Serena Williams in 2013. Photo by Edwin Martinez (Creative Commons).
I have an unusual thing in common with tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams: The sudden death of an older sister. In 2001, my beloved sister Cathy Brakefield died as a result of a botched gastric bypass operation. The shock and mourning when a sibling dies never really goes away. I eventually found a quiet compartment in my heart to cope with the unthinkable tragedy one day at a time. Outwardly, I dealt with my grief by turning to my eternal friend: writing.
Countless friends and family members still miss Cathy, but news of my sister’s death did not instantly make headlines around the world. On September 14, 2003, Yetunde Price, Venus and Serena’s eldest sister and companion on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour, was shot and killed by a reputed gang member when she and her boyfriend were driving in Compton, not far from where the sisters learned to dominate the game.
Thirteen years later, Venus and Serena have returned to Compton, a place Venus says “we carry with us every where around the world we go,” with a special purpose.
This month, the Williams sisters established the Yetunde Price Resource Center in Compton to assist individuals and families adversely affected by community violence. The center will help people identify, access, and utilize vital community support services. According to the sisters, an on-site case manager will perform comprehensive needs assessments and work with individuals to remove barriers to essential resources and enhance emotional, physical, and financial health. “Our lives have always been about health,” Venus said during a promotional event at the Martin Luther King Center Plaza in Compton on November 12. “Health means many different things: your body, wellness, and mental well being. Venus added the Yetunde Price Resource Center will officially be open in December. And although the mostly Black crowd was somewhat subdued—the disappointing results of the presidential election fresh in our minds-we cheered the news of the arrival of the much needed community facility.
Despite the brilliance and resilience the city has produced, as a teacher working in Compton, I hear about random acts of violence committed on nearly a daily basis. So far in 2016, the murder rate in Compton has tripled. Often, it takes sheer courage and determination for my students to get safely to the college campus to fulfil their dreams. Ordinary in extraordinary ways, the Williams sisters are like some students in my classes: homegirls from the block, determined to succeed despite being shattered by the senseless murder of someone they love in a place they call home.
Jehovah’s Witnesses by faith, the sisters do not talk publicly of politics; their religion teaches political neutrality. Recently, though, Serena declared she will now speak out against social injustice. In a Facebook post, Serena revealed her emotional evolution:
“I am a total believer that not ‘everyone’ is bad. It is just the ones that are ignorant, afraid, uneducated, and insensitive that is affecting millions and millions of lives. Why did I have to think about this in 2016? Have we not gone through enough, opened so many doors, impacted billions of lives? But I realized we must stride on—for it’s not how far we have come but how much further still we have to go. I than wondered than have I spoken up? I had to take a look at me. What about my nephews? What if I have a son and what about my daughters? As Dr. Martin Luther King said ‘There comes a time when silence is betrayal.’ I won’t be silent.”
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I attended St. Lucy grade school in Long Beach, just down Santa Fe Avenue, nearby where neighborhood residents remember seeing Richard Williams practicing with his daughters in the park. I had never before seen beaded braids on a tennis court until the local sports sections began featuring Venus’s big match triumphs when she was just 15 years old. Her hairstyle was a welcome sign of ethnic pride, as was her fearless attitude, and they were a constant reminder to the media: “We are from Compton and it’s in our hearts.”
Now, Venus and Serena have revolutionized the sport with rocket serves, laser-precise forehands, and a reputation for playing their best when their backs are against the wall. But as Yetunde’s death makes clear, stellar career achievements are no guarantee against those with dark and careless hearts who seek to cause pain and destroy lives. The Williams sisters, like many who call Compton home, are testaments to the fact that when irredeemable loss happens, healing can occur with a positive vision for the community.
For more information about the Yetunde Price Resource Center, email firstname.lastname@example.org.