WASHINGTON -- Just a few blocks away from the Wizards and Mystics practice facility in Southeast Washington, Monte Morris, Anthony Gill and Natasha Cloud took their seats around the podium Monday night at the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center to participate in an hour-long roundtable on gun violence in D.C. The microphone was passed from right to left, as everyone shared their own experiences with gun violence.
The panel began with heartbreaking accounts from two D.C. mothers whose children were shot and killed in separate incidents. The mothers, Sandra Gliss and Crystal McNeal, recalled in detail how the tragedies unfolded and the grief they still feel years later.
As they spoke, Cloud and Morris bowed their heads in tears. Gill stared in contemplative thought, his daughter and wife sitting nearby in the front row.
The Wizards and Mystics were there to show their support and to amplify voices in the local community calling for change and action as D.C. is on pace to experience more homicides than the previous year for the fifth straight time.
"To hear the stories from the two women that lost their kids, I have three kids. That impacts me more than anybody could ever imagine," Gill said.
Each of the athletes shared their own backstories and how they were affected by gun violence. Morris went into the most detail, describing how the financial crisis of 2008 devastated his hometown of Flint, Michigan, leading to poverty and crime. Morris was also at a high school tournament in Detroit at 16 years old when a shooting outside the arena forced him and his teammates to hide on the floor of their bus. He regularly sees a therapist in part to deal with the trauma from those experiences.
Morris was just acquired by the Wizards in a trade from the Nuggets this summer, but jumped at the opportunity to participate in Monday's event.
"I said whatever is the next event, get me in there," he said. "We showed action today. We spread the word."
Cloud has been a strong advocate in preventing gun violence for years now. She says it all began in 2019 when she did a book reading at Hendley Elementary School in Southeast D.C. The librarian approached her and pleaded for help, noting there had been three bullets to enter the walls of the school just that month.
According to Cloud, the school was not being adequately supported by local authorities.
"Nothing was being done. I think it was at that moment I really understood the power of not only my platform individually, but our platform as Monumental," Cloud said.
Cloud drew attention to the cause by not answering basketball questions after Mystics games, instead discussing the epidemic of gun violence. She then sat out the 2020 WNBA season to focus on creating change in that realm.
Monumental Sports and Entertainment participated in the event in partnership with the NBA's recently formed Social Justice Coalition along with the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ). ASJ officials Aswad Thomas and Jay Jordan moderated the discussion.
Thomas was a star basketball player himself before his career was ended by a shooting. He was back home in between college and playing overseas when he was struck by two bullets.
Thomas dedicated his life to ending gun violence after realizing the lack of resources for victims and for preventative measures in the community. He came to that conclusion after speaking with four other men in his family who had survived shootings.
"We can all play a huge role in tackling this issue of gun violence. It really starts with having these conversations and advocating to the policymakers in their own district of why we need to have mental health services, of why we need to have re-entry services in these communities," Thomas said.
Jordan can speak firsthand to the need for rehabilitation and re-entry programs. After spending time in prison, he has become an agent for change in social justice reform.
Jordan spoke of the need for more preventative policies rather than mass incarceration and the focus on police response. He was thankful for the Wizards and Mystics to help get the message out.
"There are so many people in and around communities of color, poor communities that are experiencing violence and crime, that don't have a voice. So, to be able to have the Mystics and Wizards here to say 'hey, this is an important issue' and raising up the good work folks are doing is huge," Jordan said.
The Wizards and Mystics are involved in the effort to improve the community around their facility in Southeast Washington. They are reminded of the plight local citizens face every day when they drive to work.
Most who live in the D.C. region, however, are not directly exposed to problems discussed by Monday night's panel. For those who would like to help, Thomas says to go to ASJ's website to volunteer.
Whatever people can do to pitch in, Cloud hopes more get involved.
"Any little thing is important. If you want to help, then help. It's as simple as that. Don't sit there and just be a fan or an observer. Roll your sleeves up, do some dirty work, reach out to grassroots organizations that have been here in D.C., in Southeast D.C., for years and years. Figure out where you can help because it's going to take a village," she said.