By Jimmy Carlton Sportswriter Published Jul 26, 2017 at 8:01 PM

Over the last two years, as the basketball team on the court and the business development off the court have improved, the Bucks’ commitment to and involvement in the local community has increased, as well.

Since the team hired Alicia Dupies to be its new vice president of community relations in August of 2015, the Social Responsibility Department has expanded and the Milwaukee Bucks Foundation was launched a year ago. Last week, the Foundation announced a $1 million grant to 15 nonprofit organizations in the city – its largest community investment so far, and one that had Milwaukee leaders singing the team’s praises.

Dupies, a former Mortenson Construction executive, may not be the biggest basketball fan – "I know nothing about basketball," she says. "Nothing. I wouldn’t even know if something was a foul" – but she came to the Bucks with more than 20 years of experience in project development and community affairs. In her role as the community relations VP and executive director of the Bucks Foundation, Dupies has made countless site visits to local nonprofit organizations, done innumerable hours of listening sessions in neighborhoods around the city, coordinated hundreds of Bucks volunteer hours and events and worked to forge meaningful partnerships between the team and the community. 

Last week’s news was the Bucks Foundation’s biggest accomplishment yet, but Dupies and team president Peter Feigin said that it was just the beginning. In the next grant cycle, they will extend beyond Milwaukee, reaching communities and organizations and youth across the state.

We sat down with Dupies at the Bucks’ buzzing Schlitz Park office to discuss the franchise’s seemingly enhanced commitment to social responsibility, how her team strives to go deeper than surface level and measures outcomes with its initiatives, whether the Bucks felt an obligation to increase their community efforts to conciliate complaints about the new arena’s public funding, which players have been particularly active and what the Foundations’ future plans are for Wisconsin.

Under the new ownership, and especially since the Foundation launched last year, it feels like the Bucks have really emphasized community relations. Like, it’s more front and center, in the public eye, than it was before. Is it just me, or has the department expanded and been more empowered to do bigger work?

I think when the owners purchased the team, they knew they could make an impact in Milwaukee. Perhaps part of that was coming from such a large city like New York, and then you come here and you see, wow, the six degrees of separation is actually really doable here – you know, "Smallwaukee."

So if you have the tenacity and some of the inherent connections that come from living here – and I’ve lived here for 25 years now – it’s not hard to get things done. It’s not brain surgery. It’s sometimes making two or three calls, getting everyone together and then saying, OK who’s going to own it? Who’s going to move it forward?

When you compare our team to other teams in our league, we’re in what you’d call a smaller market, and perhaps that allows us to kind of go from, as Peter said the other day, zero to 100 in no time at all. In Chicago, say, to go to two meetings in a day would take your entire day. I can do three or four site visits in a day if I wanted to, and spend enough time with boots on the ground to really understand the work that some of these community organizations are doing.

So I think that there’s been a sincere and genuine desire by the ownership, and then Peter – the guy’s amazing. I came to work for Peter, I didn’t come to work for the team; and now that I’m working for the team, I’m here to work for the team. But he gets it. I think he and I both see that we can really change lives and outcomes. We’re coming from fast-paced private backgrounds – we’ve always worked in the private sector, as opposed to the public sector – but it’s been really fun to understand and listen to what the community needs.

That’s something that I almost felt like, in my first year (2015-16), we weren’t actually going fast enough on the social responsibility side. I also learned that in this role, and when you’re taking this whole organization behind you, we have to do a lot of listening. Instead of saying just, "Oh would you like 20 tickets to tonight’s game? It’s 4 o’clock right now." We started to map those things out right away when I got here in September – to say, who are the organizations that could benefit from these? And what are some of the barriers to redemption? If you give a ticket to an eighth grader because they have perfect attendance – well, what about transportation, food, timing, they may have four or five siblings at home they need to take care of.

I’ll give you an example: COA Youth and Family Centers. We had a player who said I want to make a gift of 50 tickets a game for every single game. Rather than just say, here they are, we asked COA, how could they benefit you? They said get us transportation; so we arranged in our second season to have buses at these youth centers, schools, afterschool programs. What else? Well, for them to be able to take their whole family. And they came back to us with a proposal – this is what we’re going to measure, and then this is how they’re going to be rewarded. If the parent brought their child four of five days, two weeks in a row, so eight of 10 days total, they got to take their whole family to the game. And then we started to feed them.

So now you’re getting family contact, you’re getting your entire family unit there and then you’re feeding them while they’re there, too. That’s so basic, but it just took time to listen and say, wow, this is what we need to do. It totally changed our redemption rates, and kind of our reputation of understanding what the needs are. That was COA’s needs, not necessarily everyone’s needs; we’re customizing our platforms, if you will.

The 15 nonprofits you gave grants to last week, even though they all have youth services and mentoring components that you emphasized, they’re all different organizations with different missions. You said the granting process was exhaustively in depth; how do you evaluate success for different groups?

They need to tell us how they’re going to measure. We don’t know. So you have to look at what they’re trying to do and let them tell you, this is how we’re going to measure, this is how frequently, here’s what the anticipated outcomes are. A lot of the grants that we gave are multi-year grants, intentionally, because another thing we learned from these not-for-profits is that to have a grant writer on staff and to be submitting grant after grant after grant, it’s expensive. And if you are implementing a new program, to fund it for only a year, that doesn’t get you anywhere. For example, the multi-sport complex that we’re doing at Silver Spring Neighborhood Center with Browning School, instead of just giving you the court, the physical asset, we want to wrap programming around it.

So we gave Playworks $30,000 a year for three years and then we gave Silver Spring Neighborhood Center $30,000 a year for three years, because Silver Spring Neighborhood Center can activate the court in the afterschool hours and the evening, but they don’t have staffers in the evening. We intentionally designed and paid for lighting, so that it’s a safe space in the evening, as well.

Again, we didn’t want to just put the court in there and then leave. And interestingly, we had a vision for what we wanted that space to be, and in talking with MPS and Browning and Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, they said we’re interested also in soccer and futsal. So we said, Hey, you know what, how about we give you a range of a budget, you guys run some focus groups and figure out what this community needs most? And it totally ebbed and flowed and evolved into what it became, which is so great, because I think sometimes people think, "oh, it’s the Bucks, it’s all got to be about basketball." So to be able to have soccer and then the courts are going to be able to do tennis and volleyball, as well, it’s going to be so great for that community.

The day we did the press conference, a mom came up to me crying, saying, "I can’t believe we’re doing this, like, for us." I think that sometimes people who have so many challenges don’t think that they’re worthy of receiving a gift like that, if you will. So that part is the best part of the job.

To be able to go deeper with these initiatives, go to that next level, instead of just giving away tickets or cutting a check – has that required an increase in funding or focus from above?

I would say that it’s the same dollars; it’s how we’re allocating the dollars. I’m just using hypothetical numbers, but say in the past we’re going to give COA $10,000 worth of tickets. Now, we would maybe say, you know what, let’s make that $7,000 worth of tickets, so that we have $3,000 to pay for the other things and build around it. In terms of the amount of people that are then getting the benefit of having the experience, it’s gone way up. Maybe on ticketing side they’d call it redemption rate; on my side I’d say who got to cash in on the experience? By adding those other things, that’s going way, way up.

The three core areas the community side focuses on – youth education, youth health and wellness, community betterment – what are some of the quantifiable ways you guys track and measure performance in such broad areas?

On the education side, when I look at youth literacy and then look at math, both of them are challenges, right? Both of them are evaluated at the third-grade level scores. We recently had a player that was really involved in literacy, Johnny O’Bryant, and he did the "30 Books in 30 Days" reading challenge at Brown Street Academy, which is a partner of ours.

We have organizational-led initiatives and player-led initiatives, and that was a good example of a player-led one. But then we took it to heart and thought how can we really max it out? So we went to that school and said, "How are you going to measure this?" They use a program called Raz Kids, where the kids read the books and they take a little test at the end so you can measure their comprehension. There was one child there, LaDarius – he’s going to be in second grade now, and we actually just scholarshipped him to a Bucks basketball camp this summer – he went up two or three text spans in the 30 days because he just really wanted to win and go to the game. So Johnny gave him a shoe, he went on court and got it signed, and it was awesome. Literacy is harder and it’s a huge challenge in this city, and we have not found the perfect program for that.

On the other side, NBA Math Hoops is used by many teams across the league and it is the most phenomenal program. It’s a board game, and kids can play it either in the classroom during the school day or in afterschool programing, and test scores went up 37 percent in the 12-week period. Like, you can’t argue with that. If I had my way, and Peter and the others always make fun of me, I sit with my team and say we need a sponsor for Math Hoops, and they’re like, "Oh my God, Alicia, you and your damn Math Hoops."

But, like, we know it increases math proficiency, and the other nice thing about it is it’s 4th through 7th grades, so you’re getting kids later and you can hold onto them longer. So that is something that we’re looking to expand this year. Before we started it, instead of just saying we’re going to do it, we brought Math Hoops in to do an overview and we brought a focus group of 40 people in from across the state, educators and afterschool programmers, and said, If we were to invest in this, is it something where you will see value? When they were like, we want this and we want it tomorrow, that’s when we said, OK let’s figure out how to pay for it and let’s do it.

We’ve done a number of things like that, where we’ve done focus groups first, because we just don’t know. Like, I could eat this stuff up all day long, Oh, Math Hoops is great, etc. But we’re asking the people that are in the trenches every day to tell us if it’s as great as we think.

You guys are really focusing on mentoring. Is that the new school of thought on how to impact communities in your space, or something the Bucks are emphasizing themselves, or something you’ve brought in specifically or you’ve heard that in listening and getting feedback from community?

I would say the answer is all of them, and I don’t even remember what they all were, but I was clicking them off in my head as you said them, yes, yes, yes. So, the NBA has something called NBA Cares and it’s kind of all the social responsibility things that we do as a league. And they focused on mentoring – MENTOR In Real Life it’s called – the national mentoring organization that the league is aligned with. I think one of the reasons we’re so supportive of it is the data and the outcomes, which show if you have a trusted adult mentor in your life, you are so much more likely to succeed in all these different areas.

And the challenge in the mentoring space in Milwaukee is that a lot of people think there’s one definition of mentoring, and we as a team have come to believe that there’s really not. If you’re in a youth cohort, for example Operation Dream, they have a youth cohort leader, and you may have a fourth grader, a sixth grader, an eighth grader, but you’ve got that leader holding you accountable and supporting you and helping you connect the dots. And then you have the Big Brothers Big Sisters model, which is one-to-one, one hour a week, guaranteed for two years. I think that that is awesome and I wish that every kid had that opportunity, but you have to realize that’s really hard to replicate.

So there are 26 mentor affiliates around the entire United States and our dream is to bring the 27th one here to Milwaukee. We, along with MPS and the City of Milwaukee, worked with the Public Policy Forum to do a mentoring landscape scan. So we’ve looked at the affiliates, and if we could launch the 27th one that would be amazing. And the purpose of a mentor affiliate is to bring awareness of the need for mentoring – it’s both advocacy and awareness – but, most importantly, it’s technical assistance and training, because there is a difference between having a good mentor and a not-so-good mentor. And all of the organizations that we gave grants to last week could receive benefits from the mentor affiliate; it will not be a direct service provider, it will be an assistance, so that you can see what a quality mentoring program looks like.

As a basketball team, the health and wellness area seems pretty self-evident.

Where we would like to be in three to five years is looking at healthy food, food deserts and how do we work to – like Fondy Food Market, they double your SNAP benefits; so if you have $20 in SNAP benefits you can go there and actually get $40 worth of fresh great food. So, these first couple of years, being able to educate kids that we work with on healthy choices and trying to eat healthy when you live somewhere where there's not a lot of fresh food, not even a Pick ‘n Save, that is a huge challenge. That's the nutrition side, and it's a little bit more of my lofty long-term vision, but I think we're starting to see some other teams look at that, as well.

And then, obviously, the fitness component of it. Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin is such a huge partner for us, and we’ll continue to be able to talk about health and wellness at a macro level. They want to focus on some of our underserved populations, diabetes, hypertension in the African-American community, so we’re trying to get the message out early.

Peter Feigin has made comments about Milwaukee’s extreme segregation, and the city certainly struggles with major issues of racial inequality. The third focus area is community betterment, which seems like sort of a nebulous, hard-to-define concept. How do you guys as an organization wrap your arms around something like structural racial inequality? How do you find a role and a voice here as a pro sports franchise – albeit one with an active community arm – to try and really better the community?

When we came up with that, someone was like, "Is betterment even a word?" But I didn't want it to be development because it's not bricks and mortar. It's not nebulous by design, but I think it's broad by design. We've been very fortunate to have other foundations in town help us as we kind of started and launched, and we were very impressed by Burke Foundation, Bader and Zilber, in particular. Zilber’s neighborhood focus just made so much sense to us because we’re not going to be this enormous foundation that has tons and tons and tons of money.

If we go into, say, the Amani neighborhood, and there is one piece missing, that would be a community betterment. I would say that community betterment might be adding that last piece to the puzzle or the icing on the cake, which wouldn't be something we would necessarily replicate over and over again, but if it helped a neighborhood kind of finish something they're trying to accomplish, we can do that and then move on to another neighborhood.

Compared to some other Bucks efforts – #OwnTheFuture comes to mind – with a lot of the community initiatives, it seems like the approach has been show, not tell. Or, at least, show then tell. Chris Abele last week raved about the Bucks Foundation’s follow through; s it important to prove to the community that you’re going to do things, rather than just look and sound the part of being active?

I think it’s probably a combination of personal way of operating plus organizational way of operating. I would rather under-promise and over-deliver, to some degree. I just think that all eyes are on us. We've got an entire state watching us, and I take my own reputation – but also that of the team’s – quite seriously. If we say were going to do something, God dammit, we better do it. That's not to say were hypersensitive about getting beat up for not doing something, but I would say that every day we’re like, What can we do? How are we going to do it? And we hold each other accountable for that.

Given all the listening you’ve done out in the community – with a lot of people who may be Bucks basketball fans or may not be – and the context of the arena conversation and some of the opposition to public funding, have you heard from anyone an expectation, or do you guys feel an obligation, to do more in the community and really demonstrate you’re giving back?

Absolutely not. And it's interesting that you say that because, like I said, I've been here almost two years, and that topic of discussion has never even come up. No, not all; not one bit. I think that we see so much potential in this community. If we could plant our flag in the sand, the mentoring, obviously, is something we feel passionately about because I think it can be measured.

I feel so passionately about our business community; if they understood some of the things – it’s great that the Bucks are being recognized, but none of this is major rocket science. It's commitment, it's passion, it's belief that we can change things, but it's also joy to see the return on that investment. And it's not just financial investment, we spend a lot of time at these organizations.

So rather than it being a payoff for the arena, a quid pro quo, it sounds like there’s genuine pride and excitement in the Bucks being a trailblazer or a galvanizer of change and improvement in Milwaukee?

Oh my God, are you kidding? All of us are so thrilled to have the support from the top down to be able to do these things. We started our VolunDeers program a year ago; we've had 795 VolunDeer hours in the first nine months. People are psyched. There's something cool about being part of the Bucks organization, and that probably helps us get more of a warm welcome when we have some of these opportunities out in the community.

With the new arena and Live Block, are there going to be specific community elements or activations with it?

From an activation perspective, we have a number of not-for-profits that have already started to contact us about using the live block, like, for the beginning of a run or using a stage or something. We’d be able to help them have a launching spot. Say they do a run, and usually they get 500 runners, but if they started it at the new arena, maybe they double that. What else do these organizations need? They need awareness. Like, some of the grantees – PEARLS For Teen Girls is a fantastic organization, but not everyone knows who they are. We’re kind of the big show in town right now, so just by association, there'd be a built-in buzz and energy around other stuff.

Jabari Parker has been very outspoken on social justice and activism issues. Then, you’ve got someone like Johnny O’Bryant, who you mentioned, who’s big on reading. Which players have been particularly valuable as community assets, and how do you utilize them differently? With someone like Jabari, how do you leverage his voice and platform, but also balance that with being a major professional sports organization that has lots of fans with varying viewpoints?

We are never going to ask a player to change their areas of interest. Some of the players’ passion areas come out more easily, and Jabari is a perfect example. When I got to the team, he had just finished really getting involved with (Superintendent) Dr. Darienne Driver on an MPS attendance initiative, and we're going to start doing some things here real soon again with that. They have an earlier start this year, so we’re going to have him do some auto-dialers to remind kids to show up to school. He will tell you, public school, urban education, staying in school, showing up, it’s huge for him.

The social justice bent is in his DNA; he grew up with parents who were very focused on giving back, and I think you can’t strip that away. So then what we try to do on the non-basketball side is, with all the listening that we've done, where can we align him to benefit the constituent group that needs it the most?

Jabari is still very quiet but he is used to being in the limelight a little more, so he's starting to realize, My voice can actually create dialogue. I don't want to speak for him, but I do think that's what Jabari sees, that his voice create dialogue. He's not trying to tell anyone what to do. I think that Jabari sees his opportunity to have those discussions as a very important responsibility of his, and when you see him talk to youth groups – generally it's in MPS, probably 15-30 kids – his discussions are very raw and authentic. He’s a huge asset.

Tony Snell is a great example, too. If you want to talk about thoughtful and grateful, oh my gosh. He made an investment in the player ticket program, and his gift went to Silver Spring Neighborhood Center and to Pathfinders, because he really feels strongly about giving back to a community that's not too dissimilar from the one he grew up in. He's so respectful, he's so gracious to everyone he speaks to and he wants nothing more than to just quietly give back. He's so grateful and blessed.

I've talked to our community team. What do we want to be known for? This mentoring thing, we’re kind of a convener, we’ve convened the discussions and now it’s gotten to a point where we need to decide what to do with the mentoring program. We’re incubating it, but that’s going to be an outside thing.

Moose (Greg Monroe) is very clear that sickle cell and children’s illnesses are something that's important to him, so we've been able to work on some of those things. It takes knowing what some of the players’ interest areas are; some of them are so obvious, and some of them we have to ask. Malcolm Brogdon is a natural with mentoring because he feels so strongly about education, talking to kids about how you always have to have multiple paths, so that's huge and he's just great. Thon (Maker) is someone that I'm so excited to see what ends up being his passion because he comes from such a different background. You can’t just be like, "OK we’re at this organization, go pass out some basketballs." We heard someone (from a nonprofit organization) say recently, "We used to see you backend all of your visits," because in the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, you have to do a certain number of visits every year. Now we space them out and try and figure out when and how and where it’s best to do things. We get probably 50 donation requests a week; we probably get 10 player requests a month, if not more. They’re only here for however many weeks; then there’s game days, practice, travel, so you end up with this limited opportunity to engage the players. We work really hard to find things that they’re interested in.

You guys teased this at the announcement, about broadening your reach statewide, going beyond Milwaukee and extending across Wisconsin. What do you have planned, and how, practically, are you going to go into these outside communities?    

We’re working really closely with (Vice President of Marketing) Dustin Godsey and his marketing team. There’s a lot of things, the Bucks Bar Network – that’s not necessarily a social responsibility thing – the 50th anniversary events, we have brand ambassadors at campuses across the state, we did a statewide caravan. How do we make sure that, when we’re there, we’re touching as many people as we can and getting as deep as we can, despite not living there?

You can build relationships, and then you can build fans, right? If you look at what we’re doing with the not-for-profit community here, it's truly building relationships because we’re seeing these people every day. You can't build a relationship when you’re only in Madison once a month or the Fox Valley once a month, so we’re really trying to figure that out. That said, we are meeting with as many organizations and key Metropolitan Statistical Areas as we can in our state to understand what the needs are, so that then we can go about the same process in a thoughtful way for this next grant cycle, which will all be non-Milwaukee groups.

Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.

After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.

Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.