Bill Briggs founded and ran a program in southeast Queens called Youth and Tennis. For decades the program has taught young people in the public schools to play tennis and provided lessons to community kids for low or no fee. Bill was quiet and hardworking – dedicated to his kids and his sport. He didn’t draw a lot of attention to himself. He ran the program with very minimal resources – but had a tremendous impact on the lives of the community’s young people. Bill and I became very close friends over the years. Last year, when I found myself with plenty of time on my hands, I drove out to Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans, Queens every few weeks to hit with Bill. He worked me HARD. We’d hit for a couple of hours and then go for drink or a meal. I called him after our last workout last spring and didn’t get a return call. I emailed him. I texted him. I didn’t hear anything back. I reached out to some mutual friends over the summer to try to find out what was up – and was told that Bill wasn’t well, and didn’t want to see anybody. I asked after him every couple of months and the situation didn’t change. I learned over the weekend from another wonderful community leader, my good friend Archie Spigner, that Bill passed away on last Sunday.
Bill was a really good friend – going so far as to come into Manhattan for a concert I played in with the New York Continuo Collective on theorbo (a place that was certainly way out of his comfort zone). He was patient with me on improving my tennis game (and he was apparently successful in helping me – when I played with someone last week with whom I hadn’t hit in a couple of years he remarked on the noticeable improvement). He really made an effort to create and strengthen the personal ties between us. I was happy to make so many warm relationships and wonderful friends in the African-American community during my years working in Jamaica, and my bond with Bill was among the most special. Whatever one may think about the state of race relations in this country today, if nothing else, it takes extra effort, empathy and understanding to bridge that gap – and Bill made the effort with me. I will always be grateful to him for that. I have missed him terribly during the year he was ill, and was deeply saddened when I learned of his passing.
One of the things I most admired about Bill was that he made an impact. He didn’t just talk about stuff. He wasn’t just present at meetings. He didn’t announce projects and then step back. He made stuff happen. He positively influenced the lives of others – most concretely in the construction of a tennis bubble in Roy Wilkins. Bill managed to demonstrate to Borough President Helen Marshall (another caring person, whom I was fortunate to know through my work in Queens, and who also recently passed away) the success of his Youth and Tennis initiative. She allocated public dollars towards a covered structure that would enable Bill to run his program year round. Bill and Helen had to work together to overcome some obstacles in city government – arising out of concerns about responsibility for the on-going maintenance and operation of the bubble. But with patience and persistence they got that bubble built, and it remains in operation, serving hundreds of kids.
Youth & Tennis has its priorities right. It’s not about producing the next Serena Williams or Arthur Ashe. It was about teaching kids the game, getting them some exercise, giving them an opportunity to have some fun – and offering them high quality instruction in a disciplined, sequential and sustained manner. The program provides kids with structure and supportive, positive adult attention. Some of its participants have gotten college tennis scholarships – but that isn’t the point of the program.
Working with Bill to try to get resources for Youth & Tennis was terribly frustrating. I tried to do as much as I could at Greater Jamaica to support it. Even given GJDC’s substantial financial capacity, it was difficult to generate enthusiasm internally for grants to Youth & Tennis. I made the case both at GJDC and wherever else I could that Youth & Tennis, along with Edge School of the Arts, were community institutions that were providing high quality programming to large numbers of community young people. For years the program benefitted from “earmarked” grants from state legislators for support. Earmarks fell out of favor over the last decade. They were criticized as either being tainted with political corruption or going to unworthy, even downright silly projects (remember the cheese museum?).
But the fact was that in southeast Queens, which does not have a robust culture of philanthropy and which had many underfinanced institutions, earmarks were an important part of the support system for what quality non-governmental programs there were. With both the U.S. Congress and the New York State legislature out of the earmarking business, only the City Council remains as a source of (relatively small amounts of) earmarked funds for community programs. There is no doubt that some legislators steered funds towards recipients to which they were tied and from which they benefitted. Not all earmarked grant recipients provided high quality programs or services. But without earmarks the really good service providers in Jamaica have become desperate for funds. As far as I know, Youth and Tennis was a labor of love for Bill from which he took no salary, and he paid his dedicated coaches the bare minimum. This shaky financial base makes me concerned about the future of the program.
I spent a good deal of time and energy with Bill trying to get the United States Tennis Association to provide meaningful support for his work. The Billie Jean King Tennis Center is less than ten miles (and a ten minute ride by car) away from Roy Wilkins. It seemed to me that given the very low-budget of Youth & Tennis and the good work that it was doing providing tennis instruction to black kids, many of them low-income, it was a natural fit. The US Open is reportedly the most financially lucrative sporting event in the world and Youth and Tennis is right in its neighborhood. But the USTA prefers to provide “training” and “capacity building” to youth programs rather than cash. Bill wasted a lot of time traveling to resorts to be “trained” in fundraising (from donors that don’t exist in southeast Queens) and board building (in a community where the same few people with means are chased by many of the county’s worthy charities). A couple of hundred thousand dollars a year would have made the difference in institutionalizing his program. The city wasn’t wrong in pointing out that maintaining the tennis bubble was going to require funds for heating, lighting, security, repairs and insurance over the long haul. Those costs are still there.
Bill was the real deal. He didn’t just talk about doing stuff – he did it. He didn’t issue press releases. He didn’t study things or convene meetings. He helped hundreds, probably thousands of kids – bringing structure and caring adults into their lives. He was there for me personally, always interested in what I was doing, how my kids were and how I was feeling. He was truly a good guy. I was blessed to have him as a friend, and my life will truly have an empty place without him.