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PALO ALTO — Jason Miller and Nelson Gifford are Black men who coach football at Palo Alto’s two public high schools.
If you happen to follow them on Twitter — and chances are you do not — you’ll quickly learn that these middle-aged head coaches and educators are not afraid to speak up about social injustice and racial inequality even though African Americans comprise but a tiny fraction of their school enrollments.
Their keyboard megaphones have boomed only louder since George Floyd’s death last month under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
When New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees got into boiling water during the apex of the Floyd protests after saying he’d never agree with anyone disrespecting the American flag — he quickly apologized — Palo Alto’s Gifford and Gunn’s Miller let their fingers loose.
“In case anyone is wondering, I’m keeping score,” Gifford tweeted on June 4. “A lot of coaches have been REAL quiet… but Drew gets his ass chewed and all of a sudden all these character witnesses pop up to tell us – black people – that what WE FEEL AND EXPERIENCE IS WRONG. This is bigger than ball. #BLM”
A day earlier, Miller tweeted, “Drew Brees is defiant, wrong.”
When President Trump took to Twitter to defend Brees on June 5, saying the quarterback “should not have taken back his original stance,” Miller replied:
“When you think he cannot get more divisive…”
While Miller, 42, grew up in what he described as a “solidly middle-class” home in the Los Angeles area, he wasn’t shielded from racial divisiveness or tension. He attended Leuzinger High in Lawndale in the mid-1990s, a school the Los Angeles Times described at that time “as a weed-strewn campus plagued by racial violence,” largely between Black and Latino students.
Gifford, 39, was raised in Palo Alto and graduated from the high school where he is now not only the football coach but also its athletic director.
The coaches’ outspokenness has been greeted with applause from the highest-ranking administrator in the Palo Alto Unified School District, superintendent Don Austin, who not only gives them a thumbs up but also encourages them to keep speaking.
“I have a ton of respect for both of those guys,” Austin said. “They’re both stand-up men, straight arrows, all about more than their sport. I’ve had conversations with both of them about their role in leading through this.
“In both cases, I told them, ‘Use your voice. You’ve earned your voice. Use it. You’re strong in every aspect of your life. Don’t choke it back.’
“And they haven’t.”
Before relocating to the Bay Area two years ago, Miller had grown weary after coaching at multiple inner-city Los Angeles area schools, including Inglewood High and Dominguez High in Compton.
“I don’t just coach football,” said Miller, who teaches social justice classes. “I have had kids killed and it affected me to where I would stop coaching at certain points. I don’t just have that on my resume that I coached in Compton, coached in Watts, coached in Inglewood. I have students that have gone to the NFL. And I have students that have gone to the grave.
“My thoughts moving up here a couple of years ago were teaching, basically taking my foot off the pedal as far as intensity with problems. But what’s going on in the world has changed the dynamics for everyone.”
When Miller speaks about social justice issues, the words come from experience, even recent experience.
Shortly after the coach moved to the Bay Area, he took a late drive to In-N-Out Burger that was interrupted by flashing red lights.
“A police officer pulled me over because I was in a new car, and I did not have a license plate on there yet,” Miller said. “I knew I was profiled. I called the watch commander that night, and he apologized to me. As an African American, there is a lot I can tell you. I’ve been getting pulled over by the police ever since I started driving at 16 years old. And to this day, if I see a police car, I get nervous.”
During his childhood in Palo Alto, Gifford recalled, he couldn’t help but notice that other Black students lived nowhere near his neighborhood.
Many were bussed across Highway 101 from East Palo Alto as part of the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program, a court-ordered lawsuit settlement from the mid-1980s that gives a designated number of minority students from the Ravenswood City School District an opportunity to attend school in nearby districts, including Palo Alto Unified.
In a letter that he posted last week on Twitter about the program, titled, “An Argument for Action,” Gifford compared the VTP students to “guests” who are unequal to the more powerful “host” students from Palo Alto.
The coach asked for change.
“The Palo Alto community – specifically PAUSD – has a unique opportunity to answer the call with a decisive, thoughtful and just action,” Gifford wrote. “By changing the status of all students who reside within the boundaries of East Palo Alto from guests to hosts, we acknowledge that not only do their lives matter, but that we want to share our lives with them. This action would be historic and unprecedented.”
Austin read the letter and tweeted, “I had not really thought about the host / guest relationship in that way before. It is undeniable. Thank you!”
In an interview with this news organization, the superintendent added, “The Tinsley case and the transfer program gets lots of attention. But almost always for outcome results, where we have not always done a great job historically with not just the transfer students but also students that come from under-represented groups.
“I think a lot of times people look and think that we need more programs or more money thrown at something, and he got down to the root of it. If you feel like a guest and the host has the power, then you’re always going to feel disadvantaged.”
Andres Jimenez graduated from Palo Alto in 2019. While he said he was grateful to be part of the Tinsley program, he acknowledged the vast differences on the other side of the freeway.
“In East Palo Alto, me growing up, I was so used to Hispanics, African Americans and the Pacific Islanders,” Jimenez said. “When you go into the Palo Alto Unified School District, it’s almost like a whole new world. You go from a low-income community to million-dollar families.”
Sarah Wert, whose son, Emery Cohen, plays football at Gunn, described Miller as a breath of fresh air who has created a family culture within the team.
Gunn has won more games in Miller’s first two seasons (12) than the previous five seasons combined (eight).
Along the way, he has raised some cultural awareness.
“I think the whole community is really opening itself up to messages about racism in a new way — the whole world is, I hope, I think,” Wert said. “He’s one voice and I think it is appreciated to have his specific viewpoint as someone who has been thinking about this in an education context for a really long time and has lived through the very kinds of harassment that White people are now saying, ‘Whoa, we really should put an end to this.’”
Gifford has similar admiration at Palo Alto. Since returning to his alma mater in 2018, he has led the Vikings to a 17-5 record and two trips to a Central Coast Section semifinal.
“Nelson was definitely my favorite,” said Jimenez, who played football at the school. “Not only because of the amount of wins we got but he’s the definition of a players’ coach. He literally puts every single one of his players before he puts himself.
“If you were to ask anyone that was coached by Nelson, they would be on his side, just the way that he is, the personality that he has. Nelson will tell you how it is. That’s one thing that I’ll never forget about Nelson. I’ve never met a coach like him.”
The latest sports figure to strike a nerve with Gifford and Miller was Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy, who was roundly criticized last week for posing in a picture while wearing a One America News Network T-Shirt. The heavily right-wing cable station has been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Gundy tried to ease the tension shortly after the photo went public, joining star running back Chuba Hubbard in a video. Hubbard, who is Black, had said earlier that he would not do anything with the school until things change.
Gifford didn’t buy what Gundy was selling.
“The intentionally vague references of a “very sensitive issue” and “making some changes” is the most trash, garbage, yet perfectly crafted non-committal double speak of a college coach this year,” Gifford wrote in an 11-tweet thread. “He acknowledges no wrong-doing or offense, and takes 0 responsibility.”
Miller chimed in with these tweets:
Since Floyd’s death in Minnesota, Miller and Gifford have seen a change that is different from other social-justice protests.
When Palo Alto held a drive-through graduation ceremony this month, Gifford noticed a number of cars with Black Lives Matter signs.
“I’m seeing it from kids that aren’t Black,” Gifford said. “I’m seeing it from Asian kids. I’m seeing it from White kids. I’m seeing it from everybody. Talk about what inspired me, it was that.”
“It’s been heartening,” Miller added, “seeing all of the different races kind of band together and understand that something needs to be done.”
Back in the district office, Austin appreciates the candor both men have brought to the community.
“These aren’t guys that are just reckless and shoot with no thought,” the superintendent said. “These guys think deeply about the impact of words, others and their own.”
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