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Thunder Fellows is a 30-week long program designed to unlock new opportunities in sports, technology, and entertainment for Black students in the Tulsa area. In association with the OKC Thunder, the program applies a data & analytics curriculum uniquely tailored to industries’ standards to gain proficiency in essential skill sets and hands-on experiences highly sought after by recruiters and talent acquisition teams.
Cedric Ikpo and Lakena Whitley are two of the three team members of the program along with Ricky Graham. Cedric is the Executive Director of the program. Lakena is the Thunder Fellows program manager, creating and teaching the curriculum that the students (known as Fellows) learn.
The program’s main focus is teaching data and analytics to the fellows. The program does so, to give its students a better understanding and advantage for their futures. “Everyone says that the robot is going to take over certain jobs, certain jobs have been eliminated, but jobs are also being created and those jobs are in data and analytics, ” Whitley said.
“If you want a sustained program, organization, initiative, whatever it might be, you have to be able to look at data,” said Ikpo. “We’ve said this time and time again, why not be producers of this technology and not just consumers.”
Before the fellows come to the building, the team spends most of their time talking about the curriculum and planning for the future with partners. “Everything that we do before 4:30 when the kids come, it’s the crunch, it’s the grind, it’s us putting our heads together, seeing what things are gonna make sense,” Whitley told The Black Wall Street Times.
Whenever the fellows arrive at the program located in the historic Greenwood District, they are given meals and will get social, emotional learning and engagement along with the curriculum Whitley provides. “We’re not just teaching coding, it’s not just X’s and O’s, it’s how do we meet the kids where they are based on their knowledge and then mixing that with ways it can be tangible for career opportunities,” said Ikpo.
The Thunder Fellows landing in Greenwood is not a arbitrary destination. Thunder Fellows was created by Thunder Executive Vice President Sam Presti and childhood friend and Head of Content & Digital Strategy for Creative Arts Agency (CAA) Mike Johnson after the murder of George Floyd. Afterwards the friends worked together on where they could create change now, and chose Black Wall Street.
“We are literally on tech alley, to touch into the black community means to replant those seeds, to re-water and to grow the things that were taken away,” Whitley said. When asked how the city would be different if the program was around during her formative years in Tulsa, she replied, “Tulsa would be a leading industry in the tech world, we would be innovators.”
“We’re working with Black kids because Black kids need it, the Black community needs a kickstart to level the playing field and get to an equitable space and the OKC Thunder, CAA were not shy about addressing that and calling it out explicitly,” said Ikpo.
“It’s important for the kids to see Ricky and Cedric, to see Black men that care,” Whitley added.
While the program is helping the city they make it known that they are not alone. “We’re part of this ecosystem, the Thunder Fellows don’t lead the way for the city, it’s a part of this city,” Ikpo told The Black Wall Street Times. “There’s plenty of amazing things that are happening, that individuals and organizations are leading, and we are not only establishing solid ground for what we do, we work with others to uplift the community collectively.”
The documentary “Seeds of Greenwood” highlights the inaugural class of students and their journeys with the program. “It was a sneak peek into my classroom that no one ever gets, it was authentic because we forget that the cameras were there,” said Whitley.
“The opportunity to tell the story and to really tell it through the lens of the kids was very important,” Ikpo said. “Oftentimes kids get told what to do and how to do it, and how to think and she (Whitley) was very intentional about making sure that some of these projects that we were giving the kids on multiple occasions were led by them.”
Now that the inaugural year has ended, the program is starting to prepare for the upcoming school year.
“Later this summer is when we’re looking to engage interested parties to apply and be a part of the second cohort,” said Ikpo. “For those who are interested, I would say look at the website, go to okcthunderfilms.com to check out the documentary, check us out on social media, don’t just take our word for it you know, do your due diligence because this is a significant commitment.”
Throughout the 30-week program with a commitment of twice a week the program encourages and is willing to work with students who have other extracurricular activities.
While it may be harder to get accepted to the program this year, don’t let that deter you.
“Don’t count yourself out because you think you’re not that kid,” said Whitley.
“We don’t have one type of kid by any means. We have a lovely eclectic mix of people and everybody brings value to our team in their own unique way.” Ikpo said.
Any students who would like to become a fellow can apply by going to Thunderfellows.org