- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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#BringBackOurGirls has not brought the girls back. The power of a hashtag has its limits.
There are still nearly 300 schoolgirls being held against their will somewhere in Nigeria or possibly in nearby bordering countries. The Nigerian government says it knows where at least some of the girls -- who were taken in April -- are located.
But there has been no rescue operation, no triumphant, tearful return of these girls to their families, no proof to the world yet that targeting girls whose only crime was getting an education is unacceptable and intolerable.
And Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, the dynamic, Stanford-educated sisters of the WNBA, are frustrated by that, make no mistake. But they are not deterred.
There is plenty of work to be done and the sisters are prepared to make a difference in a way that a well-intentioned tweet still cannot.
"At the end of the day, the impact that we could have on a situation like this is minimal," Nneka Ogwumike said. "But we can do something."
"We have little control over getting those girls back," Chiney agreed. "But it's good to know that people have had their eyes opened. The one thing we can control is how we empower these girls."
That's where the Ogwumike sisters, two of the most prominent Nigerian-American athletes in the United States, will be focusing their energies. On Wednesday morning, they rolled out the details of their relationship with UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.
Creating a "competition" for middle school and high school girls' basketball teams -- both in the AAU levels and in high schools -- the sisters have hatched a fundraising effort in which teams compete to raise the most money to benefit UNICEF's U.S. Fund, including the Girls' Education Project, which aims to give 1 million girls in northern Nigeria access to quality learning, provide scholarships for female teachers and establish safe spaces for girls.
"Forget that they are phenomenal athletes, these are two young women who want to do something that matters," said Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. "Each of us have something we are good at, that we take for granted, but we can use it to benefit somebody else. These young women want to use their platforms to be heard and to benefit children."
Both Chiney and Nneka -- who joined Peyton and Eli Manning as just the second set of siblings to be drafted No. 1 into an American professional sports league -- will devote their time and energies to the new program while playing through their WNBA seasons in Connecticut and Los Angeles, respectively.
The sisters said their plans to work with UNICEF to benefit girls in Nigeria predated the current crisis.
"We've known since the beginning that we wanted do something, and we are obviously passionate about this cause," Chiney said. "We've always been impressed in the way that UNICEF has incorporated athletes into some really powerful efforts."
Nneka said the timing of their initiative and the situation in Nigeria over the last two months might present an opportunity for more context and for more people to consider the cause.
"It's really unfortunate, and a coincidence that this has all happened, but it might help what we are trying to do," Nneka said. "This is a global headline and people are so aware right now. Maybe we will get more of a turnout for this than what we anticipated at the start."
Stern said that 10 million children in Nigeria are not enrolled in school, the highest number in the world.
"The media attention right now is making people hear what's happening," Stern said. "Students and teachers have been the targets of violence since 2012, resulting in parents being unwilling to send their children to school. They already have the lowest enrollment rate to start, and we work to change that and parents start sending their kids to school and look what happens. This situation is drawing the world's attention to a problem."
One that the Ogwumike sisters hope can be addressed with a little help from their basketball "family."
Chiney said she wanted to work through AAU girls basketball because it is the program that has defined the Ogwumikes' family life for more than a decade, since the day Nneka and Chiney both tried out for their first basketball team, quickly developing into standout players on the travel team circuit.
All four Ogwumike sisters -- younger siblings Olivia and Erica have also been staples on AAU teams in Texas -- know this world well.
"I think after the age of 10, AAU basketball dominated in our house," Chiney said. "We are all family, we all came from AAU, and we feel like it's important to show girls that they are privileged to play the game they love, and if we can use the platforms of the WNBA and AAU to change things, that would be the goal."
Chiney said the AAU experience helped to define her in many ways, from her goals to her work ethic to her sense of community. Nneka agreed.
It is not lost on either of them that the opportunities they have been provided through basketball are not offered to many of the girls in the country where their parents were born and raised, and where their extended family still lives.
"It's a beautiful country and only when it's in crisis does it make the headlines," Chiney said. "This is about empowerment. We were young girls with dreams, and we want other girls to be able to have their dreams. That's the storyline here that we are truly passionate about. We care about girls' dreams and ambitions no matter where they live."
Teams and individuals who wish to participate can set up their own fundraising page at www.crowdrise.com/nnekaandchiney. The team that signs up the most donors will be rewarded with a private basketball clinic with the Ogwumike sisters. Additional team and individual prizes include autographed jerseys and pictures, as well as the opportunity to interact with the sisters via Google Hangouts.
"We will be using social media and putting ourselves out there," Nneka said. "We are trying to reach out to girls who care about basketball, and about other girls. Hopefully we will get a lot of turnout from Texas [where they grew up] and California. And we want WNBA fans to spread the word. It does feel like we are getting help, and we are excited about it. We hope people will make it a fun competition."
This project, Nneka vowed, is only the beginning.
"We aren't going to stop at this," Nneka said. "Chiney and I have expressed so many more thoughts and ideas. At the end of it all, we want to infiltrate a lot of different avenues, to capitalize on who we are to be able to bring girls together."
11dBonnie D. Ford