LA GRANGE – For Ramon Lacey, Laced Up Athletics is more than just a nonprofit founded on fitness.
The 36-year-old professional athlete turned personal trainer sought to create a community – a “steppingstone” – to help young people of color feel empowered. He envisioned Laced Up Athletics as an outlet, a resource to learn beyond health and wellness.
That’s why Lacey launched #ChangeThe Narrative, a project that aims to build two free little libraries in his hometown of La Grange filled with books for children and adults.
He started the project early last month and announced a book drive via Facebook. Lacey is accepting donations, and encourages supporters to give books that explore racism and social justice in America. He also is seeking books that celebrate Black and indigenous cultures, as well as those authored by women, including those of color.
“I want everybody to be able to see everybody for who they are, no matter who they are,” Lacey said.
Lacey said the message isn’t about representation. The real mission behind filling his little free libraries with those books is to give people, especially those of color, access to stories that may be hidden.
“Everybody should be able to tell their story,” Lacey said. “When we hear one story all the time and you don’t hear another story or another side of the story, it becomes someone’s truth. But if you don’t get the whole story, it’s not the truth.”
Lacey shared his story about growing up Black in a predominantly white neighborhood. He remembered how “blatantly obvious” it was “that we’re the minority.”
Nearly 6% of La Grange’s population is Black, while about 84% is white, according to datausa.io. Latinos make up about 7% of the population, and Asians make up about 1%.
Lacey said about 50% of the Black families live on the east side of La Grange. He hopes to put the little free libraries at a couple of parks on that side of town.
Being among the few Black students in the La Grange public school system, Lacey saw other Black students fall behind the curve.
“You know who’s moving on and who isn’t because you’ve grown up with these people your whole life,” he said. “As children, you don’t know why they aren’t going to college or you don’t understand the experiences. You don’t understand the nuances behind it.”
Lacey thought about his experiences as a student and how the generational gap between him and his parents impacted his pursuit of higher education.
“I didn’t have any idea of how education and the world worked because my parents were a little bit older and they’re from the South and the first generation of the first [Great] Migration,” he said.
By the time Lacey arrived at North Park University in Chicago, he continued to wonder why “not too many Black kids from La Grange went to college.” In addition to playing college football, Lacey pursued a major in sociology and a minor in Africana studies, where he learned about a “historically imbalanced” America that put more context into the barriers the Black community faces.
The knowledge that Lacey acquired from his studies became the backdrop for Laced Up Athletics. His experiences as an athlete, including a stint playing indoor football for the Chicago Blitz, a career as a psychological rehabilitation coordinator, and fatherhood have shaped the rest of his organization’s mission.
When Lacey set up Laced Up Athletics in 2015, he ran it with one goal in mind: He wanted to return to La Grange and give back.
Lacey also said last summer’s uprisings and the Black Lives Matter movement indirectly inspired the pair of little free libraries.
“As a Black man, I always believe my life matters,” he said. “I know that I matter when I wake up, and that’s part of the #ChangeTheNarrative. I want to show people that I matter.
“I want to make sure that people see the good in my community, see the untold history and the people that uplifted me.”
Lacey will be collecting books and monetary donations until April 1 for the little free libraries. For information on how to donate, visit www.laced-up-athletics.com or email Lacey at email@example.com.