David Dean '13 shoots for big dreams in Big Sky Country
by Sherri Kimmel
October 3, 2011
“We were understaffed but successful anyway,” says David Dean ’13 (left) of the Unity Hoops volunteer counseling staff. Beside Dean are, from left, Keith Belcher, Steven Seland ’11, Christina Mullen ’12 and Scooter White. Not pictured: Justin Bradley. Next year, Dean hopes to have a larger staff on board.
Coming from a suburb of Washington, D.C., David Dean ’13 wasn’t quite prepared for life on the Crow Indian reservation in southern Montana. This summer, he immersed himself in a culture quite outside his experience while leading a two-week youth basketball camp that aimed to teach life lessons in addition to free-throw techniques.
A former college basketball player at Guilford College, from which he transferred last fall, Dean is a big believer in the transformative power of sports. He put that belief to the test in June at Crow Agency, the tribe’s capital, with the inaugural Unity Hoops Basketball Empowerment Program, which he designed, staffed and directed, with the help of basketball player Christina Mullen ’12, Carlisle resident Keith Belcher and Justin Bradley, a teammate from Guilford.
Dean first began envisioning the program at Guilford, where he met a member of the Crow tribe and learned about the challenges facing disadvantaged youth in his community. Dean started connecting what he was hearing to a high-school course he’d taken on Native-American history that had revealed the hardships of reservation dwellers.
“You could argue that American Indians as a whole are the most neglected minority group in America,” he says. “The Crow have a life expectancy of 50 years. It’s a completely different place inside the United States. It’s like a Third World country. There’s incredible poverty, 90-percent unemployment, broken-down trailers, trash in the yard. I knew about the statistics, but it’s a completely different story when you meet the kids and find out what they’re going through.”
While he’d heard the depressing statistics from his Crow friend, he’d also heard about the reservation residents’ passion for basketball.
He stowed that thought away until he’d been at Dickinson a few months. Meanwhile, he dwelt on his own college basketball experience. “The players’ compassion and empathy were suppressed for the sake of pursuing one’s place in this ultra-competitive, masculine pecking order. I had to put on an emotionless, tough, egotistical disguise to begin to fit in,” he says.
Though Dean expected to continue playing at Dickinson, he was cut just before the start of the season. A period of deep dejection followed. Eventually he felt led to redirect his energies to “bring greater personal integrity, acceptance, and above all, unity to the lives of young people in need.” He feels these values are lacking not only in the game of basketball but the greater world. “I wanted to be personally responsible for this positive cultural shift,” Dean says.
“LeaderShape definitely helped me to cement my ideas further,” he adds. “It’s a weeklong retreat off campus during winter break for 60 Dickinson students, where a lot of kids find themselves and build a tight-knit community that is conducive to big thinking about life, setting big goals and getting close to a magical energy. It’s a way to grow social justice in the Dickinson community.”
Funded by a three-year grant provided by Ronnie and Bob Bailin, parents of Emily Bailin ’07, Leader-Shape is led by outside facilitators with the help of several Dickinson faculty and staff.
One of them is Peter Paquette, assistant dean of students. “The focus of LeaderShape is on who am I? What can I do to make a difference in this world? David saw that and was encouraged. Most students are not quite there with their identity development and commitment to social justice in their sophomore year. But David was.”
“I think I got more out of LeaderShape than almost anyone else,” Dean confirms. “The takeaway is the vision you create. You have a series of stretch goals to get there.” At LeaderShape he crystallized his vision of a sports-centered empowerment camp for children on the Crow reservation.
Spring semester, he began powering up his program, hosted by the Center Pole youth-outreach center at the reservation and sponsored by Running Strong For American Indian Youth. He enlisted Mullen, Bradley and Belcher to help plan and staff the camp and began fundraising—selling a student-produced CD called Sing for Humanity and holding grilled-cheese sales, which brought in $600. Through his Unity Hoops Web site he took in more donations.
With $1,500 and a tank full of gas, Dean and his volunteer camp counselors, which by then also included Steven Seland ’11, drove West in mid-June. Their first week of camp drew 60 boys and girls ages 10 to 16, while the second week drew 40 day campers.
“We were more effective than I thought we would be,” Dean reflects. “A lot of kids come the first day and won’t talk or make eye contact. By the end of the week, the kids are supporting each other like crazy and encouraging each other to think positively in the face of adversity. One of the things we talked about was mental toughness. We also talked about hustle, supporting their teammates and believing in themselves and their dreams. We tried to build a positive collective identity, a Unity Hoops family.”
And Dean and company didn’t just whisk in and then return to their comfortable lives. They e-mail the children inspirational updates and basketball-related videos and quotes to keep them moving forward—’til next year.
For Dean, Unity Hoops is not one and done. He’s gearing up to raise more money and enhance the camp with more staff and programming. Another goal is “to build a nice outdoor basketball facility with six hoops and a wooden pavilion with lights for the Center Pole, the youth center that made our program possible.”
Meanwhile, back at Dickinson the political-science major is delving more deeply into his social-justice work. An Office of Diversity Initiatives assistant, he holds weekly meetings and office hours as he works to advance inclusiveness on campus. He also serves as president of Step Up, an organization he hopes to transform into “one dedicated to creating a campus environment where men can rise above the negative social pressures around them and dare to be true to themselves,” he says.
His Unity Hoops experience is, meanwhile, helping him chart his own life direction. “I’d like to work in the area of youth empowerment and social justice. I feel a strong connection to this [Crow] community, and I would like to do as much as I can to help them.”
For more information, go to unityhoopsbasketball.org.
Watch a video of the Unity Hoops basketball empowerment program in action.