She and her sister — the other legendary tennis superstar in her family, Venus Williams — were sitting on a panel moderated by ESPN’s Jemele Hill along with community activists. It was clear she was thinking about the murder of her sister, Yetunde Price. Price was killed on Sept. 14, 2003, at 31 years old — the victim of a drive-by shooting in Compton, California, and more than 14 years later, the tears are still free-falling.
Jenny Goldstock Wright, the CEO and co-principal of Driving Force Group, the company that works with the Williams sisters on their philanthropic work, hands Serena Williams a box of tissues; family members sitting in the front row wipe at the edges of their eyes too.
“Well, violence has affected our lives personally — we lost our sister, she was the oldest — to violence. But I think what people don’t realize is how violence really affects not only your family, but your friends, your neighbors,” she said, pausing briefly as her voice begins to break, “everyone. And it’s … I’m going to stop there.”
It was a lot. And big sister Venus Williams understood. And before a hush could properly fall over the crowd, she picked up the slack for her sister, considered by many to be the one of greatest athletes of all time.
“Maybe I can help her continue,” Venus Williams said, letting not even one second go by. “Also violence not only affects the victim’s family, but also the family of the perpetrator. It ruins their lives as well. If you’re a mother or father, it’s not your plan to have your child commit this. It ruins lives. I think one of the hardest days of all of our lives was having to tell our sister’s children what happened to their mom. You can’t prepare for that.”
Venus Williams talked eloquently about the most horrific moment in her family’s life at the “A Family Affair, Presented by Oath,” event, which was a day of tennis-playing young people (the sisters eventually joined in) and empowerment that all benefits the Yetunde Price Resource Center, which is based in Compton. The panel happened inside of the Williams Arena at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Washington, D.C., on Saturday afternoon.
This was, perhaps, the most we’ve heard the sisters talk about the incident or the realities of their very personal brush with violence in years; their sister was also working as their personal assistant at the time of her death.
“As we were growing up on the tennis courts in Compton, California, some of the cars were not new. And there was also gunfire, so if a car backfired, we knew to hit the ground, because it sounded very similar to a gun. So between the gunshots and the cars backfiring, we were always hitting the ground. Our dad always had us get back up and practice, though,” Venus Williams said, pausing as the crowd begins to laugh at the memory — giving the room some much-needed levity for a minute.
She shared another story about how the two women were unfortunately surrounded by violence on their way to becoming Olympic gold medalists, Wimbledon champs and multiple Grand Slam title holders.
“I remember one afternoon there was a drive-by and we hit the ground. Guy got off the sunroof and started shooting, and we went back to practice. Our dad didn’t want us to keep secrets in our family, so he didn’t tell us not to tell our mom, and so we went home and we were so young and we didn’t understand the gravity of it all, thank God. … My mom was just so upset. So upset. But unfortunately sometimes as a young person, you can get used to that. And no one should have to get used to that,” Venus Williams said. “And hopefully we’re able to step by step do things to change that in the community. And the times that we cannot change it, what we want to do is to remember the person that has passed. And that’s what so beautiful about the Yetunde Price Resource Center. We couldn’t have prepared for this, but now there is something beautiful coming out of it.”
For much of the panel discussion, the women talked about the work being done at the Compton-based center. One thing that Serena Williams loves is the creative therapy they do with the kids there.
“It’s a way to express yourself, and to get whether it’s anger or frustration or emotion out,”she said. “Even though I play tennis, I still have this creative outlet … in design to kind of put myself out there or just get all these emotions out on the court. And there’s a lot of times where people are in the communities and they don’t have a place or an area or somewhere they can go to put that energy – to get some of that negative energy out and be creative.”
Venus Williams – who later gave the stage to young girls modeling gear from her new athletic line, EleVen – said that she wants young people to dream the impossible; in some ways she wasn’t able to do that because tennis was always front of mind.
“What I have found is that growing up my dream was to win big tournaments and to be a champ, but I had no idea I would be involved with things that were so much bigger than me and beyond my dreams,” she said. “So it’s been a wonderful experience to be a part of the Yetunde Price Resource Center … to be a part of the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center and multiple other things that I’ve been involved in. For me, to be able to give my time is a great honor and then I think the best part is when people see you doing something [and] they want to be a part of it. So just by doing something positive with your life … you motivate others and then those others actually motivate you to do better. It becomes this circle of positivity.”
Others on the panel included actor Malik Yoba, activist Tamika Mallory, Sharoni Little, who is the COO of the Yetunde Price Resource Center and Anton House who works with children at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in D.C.