With the recent number of mass shootings on the rise across the country, the issue of gun violence is at the forefront of our national political conversations. But for communities of color in Boston’s Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan neighborhoods, gun violence has been a plague for generations.
While hundreds of demonstrators swarmed City Hall Plaza this past weekend to advocate for tougher national gun laws, many young people in Dorchester gathered this past Sunday at the 4th Annual Dribble Walk for Peace hosted by Next Level Basketball to bring awareness to gun violence in our community.
Although the state’s gun laws are often touted by lawmakers as among the strictest and most effective in the nation in fighting gun violence, they do not provide equitable protection for specific neighborhoods in Boston.
Last month, over the course of the long Fourth of July weekend, there were 17 reported shootings in a five-day period, all of which were nonfatal. The youngest victim was eight years old.
Dorchester native and business owner Royce Veal is the creator of the annual Dribble Walk for Peace that takes place every summer. He uses his experience as a youth advocate and basketball coach to empower the youth in Boston’s communities to have their voices heard against the gun violence that affects them.
Growing up in Dorchester when street gangs were very active in the area, the 31-year-old Veal describes how basketball was his saving grace: “Basketball stopped me from doing negative things because when people in the neighborhood know you as a ballplayer, the gangs tend to leave you alone because they know you’re not a part of the street life. I was always practicing and that caused me to build a brotherhood with the other men that I would play with across different neighborhoods.”
He added: “Being busy with basketball kept me away from the violence. But focusing on basketball didn’t save everyone whom Royce played with. “Because the streets weren’t safe, there were a lot of people that I played with that still ended up being victims of gun violence,” he said.
Despite that, Veal learned a lot of important life lessons through the sport, lessons he now works to instill in neighborhood youth with the creation of his basketball training center, Next Level Factory, where kids of all ages are shown how to hone their basketball skills as a way for them to stay out of trouble and become positive role models for future generations.
Veal, who has always aimed to be a role model in the city, following in his dad’s footsteps of community involvement, has a passion for working with the city’s youth. “I’ve always been active in my community,” he says. “When I was younger, I was a camp counselor at a Mattapan community center and that’s where I started my own program, which eventually turned into a basketball tournament.”
That was back in 2012. Four years later, in 2016, Royce and his brother Ceasar founded Next Level Basketball, a training program that has evolved into the foundation arm of their basketball training facility, Next Level Factory in Holbrook, MA.
Through Next Level Factory, they have trained young black and brown kids of all grade levels, with many of them going on to play for Division I colleges.
And through their foundation, Next Level Basketball, they host tournaments and community events such as the Dribble Walk for Peace. Royce and Caesar started the Dribble Walk when they noticed that while there were many “walks” happening around the city for different causes, none were geared towards engaging kids.
“We wanted to create a community event that attracted kids because they are the future,” said Royce. “They’re going to be the ones to pass down the torch for future generations, so that’s where the change begins.”
Knowing how influential basketball is on the young, he decided to incorporate the sport into the walk by gathering over 200 kids and community leaders to walk from Harambee Park in Dorchester to Malcolm X Park in Roxbury, dribbling basketballs down the path in an effort to give participants a platform on which to stand against gun violence while bringing awareness to the city on the effects that this plague has on their families and overall communities.
This year’s walk happened last Sunday with well over 10 community organizations participating and State Rep. Chynah Tyler walking alongside more than 100 youth basketball players dribbling their balls down Blue Hill Ave toward Warren Street as cars on the road honked in support of them and their cause.
“If I can make every kid who plays basketball stand against gun violence, then that can be very influential,” said Royce.
Eleven year-old Jerry Brown, a student at Roxbury Prep Charter School said he’s been training with Royce and Ceasar since he was six years old to improve his basketball skills and grow closer to his dream of becoming an NBA player.
His best friend and teammate, 12-year-old Trayvon Jones, who goes to East Middle School in Braintree, also trains with Royce and Caesar. Trayvon said he’s made a lot of friends during training. “Playing basketball makes me feel at home,” he said. “As a point guard, I like to get my teammates involved in the plays so that no one feels left out.”
Through the Next Level Basketball Foundation and events like the Dribble Walk for Peace, Royce and Caesar’s ultimate goal is to raise funds for gun violence victims’ families and/or offer scholarships to assist young people’s college basketball careers who may not have received a D1 scholarship. They also hope to create more awareness around the trauma that comes with gun violence and provide supportive resources to families who may not have access to them now.
You can learn more about their work at nextlevelfactorytraining.com.