Dave Crenshaw is a youth sports coach and community organizer in our local Washington Heights neighborhood. ODCI sat down with him to learn more about his work, discuss sports as an avenue to individual opportunity and community improvement, and identify how Mailman students can help contribute to Washington Heights.
Interview with Dave Crenshaw
Could you give us a quick overview of the work that you do?
Coach Dave: The work that I do involves training young people on how to be coaches. Our goal is not simply to win championships but to improve the community and win scholarships. I’ve been at this a long time, so I see that what my neighborhood needs is folks who improve rather than just use the community. One of the things I take a lot of pride in is that over the years, many of my athletes go on to work in other programs or centers or even the government to improve the city and neighborhood.
There are a lot of programs that focus on winning games and activities and most kids get nothing out of it except for some trophies that can’t pay the bills and can’t get you into school. What’s the point of winning tournaments if you’re not getting these kids into college? You need to combine education and sports. You’re not helping kids if you don't teach them that learning off the court is just as important. Everyone always thinks about the ones who’ve made it, but I’ve got the shadows of the ones who didn't in my head.
"Everyone always thinks about the ones who’ve made it, but I’ve got the shadows of the ones who didn't in my head."
Can you give us a breakdown of what those programs look like?
Coach Dave: My basic specialty is girls and hard-to-handle children. We start with elementary school. Uptown, very few people want to give quality instruction to elementary school kids. They want to just let them play, jump, be cute, and then they wonder why they don't know how to listen when they get to junior high. If you go downtown, all the kids are doing a language and a sport. So we really start with the youngest kids – kindergarten, first grade – to show them that young people can.
Our main sports would be track, basketball, and community service. You don't have to make my team by being the fastest or the strongest or the biggest. If you want to help out, if you want to volunteer, you have a spot.
We have three main teams. First, we got our Title IX girls, the key to everything, our flagship team. In a lot of programs, the boys think they’re guaranteed the gym and no one ever lets girls have the gym to themselves. But in our program the girls lead the way because it’s not that girls don't like the gym, it’s that they don't like to be in the gym with bullies, being teased and made fun of. So that’s important to the environment – there’s very few places where girls have a space just to play, try, and learn.
Then we have our Troop 280 boys who are training to be coaches. They get credit for improvement and learning how to help someone else out. And then there’s Team SOS, teenagers 13-17. They volunteer and coach. They’re my main staff. If you volunteer, we put you on the path to get a job and we get you closer and closer to getting the best package you can get in college. As they get older, it starts to make sense to them and they get that motivation.
How did you identify sports as a way to help your community?
Coach Dave: The health issues here are huge. Kids can’t even make it around the track. There aren’t a lot of parks and kids don't play in the streets like they used to, means they need sports to learn how to practice or exercise on their own. We’ve been trying to fight obesity, diabetes, and illiteracy all our career. Folks aren’t getting exercise, and you aren’t making exercise fun and putting a purpose to it so they want to do it on their own. So I’ve developed procedures and traditions that help teach kids how important it is to stay fit and exercise your body and your brain.
What experiences in your life have led you to the work you do with the Dreamers?
Coach Dave: Hunter High is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my life. I was in the first year that was co-ed. I went to that school because every grade above me was nothing but girls. So I figured, that’s a great place to hang out – I thought I could just run the school. But it didn't work out like that. In my first year, I got challenged by everything and I lost. A girl beat me in jump shots, then I got beaten in racing.
What I learned was this: Girls can. I watched the girls run that building --- you couldn't do anything in the gym without going through them. I learned how to respect them. I got a six-year education in what girls can do.
I know you and Mailman have a pretty extensive relationship. Could you tell us about the history there and how that relationship got started?
Coach Dave: The collaboration started with Mindy Fullilove and the Hike the Heights program. They were talking about having it in the “sunken playground” at 167th and Edgecombe Ave. I said, That’s the Pit in Edgecombe Park, where the Dreamers train! So I said, I’ve gotta help this project; I felt so appreciative that a group of students from Mailman were bringing people in to come take care of our park and make it special. I’ve been with it ever since. And Mindy Fullilove said, We’ll call it by what the community calls it, the Pit.
We started doing activities, I started coming to all their meetings and dropping in on classes, and just meeting wonderful people who are trying to make a difference. No one’s getting paid for this, no one’s getting extra credit.
The Hike the Heights project was amazing because it got its job done. It got the High Bridge back open. I said, "What about Edgecombe Park – it’s been abandoned for decades and looks horrible! How will you have a $50 million bridge, when the park looks like a dump and has no bathroom?" Now they adopted the park and put a spotlight on the park.
And here’s the good news, thanks to our partnership. Highbridge Park – which runs from 155th St to 200th St. – got a $30 million grant to be redone. Edgecombe Park is getting a makeover and a bathroom. And in the participatory budget election this year – what I consider the community improvement elections – PS 128 got the final spot, so our auditorium and cafeteria are now getting air conditioning.
It wouldn't have happened if I hadn’t been part of this whole Hike the Heights project.
How do you think Mailman students, specifically, can best contribute and be helpful to you and to the community more broadly?
Coach Dave: The biggest thing Mailman has helped with is giving me ideas. With Mailman, I’m in a room with people who have ideas. They’re not trying to scam or scheme. They’re all trying to figure out "How can we help this community and make things better?" I don’t know how many times I’ve just sat down and bounced ideas off students. When I walk away, I’m always better prepared.
With Mailman and both Fulliloves, I learned the importance of planning, strategizing, and prioritizing. I learned to be short and to the point. Students from Mailman help me figure out what to say in meetings. They sit with me and help me narrow down my argument and get it more concise.
And Mailman students have been my secret weapon with the kids. When they walk into the lunch room, everyone runs for them. When I tell the kids that the Mailman students are working on their second degree, they know that’s what it takes to be the best. And it lets them know how special they are, that they have volunteers coming in from all over the country. Mailman students can get them to finish their homework. When Mailman walks in it’s like everything is gonna be okay. Someone’s there who will deal with them instead of just walk away.
Most importantly, Mailman is helping the kids feel like it’s not a punishment to learn. It’s cool to learn.
Learn more about Coach Dave and the Dreamers
Contact Coach Dave to learn about how you can get involved