The Detroit Pistons Commit to Celebrating Black History and Culture Year-Round

The organization has initiated a series of Black-focused programming.

Detroit Pistons
Photo by Chris Schwegler

How did you celebrate Black History Month, in a year that highlighted Black struggle and underscored the importance of amplifying Black voices? Like the rest of the NBA, the Detroit Pistons wore “Say Her Name” jerseys and played on courts painted with “Black Lives Matter.” It was a genuinely nice gesture, but Erika Swilley, vice president of community and social responsibility for the Pistons, says symbolism alone is not enough. 

“Black History Month extends out past February. Every day can and should be part of it, and we choose to have extended programing that shows that – because it’s ingrained in who we are as an organization. We understand we have a unique platform and position as a Detroit city team,” Swilley says. 

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The Pistons: Power Humanity initiative wasn’t just the theme of their 15th annual Black History Month scholarship – they gave $100,000 to Detroit high school seniors who competed in art and spoken word contests – it’s the overarching goal for all programming sponsored by the organization. Throughout 2021, they want to “promote positive change and bring people together, amplify the voices of fans and players and take collective action toward concrete change and social justice.” 

Swilley says, “For February, our in-game director was very intentional with making sure that our chosen performers during games were not only Black, but Detroit natives, and we worked with Dave Summerlin and Devon Campbell for choreography. We only played music by Black artists, our LED boards called out African American achievements. If it we could find a way to highlight local Black artists, we did.” 

Honorees for the teams’ Icon of Status award included Detroit philanthropist Tarence Wheeler, Big Sean, Benny Napoleon (who was presented the award posthumously) and We the People of Detroit CEO Monica Lewis-Patrick, who earned the nickname “Water Warrior” for her tireless crusade to provide clean and affordable water to struggling Detroiters.

Off the court, the past few weeks have seen the Pistons launch mentorship programs and leadership panels for young adults and partner with local creatives like Ty Mopkins and clothing brand Starter for collaborations that benefit the community.

Support for Black businesses hit disproportionately hard by the COVID pandemic has also been emphasized this year. The Taste the Diaspora Detroit is a project created to provide much-needed exposure for Black-owned eateries, and most of them can be found using the Pistons helpful Black Resource Guide. 

“For Small Business Saturday and Random Acts of Kindness week, we purchased gift cards from local Black businesses and gave them to Detroiters to spend. We really want to lean into spotlighting business, specifically small Black-owned business, because that’s who supports the city,” Swilley says.

An emphasis on diversity and Black excellence is great, but, without true understanding, it’s a half measure. Swilley says that the Pistons don’t do anything by halves. She says they reached out to Detroit Experience Factory for educational experiences, and racism and diversity training with staff to make sure the lesson sticks. 

“It’s important to know where you’ve been so you know where you’re going, and awareness is key,” Swilley says. “As a team, we’re putting equality at the forefront of what we do. The Pistons don’t want to just be a statement when something happens. We want to be proactive – not reactive.” 

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