Berkeley native Justin Davis grew up in what he describes as a “basketball household.” He spent countless hours on the court, and his family spent time together watching NBA games, especially Davis’ favorite team, the Lakers. As a 6-foot-4 freshman entering high school, Davis dreamed of playing in the NBA himself.
Davis came close to realizing that dream. After stints as a star forward at both Berkeley High School and Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda, colleges clamored for Davis, who by senior year had grown to 6 feet 8 inches. After graduating from Saint Joseph, he attended Stanford University on a full scholarship. He got the attention of NBA scouts, but an injury in his last season sidelined him, and he was overlooked in the draft.
“It was disappointing, but at that moment, I was glad to have taken my academics seriously,” said Davis, who continued to play professionally in Europe before leaving the game in 2008.
“My mom was right,” he said. “She always said a college degree would take me farther than basketball ever could.”
Making a difference: Working with programs that encourage young African-American men to attend college
In their own words: Mitigating the stereotypes and negative images of young black men is a job for everyone.
Now, at 31, Davis, who graduated from Stanford in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in communications, oversees the College Bound Brotherhood program in San Francisco. The College Bound Brotherhood funds programs that offer mentoring, tutoring, SAT prep, counseling, and advising to African American male teens.
The statistics spell out the need: In the Bay Area, 65 percent of African American males graduated from high school, and only 16 percent were college-ready in 2009, according to the California Department of Education. In 2009-10, the dropout rate for African American students in California was 30.1 percent, compared with 22.7 percent for Latino students and 11.7 percent for white students, according to the state Department of Education.
Facilitating the College Bound Brotherhood gives Davis ample opportunity to share his personal story. He emphasizes the importance of higher education, even for teens with sports talent and ambition.
“I tell them, ‘I’ve been where you want to go, and I can show you how to use sports to get where you want to be,’ ” Davis said, adding that betting on a professional sports career is a long shot at best.
Davis can back his opinion with statistics: Only 0.03 percent of high school basketball players go on to play professionally, and 56 percent of college players will earn a college degree.
Davis credits his parents for never allowing basketball to take precedence over education. Throughout his childhood, his mother, a middle school teacher who attended UC Berkeley, and his father, a rigger for the National Park Service who attended the College of Alameda, insisted on academic excellence.
Davis said he always took honors courses in high school, and he was often the only African American in the advanced classes. He remembers feeling disconnected from his peers and culturally isolated, an experience he also had at Stanford, where the small African American student body was mainly affluent.
“I had no idea black kids even went to boarding school,” he said jokingly.
But in the end, Davis has nothing but praise for his alma mater for providing a skill set that prepared him for his post-basketball job search. After leaving Europe and returning to the Bay Area, he got a job with the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, which funds the College Bound Brotherhood program. The program, in turn, supports 26 Bay Area organizations.
Davis also volunteers as a mentor with the East Bay College Fund, a college access nonprofit in Oakland. The group’s executive director, Diane Dodge, lauds his dedication, his ability to connect with people, and his sense of humor.
“Justin brings a lot to the table,” Dodge said. “He really got through to our college-bound kids about letting go of one’s high school image so as to be open to people from very different backgrounds – he’d seen other young men miss out by projecting an image of being tough.”
Davis’ goal is to increase the number of college-ready African American boys and improve the impact of the programs the Kapor Foundation supports. In the long term, he said, he might go into politics or a public policy position.
“I’ll stay in public service – I love working with people,” Davis said, noting that he is a product of community organizations, including the city of Berkeley’s Young Adult Project, whereas a youth he participated in after-school and summer programs like the midnight basketball league.
“It was a safe haven for South Berkeley youth,” he said.
Last month, Davis coordinated a public celebration for more than a hundred of the Bay Area’s African American male graduating seniors and their guests.
“Mitigating the stereotypes and negative images of young black men is a job for everyone,” he said, noting that he’d like to see a wider diversity of people involved in the cause. “There is a place for everyone in this work.”