of the U.S. Olympic team and the same number of WNBA titles; and Zach Banner, an offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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This session was led by Ben Orbach, the CEO of The Ascendant Athlete, an advisory group that supports professional athletes and teams to lead movements for social change.

Why is the power of tikkun olam important right now? Sue, if we could start with you and share a little bit about the advocacy work you do on LGBTQ+ issues and gender equality and what motivated you to get involved with that?

Bird: The quick story is just being a professional athlete, a female professional athlete and a gay professional athlete. I didn’t realize it for a really long time, probably not until a couple of years ago, but just my existence in this world comes with a lot of negativity. And then a couple of years ago I was like ‘wait a minute, I need to be more vocal about this.’

I know you said it’s almost arrogant to think you can change the world but humbling to think that you can be a part of that as well. Over the last couple of years I was like ‘wait a minute, I can actually [make] a difference. I can actually change things even if it’s just a little piece of this world,’ and I started to take that more seriously and realize the weight that my voice carried.

Alysha, I want to ask you about your work with the Children’s Hospital in Seattle.

Clark: I’ve always had a passion for kids. I grew up in a family of four. I have brothers and sisters, [and] my siblings all have children, so kids are our lives and I’ve always believed that kids, just in their innocence, are very truthful and telling and … they deserve a chance to be able to just enjoy their childhood, regardless of their circumstances, regardless of where they come from, where they go to school. It just happened to be that my first year in Seattle we had a season ticket holder event, and one of our season ticket holders, she came up and was talking to me [and said] ‘I work at the Children’s Hospital. We would love to have you come do visits.’

So I specifically visited the cancer unit because that’s where she works, and just being able to go up there and, you know, give an hour or two to these children. We’re just helping them feel like kids, helping them feel like themselves and not worry about when the next treatment was coming, when the next surgery was happening. You know just everything that was going on in the hospital and that was life-changing, and so I wanted to help as much as I could and in conversations with my friend who was a nurse, I asked about ways to help.

So I started my toy drive, which is now [in its] sixth year … and you know it was literally spur of the moment.

Zach, you started The B3 Foundation right after you were drafted, and if you could tell us a little bit about that?

Banner: My foundation comes from who I am. It was natural. I grew up idolizing people who do things for the community and professional athletes. It’s just one of the things where you stay in touch with your community. I’m in rehab, so I’m focusing on myself, but still staying in touch with Washington, L.A., and the island of Guam, where my mom is from. It’s up to me, as someone with this platform. I’m able to commit to a $10,000 scholarship for four years for a kid. I was able to go to USC for free because of football, but not everybody gets that opportunity. It’s a harsh reality, but my team is able to change lives, so that’s amazing. We’re going through applications now, and I’m just grateful for what we can do for these kids and the community.

2020 saw a backlash against police violence following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, as well as a national discussion about voter suppression, democracy and race. Can you reflect on what was intimidating for you and how you overcame it?

Bird: I read about it and talk about it with everyone, and part of that is just that I believe. I am passionate about it. It has nothing to do with opinion. It’s facts. It’s human life. It’s equal rights. It’s what we saw with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It is easier when you believe in it and study up on it and learn. It is easier, then, to have tough conversations. I think the hard part is being a nag, and there are times when you might be the person in the room saying ‘but Black people are being killed by cops, women don’t get paid enough.’

Clark: For me, it’s not just about believing. I don’t like to rustle feathers, but this summer was important for me because I found my voice, and I know it’s right, and I study before I speak. Because people will try to discredit what you are saying, but I talk in facts. It has happened to my father, it has happened to me. It’s about trusting what pulls at your heart, and that’s what I did this summer. These things matter to me. And if it is right, and makes people mad, that’s fine, because I know I fight for what is right. It will either help people or not, but at least I can say I did something.

There were only four NFL players that spoke out on antisemitism. Two were Jewish and the other two were players for the Steelers. And I should say I am from Pittsburgh and lived through the tragedy at the Tree of Life [synagogue]. There are a lot of Jewish people in sports. What was your thinking when you spoke up?

Banner: It’s never OK to pick on another minority group to get up in the world. In my experiences as a Black man, [I’ve had] friends shot and killed due to gangs and violence, but also by the ones who are supposed to protect and serve us. Fast forward to the Tree of Life synagogue being shot up — that was deep. On game day. It was like 9/11, that kind of violence. I’ll always remember where I was then. I didn’t even know what antisemitism was, but it’s just sticking up for your friends. It’s what’s in your heart. You can’t take someone down to elevate yourself. It’s rude.

This shows how important allies are. We need to reach a majority of decency to achieve real cultural change. Sue, I feel like you are the prototypical example of an ally for the Black Lives Matter [movement]. Can you talk about what it meant to be an ally and what it meant to be an effective ally?

Bird: There’s a quote [that] ‘ally is a verb, not a noun.’ And that stuck with me. What does it actually mean to be an ally? Being gay is not the same as being Black. But what I can take from being gay and seeing a straight person stick up for me, how it makes me feel is similar to how it feels. So as a white person, being able to stick up for Black people, there is meaning there. Because I know what it felt like when a straight person stood up for me.

As an ally, you want to support. And a lot of it is just shut up and support. There are times to speak up and times to take a back seat. As a white person it might be best now to take a back seat and listen nowadays. A big part of it is that you’re probably going to make mistakes. You can’t stop. You gotta keep going. This summer I learned a lot about when to do things and when to take a back seat. You are gonna make mistakes, but you can’t let it deter you.

Banner: Saying ‘I’m an ally’ is cool for the videos and stuff, the advertisements and commercials. But really it comes down to understanding your platform and what it means to use that platform. A white person, in general, speaking up for Black and Brown people is identifying your platform. I identify my platform when a Black or Brown guy says something antisemitic that is rude or dumb, to stick up and say he didn’t mean that, that was dumb, that doesn’t represent us. I wish more white guys stood up in my sport. But there are good ones.

Alysha, how can we be allies for Black women? What is helpful and what isn’t?

Clark: What Sue said about sometimes just understanding when to listen is a huge part of what is helpful. So many times you mean well, but you have never experienced the things we have had to go through as Black women in this country. Just be open. Open to learning. Open to educating yourself. But also open to making mistakes. You are gonna mess up and say something wrong, and I think [that] is a part of it. I think that is the best way to be an ally, just being open and not being afraid to ask the ‘dumb questions.’ They are not dumb questions. Asking these questions is only going to help you with your friends and people in your circles. That is my advice: just being open.

Obviously you all are role models, but I would love to know who you look up to. Who are your role models?

Bird: I’m very lucky to be with [my girlfriend and soccer player] Megan [Rapinoe] because she inspires me so much and is my role model, but also Alysha Clark as well as the other women in the WNBA. They walk the walk and talk the talk. It’s been remarkable seeing how they put other people first and how they continue to share the message and promote change.

Clark: I talk about Sue a lot, in general, and basketball. I’ve gotten a front-row seat to see what Sue does on and off the court. The last few years, watching her use the platform she has … and step out of her comfort zone, she doesn’t want attention. To see her step into her own has been very inspiring for me to watch, just to find my voice. She has been a sort of secret part in me having the confidence to do that.

Banner: I grew up with an idea of what an athlete is supposed to do. Guys like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, guys who have also been dominant in their sports, but also spoke up and represented a lot of people who are not represented in this world outside of sport and entertainment. I had the Ali poster growing up. When it comes down to the present, the entire WNBA and NBA. The players and coaches are getting their voices out in a way that hasn’t been going on consistently for a very, very long time.

You don’t have to be a professional athlete to make a difference. Sue, Alysha, and Zach all have these large platforms, but you heard what they said. They are doing these things because they are leaders and they care, but for all of you that are watching, the betterment of our communities is actually up to you. Your actions and attitudes are what will make the difference. If we do this, we not only get better relationships within our Jewish world but also with other communities. We have values we cherish, but they are not exclusive to us. We hold these values across the board, and that is what will bring us together.

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