USTA Foundation leaders share vision for the future
The USTA Foundation, the national philanthropic arm of the USTA, works tirelessly to make a difference in the lives of countless under-resourced children in communities across the country—and for Tom Chen and Kathleen Wu, the two-term past president and current president of the USTA Foundation Board of Directors, the Foundation’s mission is very personal and in part, rooted in their Asian-American heritage.
"I’m a first-generation Chinese-American who happens to love tennis – playing it, watching it, and having proudly served as president of the USTA Foundation Board of Directors," said Chen.
"The recent rise in anti-Asian violence and discrimination makes me sad and angry but the one thing I’m not feeling is helpless. We all have the responsibility to address, in our own ways, the issues of economic, gender and racial equality. For me, that has been through the USTA Foundation.
"Tennis teaches children important and formative life skills, like winning and losing gracefully, working hard, being respectful, following rules and being fair. The USTA Foundation delivers those tennis and education opportunities to economically disadvantaged children around the country.
"For us adults, now think about how you feel when you step onto the tennis court. You’re filled with optimism, purpose, and focus - to compete, have fun, make friends and exercise. To me, the tennis court is the most unbiased place in the world. Not only is tennis a sport for life, but it is a metaphor for how life should be.”
Over the last year, the Rally to Rebuild fundraising campaign raised more than $6.5 million for the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network, a collective of 260 chapters which provide tennis and education programming to under-resourced youth across the United States. As an anchor of youth tennis, the network boasts chapters in 46 of the 50 top U.S. cities. Almost half of NJTL youth are aged 10 or younger, and Wu says that this influence at the grassroots level of the sport is and will remain invaluable, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This is where we really shine," Wu said. "Because our entire mission is to bring tennis and education together to change lives, we’re focusing our efforts on those communities that might not otherwise have access to the game or, indeed, to the kinds of academic enrichment that kids need. And they need it even more right now, as American kids are trying to remediate the academic losses they experienced during this year-plus of remote schooling.
"Those local chapters will be the workhorses in our efforts to make diversity, inclusion and equity a sustainable part of the tennis family."
Seventy-four percent of participants in network programming last year identified as non-white, but only 6 percent of those identified as Asian. While the USTA Foundation continues to strive towards the broadest reach possible, Wu, named president of the USTA Foundation board for a three-year term in January, also praised game-changers in professional tennis, including two-time US Open champion Naomi Osaka, as role models that young student-athletes in the network can look up to.
"As with so many issues, it can feel like we’re 'two steps forward, one step back' much of the time. But, as I must remind myself, that’s still one step forward. And progress is progress, even if it’s not as fast as we would like," Wu said.
“There are some great programs and wonderful success stories at the local level, and much of that is driven by the demand within those communities. But I know that it’s a work in progress, and there’s always improvement that can be done. I love reading about coaches like Chris Tran… who’s doing great work to increase participation in the AAPI community.
"Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, so we need to be doing everything we can to attract Asian-Americans to the sport. And that can be challenging because the diversity among them is enormous. You wouldn’t use the same tactics to recruit members of the Vietnamese community as you would the Filipino community, or the Chinese or Korean communities. You get the picture. Recruitment needs to be tailored to the individual community we’re hoping to attract. But we’re up to it.”
Rising to the occasion has been a theme for the USTA Foundation in the past 18 months, and this will continue as it looks forward.
The Rally for the Future campaign, announced last week, is the largest, single fundraising campaign in the nearly-30-year history of the USTA Foundation: a three-year commitment with a goal of $20 million and the hope of fortifying these chapters into the next decade and beyond. The financial assistance that donations provide will allow the organization to continue to expand its influence and reach new communities.
"There’s a saying that all politics is local. And I would add that all tennis is local, too. It’s great to have high-profile Asian-Americans in the elite player ranks, but we need to be doing everything we can at the local level to diversify the ranks of our local players, coaches and volunteers," Wu continued, "because there’s a kid picking up a racquet for the first time this summer who is going to be playing in the US Open in 15 or 20 years.
"I want to make sure she feels welcome on the court and is encouraged to make tennis a part of her life, no matter what the color of her skin is or how much money her parents make."