Standout basketball player Mistie Bass does not return to Janesville often.
But she looks forward to being the keynote speaker at a local event in November to raise money for scholarships for students of color who want to teach in the Janesville School District.
“I am a firm believer that it is important for all students, not just minorities, to see teachers of color in positions of leadership and power,” Bass said.
A resident of Lexington, Kentucky, Bass graduated from Parker in 2002 and is one of the most accomplished athletes in Janesville’s history.
She also is black and likely will share some of her experiences growing up in a predominantly white community.
Bass played a pivotal role on the girls basketball teams that won back-to-back state championships for Parker High School in 2000 and 2001.
She also was the only high school athlete elected State Player of the Year for three consecutive years.
But her outstanding success did not protect her from the ugly presence of racism.
Bass grew up with her mother and sister, who are white.
“I was always asked if I was adopted because my family of origin did not look normal,” Bass said.
When she was 12, a young person in her apartment complex called her the N-word.
“From that moment on, I knew I was different from the majority of people around me,” Bass said. “But I didn’t feel the brunt of it until high school.”
At Parker, a student kept a confederate flag draped inside the locker next to hers.
“It made me feel nervous and unsafe,” Bass recalls.
She complained about the flag, and the student took it down.
When Bass dated a white boy, he was told he could not continue to date her because she is black.
When she played basketball, some students said she would not be discriminated against because she made Janesville look good.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Bass said. “It was not a majority who said those things. I had many friends in school who treated me with respect.”
To gain perspective, she spoke with her father, rock ’n’ roll icon Chubby Checker, and her grandmother about the incidents.
“They helped me understand what racism is,” Bass said. “I did not understand why I was treated differently because of the color of my skin. My dad let me know about things that happened in the past. At the pinnacle of his career, he had to go through back doors.”
Her father advised young Bass “to be who I am and to be confident in who I am,” she said. “At the end of the day, people will like you because of who you are and not because of the color of your skin.”
Bass never belonged to a clique in high school or made fun of anyone “because I knew how much it would hurt them,” she explained.
Bass loved her teammates and referred to them as sisters. She also had high praise for her high school coach, Tom Klawitter.
“He is still my favorite coach in the whole world,” Bass said. “Without him, I would not live the life I live.”
She praised all her coaches, both before and in high school.
“They helped raise me,” Bass said. “They made sure I was doing well outside of basketball. They were mentors, and it was done through action and love. Janesville Parker basketball was a family. Any time I needed to talk about something or I had an issue, they were there.”
Late in her high school career, she saw more minorities moving to Janesville and attending high school.
But Bass set her sights on leaving the city and saw basketball as her way to see the world.
“I had dreams and aspirations,” Bass said. “I wanted to experience things Wisconsin could not offer me. At age 34, I’ve been to more than 30 different countries and enjoy learning about different ways of life.”
She played college ball for the Duke Blue Devils.
After college, she played in the Women’s National Basketball Association for a decade. She also played professionally in France, Turkey and Israel.
Today, Bass is a free agent and a full-time mom. She and former NFL quarterback Shane Boyd are raising their 15-month-old son, Brazen.
“I call this a resting period, but I have some things in the works,” she said.
Bass has been asked why she doesn’t return to Janesville more often.
“Personally, I have not been drawn to come back,” she said.
The last time she returned, she and friends went to a popular restaurant.
“Most of us were black,” Bass said. “People just stared at us. It wasn’t a ‘Oh-that’s-Mistie-Bass’ stare. It was a stare that made us feel unwelcome. It brought back not-so-good memories of high school.”
She offers sound advice to young athletes:
“There are no shortcuts,” Bass said. “If you want something, you have to do it right all the time. If there are times that you fail, you have to get right back up.”
As a woman of color, she said:
“It is important not to lose your voice because of how people expect your voice to sound. Find out who you are and own it. Not everyone will like what you have to say or what you stand for. But as long as you are humble and honest, you will find success at the end of your journey.”
Scholarship marks 10th anniversary
Former state Sen. Tim Cullen remembers talking with the Janesville superintendent of schools more than a decade ago.
The school district was making efforts to recruit minority teachers but was not successful.
Cullen had just been elected to the Janesville School Board in 2007.
“I thought some of our students must want to be teachers,” he said. “So let’s grow our own.”
The next year, he started an effort to raise money to fund scholarships for local students who wanted to be teachers in Janesville.
The scholarships were intended to help students of African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American heritage.
With Cullen’s effort, the Janesville Multicultural Teacher Scholarship was born.
Today, seven graduates who received scholarships are working in the district.
“From the start, I always thought this program was important for the white students, not just students of color,” Cullen said. “When the white students of Janesville go out and lead their lives, they won’t always have a white boss or supervisor or white friends or white neighbors.”
The overwhelming majority of Janesville teachers are white.
In fall 2007, the district employed 10 minority teachers, and they made up 1.2 percent of the total teaching staff of 816. In fall 2017, 13 minority teachers worked for the district—or 1.6 percent of the total teaching staff of 804.
Minority students were 16.2 percent of the student population in fall 2007. In fall 2017, they made up 26 percent.
Proponents of the multicultural teacher scholarship highlight the importance of racial representation in the classroom. They believe minority teachers act as role models and mentors for minority students.
The first scholarship graduate was Daniel Jackson, who went to work as an at-risk teacher at Edison Middle School in 2012.
He is now dean of students at Marshall Middle School.
“I love education so much,” he said. “It is a great profession to have an opportunity to influence children and to help them reach their goals.”
Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies when he returned to school through the multicultural scholarship program to become certified in teaching.
The scholarship’s board of directors gives out an average of two scholarships annually. Each is $5,000.
“The interviews are probably our favorite day of the year,” Cullen said.
The Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin holds the fund’s assets, and Christine Moore is chairwoman of the fund’s advisory board.
Scholarships have contributed not only to the recruitment of minority teachers in Janesville but also to their retention, Moore said.
“Our grads commit to work for the district for a minimum of three years,” she explained. “Of the four staff members who were employed with the district prior to the fall of 2018, all have exceeded this requirement and are entering their fourth, fifth and sixth years as Janesville educators.”
Cullen said his hope from the beginning was that other school districts in the state and elsewhere would start the same thing.
“So far, Beloit has started it, and just last week I met with a person from Racine that is at the beginning stage of trying to do this,” Cullen said. “Now we just need 100 more.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.