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Q&A: Oakland Roots Head Coach Jordan Ferrell

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition we spoke with Oakland Roots Head Coach Jordan Ferrell. A collegiate player at Cal State East Bay, the Stockton native initially went overseas to play semi professionally in Germany before returning to California to start his coaching career. Since coming back, Ferrell has coached for Monarcas Academy, the University of the Pacific, and Sacramento Republic FC’s academy before he joined the Roots ahead of their inaugural season. His piece on civil rights, titled, “It’s Our Time,” recently appeared on The Players’ Tribune. 

NorCal: How did you fall in love with the game of soccer?

Ferrell: It’s been the game that I’ve played my whole life. I played other sports as well, but my brother started playing organized soccer at the age of five and I was two-years-old on the sidelines of his games. Those are my earliest memories, just memories of my brother. I really knew that it was going to be my career, my passion, my life after I graduated high school and my family took a trip to Spain. I walked into the Camp Nou for the first time and it was like, “this is home, this is a place that my heart feels that I belong.” The game at that point in time was so small in that I just played soccer and that was it, but that was the catalyst for me as I moved into college to really learn about football on a global level, what a club was, what the social aspect of football as much as the technical aspects were. Those things were both infinite in my opinion, you could just keep learning about how a club had transmitted the values of their people through the actions on the pitch, through the supporters on the sidelines, and into the community. The more that I learned about that, the more I just fell in love with the game. The catalyst was walking into the stadium there and being in that cathedral, but really that was the start of me just engrossing myself in how much I could learn about football. And I’m still on that mission.

NorCal: Who was playing at Barcelona at that time?

Ferrell: That would have been 2005, it was the season before they won the Champions League, so it was Eto’o, Deco, Xavi and Iniesta, those two guys were there but just super subs at that point, but Ronaldinho was the big man and it was fun to watch in terms of Ronaldinho, the entertainment value was really high, the creativity as well. But I wouldn’t say they were playing the type of team football that they were going to end up playing. I have to say, though, that when I really made up my mind to be a coach was when Guardiola was at Barcelona. I was already a fan of the club. I had actually chosen to go to Barcelona because I was a fan of the club and that was more due to El Fenomeno, you know, Ronaldo, and then Rivaldo. Then, obviously, everybody jumped on the bandwagon in 2008, 2009 and then into 2012, but I had already been a fan so it was cool to see the team that I was already a fan of become one of the greatest teams of all time.

NorCal: So when Guardiola started, that would have been close to the end of your college career, right?

Ferrell: When he started at Barcelona, I went over to Germany for a year-and-a-half to play and I started coaching over

Jordan Ferrell

there too. I lived in Nuremberg and for me that was the best step because from the disorganization of American soccer structurally to the hyper-organization of soccer in Germany, it really opened my eyes to player development. Their way of player development wasn’t about being physical or strong or the values of most American sports. It was totally different. Obviously they had taller, strong players, that part, but it wasn’t solely a physical emphasis. And at that time, I’ll be honest, I went over there thinking that I would be a better athlete than a lot of those guys and then I realized at my first training sessions, I was playing against a guy who was 18 and I was 22 and I could not get the ball off of him no matter what. This guy just won the double in Luxembourg and has played in the Europa League and all this kind of stuff so he is a top player, but this guy was not even 5-7 and an 18-year-old kid. He was skinny, no real muscle or anything and this guy just turned me inside out and I was like, “what is this?” So at my first club, I started helping out with the U10s and it was incredible to watch the game intelligence of these young kids. They were playing the game with their eyes popping all over, their technique…their game intelligence and execution was at such a high level and set such a high standard at 10-years-old that I felt behind at 22. At my second club in Germany, both were really well known for their youth development, but at the second club, I was playing in the first team but I really knew I was going to coach so I took an assistant role with the U17s and that was an incredible experience. Our U17s played in the Bavarian state league and you’re playing the 16s from 1860 Munich, from FC Nuremberg, from Bayern and so that was a whole new standard for me. The level was just eye-opening, that players at 16, 17-years-old could play the way that they were playing. That year-and-a-half really opened my eyes to the top level of football and I spent a lot of time just watching training sessions. I would go to FC Nuremberg to watch trainings of all ages. I engrossed myself in as much as I could find on the internet because I had time. I went as much as I could around town to watch and it was a really, really eye-opening experience. I had the chance to stay on as a coach in a pro academy there, but I wanted to come back because I saw all of that and saw how far behind American players were and for me it was more about how I could coach and bring that structure to the American player that I felt like would be a game-changer because I just felt like our education of players was really far behind. That’s not an indictment of any one club or the federation or anything, but obviously Germany winning the World Cup in 2014 put them on the world stage in terms of what they were doing. I saw that process in motion when I was there in 2010 and 2011 so it made me want to come back and be a catalyst for that here in the United States. At that time I knew nothing about NorCal Premier and I still remember my first game coaching for Manteca FC when I came back. I was on the sidelines and I was coaching against Marcus Ziemer and he turns around and he goes, “hey, this guy right here played in Germany too,” and he was talking to Shawn Blakeman. That was literally my first introduction to those two guys and obviously I’ve been able to grow up as a coach in NorCal. I just wanted to work with American players at that point in time and I wanted to provide them with what I had seen around the world.

NorCal: It’s always interesting how some coaches coach their team to play in a way that’s completely different than the way they played on the field. For example, Preki’s teams always played amazing defensive soccer. You mentioned that athleticism was a big part of your game but you weren’t the most skillful and went up against players that were. How much does that influence your style as a coach now?

Ferrell: It’s huge, not that I don’t emphasize athleticism now, but I almost take it as a given in the American sporting space, that we’re going to have good athletes but what we’re missing is the perception tools and we’re missing the game intelligence and the technical execution. I mean, I remember as a player, my technique was never the best so on off days or in the morning I would just go and work on my technique. I remember one of my players from my U17s in Germany, I saw him at park and he was just working and it was totally unstructured and there was no personal trainer or anything like that but the way he was working in this little small-sided space that was there and the way he was practicing checking his shoulder and practicing different touches and different turns and different types of finishing. I watched for like half an hour before I even said hi to him. But it was so interesting to see that he was incorporating perception into what he was doing and I’ve watched countless videos or countless experts in American soccer and I look at how often we’re training habits that actually don’t translate to the game because there is no perception involved. You’re training the habit of staring at the ball the entire time where you know that that’s not the habit that you’re going to want in the game. It’s the same thing with me, I was a center back and I played some right back too, but my game was win the ball and give it to the better players and now I couldn’t play center back for me. I couldn’t construct the game the way that I ask my center backs to construct the game. Even my midfield movement for my team is something that I could never do. My forwards create space and time their runs and all that in the way that probably the best forwards that I played against didn’t even do. As a player you see the game from one perspective and then I think the really good coaches go and examine those deficiencies and then they create a way of playing that they want to see, it’s more aspirational than the limited ability that they had. And every player is limited. We can only be who we are as players and then when you become a coach you can look for the things that you actually want. Most people who knew me as a player would say I was a really good athlete who won the ball and then just gave it to people. And now you see my teams and everyone’s involved, the goalkeeper is involved, integrally in the buildup, and I want to see an aesthetically pleasing team out there knocking the ball around, dribbling, short passes and combination, all those things that I wouldn’t have been capable of doing as a player.

NorCal: Tell us about this exciting project you have going on in Oakland with the Roots.

Ferrell: Oakland Roots was actually founded as a sports club with the ambition that they will, first of all, be a game changer in the American sporting landscape. That’s been since day one. But also that there’s a clear purpose to use sport as a way to impact society and support different endeavors that are for the social good. It really has, and always has, had that clear purpose of linking and utilizing the power of sport to impact society in a positive way. That was one of the big things that I was drawn to in making the change from the Republic. That was one of the toughest decisions in my life because obviously the Republic, being the U19s and U17s coach there, and with them heading to MLS was tough to leave. But Oakland is a really cool town. I spent a lot of time there when I was in college in the East Bay. My brother lived there, a lot of my friends lived there, and it’s just a really cool place. The Oakland Roots club was built, not as a franchise in a certain league, but built to be a club for Oakland. Our start has been in NISA and it’s been really good to be with clubs that are like-minded in the independent soccer space, which has allowed us to build a foundation in football and incorporate local players. A large majority of our first and second rosters were local guys, mixed with some pros from elsewhere. I think that was a good way for us to represent the community and to inspire kids as well. It’s one thing to start up a soccer team and play and people be inspired in that way, but when you have kids who are seeing guys on the field who they know from their neighborhood, I think it’s a big difference in the level of inspiration. Our hope is that we continue to be a beacon for the community both off the field, as well as on the field. There’s a lot of talent in Northern California, especially in the Bay Area. I mean, I’ve joked with people for years before even coming to Oakland Roots, that if you just did a NorCal national team, that’s a pretty solid team. We want to be one of those that really brings some of that talent to the field and we’ve done it. We’ve got quite a few Oakland players, but also quite a few Bay Area players in our ranks. I would say the future is bright for the club. If you look at where soccer was five years ago in the United States in the professional sporting landscape, I can’t tell you what it’s going to be in five years, but I can tell you that the Oakland Roots will be here in 50 and 100 years because I know that that’s the process the club has taken. We built a community advisory board before we ever kicked a ball. Our co-founders all used the input from that community advisory board to take in diverse perspectives so that they could really have quality information about how to take the club forward and the right way to represent Oakland, the values of Oakland. Oakland is a place that really celebrates diversity and speaks truth to power. It’s well known that a lot of different aspects of the Civil Rights Movement have been intertwined in the fabric of Oakland society. You’ve had really important moments for civil rights that have happened in Oakland. I think that those concepts should be in play in the way we act as we build. Right now we’re in the process of still building the foundation of men’s soccer, but simultaneously, we’re having the conversations about women’s soccer and what that looks like for us and we want to look to what other sports can really fall under the Oakland Roots Sports Club umbrella that can really make us different. We want to rock to our own beat because that’s what Oakland is.

NorCal: You mentioned civil rights and the history of Oakland. You just wrote a piece in The Players’ Tribune about some of the issues that you’ve faced as a black man in America. What kinds of challenges have you faced growing up as a black player and now coaching as a black coach?

Ferrell: I would say that I’m very lucky to have grown up in Stockton because it was normal to see people of all ethnicities. I ran track, played basketball and baseball as well, so I was around a lot of different people and cultures. As a soccer player, it was always interesting because at that time, there weren’t a lot of black players in youth soccer. There were a lot of first generation African players, so two of the guys I grew up playing with, their parents moved here. My other two other African-American friends who played soccer, they were also born elsewhere and moved here. Those were the black people who I really interacted with in soccer, African Americans and not a lot of just black Americans. As a player, there was always this sense of like, do I really belong in this space? Do I want to play another sport, as I was told to quite a few times. I really only saw a few people who looked like me playing professional soccer back then. I always thought that the sports world was merit-based, I now know better, that it’s not just merit-based, that there are a whole lot of other factors involved. I still believe that it isn’t the color of my skin that would make me superior or inferior, but the quality of my football and the quality of my work. I was lucky enough to always have good coaches who created a very inclusive environment. I would say that the tide is changing on blacks participation in soccer as well. I’ve seen so many more, not just first or second generation African Americans, but I’m seeing black Americans in the youth soccer space and now in the professional space a lot more and I think that’s incredible because the game has been in all of these communities. For a long time, those players who played the game to a certain point then were stacked into other sports because they could see black professionals in those sports. You only saw basketball or (American) football on TV. Now soccer is global and kids see the guys who look like them: Boateng, Kompany, Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane. And so I think that’s changing for black Americans where they see soccer as something they can stay in. You have young guys like Chris Richards, for example, who more-than-likely 10 years ago would have been pushed into other sports, but now they’re maintaining their love for the sport and they’re finding better pathways to support their professional aspirations through 19, 20, and now look at where they are overseas. Visibility creates comfort with possibility and trajectory. Remember Di Stefano and Maradona came before Messi. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in three of the most diverse cities in the United States for incredibly supportive organizations, but soccer hasn’t really been the space where ethnic minorities can make it through to the top off the field. Transitioning to coaching, I was very lucky to start coaching in the Central Valley and also start working with NorCal. You know, NorCal as an organization, I’ve always felt like is trying to do their part to try to make elite football open to ethnic minorities. I worked in PDP for five years and it’s a free program that was about creating access and getting kids into the system, which is literally the hardest part. If you look at the Central Valley, there’s so much talent there that’s outside of the system. That’s also true in the Bay Area, the North Bay, on the coast. There’s all this talent that we know exists but we don’t have a mechanism to get into the system. I always give a lot of credit to (NorCal President Benjamin Ziemer) as the head of it all, but everybody else in that leadership of NorCal and especially the PDP program because there are so many different kids and families whose lives have changed…like I grew up in ODP but I didn’t actually play. I went to the tryouts and paid the $25 to tryout and I got selected twice for the state team and in both cases my parents couldn’t afford it. They may have been able to afford the shirt and participation, but they knew it was going to involve travel that they just couldn’t afford. With PDP, that’s the barrier that they break. That’s the barrier that they remove so that young, talented kids can have access, can see the world, and can use football to change their family. That was my beginnings as a coach here in the United States, getting involved in that program and seeing the real push that they have to make, to make a free selection program accessible, but I also worked at a junior college, I worked at a Division I college, I worked in the youth club space, and the youth academy space, and that was always really interesting. When I was at Monarcas, it was pay-to-play, but we knew we weren’t going to be able to charge these exorbitant fees. I was probably one of the lowest paid club coaches when you’re talking about the level of play that we were at, but I didn’t really care about getting paid as much — I had a job at the college that was paying my bills so that I could work at the club and provide an avenue for players who were outside of the system. Some of those players went professional, some of those players went to college and got degrees and will really have had that experience change their families. A lot of those players were minorities, they were Hispanic, they were black, they didn’t know how to navigate the system and my whole goal was to provide them with tools that would give them that. But the other piece that I have always said was really key was that it’s not a homogenous group. I’ve always tried to create teams, and have luckily been in places where it’s easy to create teams, where the diversity was there. We’re talking about Asian players, white players, black players, Hispanic players. That actually, for me, is the best dynamic because that way players that are in their own social circles outside are getting very first-hand relationship building with people who don’t walk the same walk as them. So they become so much more familiar with another walk of life because it’s their teammates’ experience that’s real. So the white guys can talk about being white and people can comfortably deal with their whiteness and some of their prejudices. I’ve seen times where one guy says something and people are like, “dude, for real? Nah, come on, let’s talk about that.” And now that guy is going to go back and talk to his friends and change the way that they speak because he’s more enlightened. And so I’m lucky to have coached in the places that I’ve coached because what we’re seeing now in society really is that there’s been a group of people, a large group of people, who haven’t really had a voice, or they’ve tried to have a voice. And then on the other side who say that these things aren’t really that big of an issue. Well, you know, it is an issue. It is some people’s lived experience. And if it’s not your lived experience…for example, my mother is white and my dad is black. There’s so many times where my dad talks about his experiences where my mom just can’t understand fully because they weren’t her experiences. It’s not that my mom is wrong in that, it’s just that in order for her to empathize with him, she needs to listen and really listen with an open mind and that’s what I tried to create in those teams and still try to create in our teams. When the incidents happened a couple of weeks ago, George Floyd obviously, it was horrendous to watch that and all of the emotion involved in it and being in the moment that we are with the coronavirus pandemic where we aren’t able to come together in our locker room and talk, we’ve got to do it over Zoom. And in that way it’s just painful because with things that emotional, you want to be able to look guys in their face, you want to be able to see their body language, you want to be able to put your arm around some guys. I give a lot of credit to our club, our leadership, our president, our CMO, who really made it, as leaders of the club, made it very clear to other leaders in our space that, one, we’re Oakland Roots, so we have to be in this space, we have to be a voice, but we also want people to use the platform of Oakland Roots as a way to voice their opinions on these topics. And then we also want to support our players and our people in the front office in protest, but we want to be safe about it, we want to be smart about it. Protesting is a really important part of the American system so for us, and I know that there are clubs who have told their players and personnel not to protest, that’s not us. We said, “hey, we’ll give you extra masks. What do you need to be safe at these protests?” Because that’s what Oakland Roots is. So that felt really good as a coach, to confidently say to my team that, “we support you in this.” But at the same time, as I wrote in my Players’ Tribune article, I know what it’s like to be in my early 20’s and have a feeling towards the police that they don’t like me so I don’t like them. Not because I hate them but to guard myself. I can’t walk into a place with police officers and just assume that everybody’s going to be cool with me. I have to assume that one or two of those police officers could do something that I need to be prepared for. And that’s the real experience of a black person in the United States. Not every single person has the same experience. Obviously the George Floyd experience for me, I’ve had a knee on my back, I’ve had a gun to the back of my head by a police officer. So that (officer) obviously didn’t crush me in that moment, but that emotion is revisited when you see that. What I wanted from my players, and this is also a really important part of just being a black man, is you’re really taught not to feel emotion as a black man. I would say that nine out of 10 black guys would say that you’re taught at a young age to not show your emotions so you learn strategies to not show emotion because emotion is tied to weakness. Well, at this moment, there’s so much going on that I had to pull a couple of my players aside. We did an open forum for our players and front office staff, we’ve been doing a Friday call where everyone in the club gets on and we talk about some of the things that are going on in society and also give updates on what’s going on with the different departments of the club. We opened the space for anybody who wanted to share and none of the players wanted to. It’s not because they don’t want to talk about it, it’s because they don’t feel confident talking in front of others. One of the people in our front office, a black women, shared a really powerful bit about her because she has a 17-year-old son and I thought that was a good icebreaker for our guys to realize that that this woman has lived experiences, she’s grew up in Oakland, but also she has a 17-year-old son so she’s looking at it from a mother’s perspective. So I arranged a call and told a couple of players to get anybody on the call who they were comfortable talking to and don’t get anybody who they weren’t comfortable talking to. And this wasn’t to exclude anyone because the flip side is I have an entire team to think of and I need to think of the white players and the Hispanic players who have never really engaged in conversations around diversity, around ethnicity, around lived experiences, around police brutality, around social justice. I have to be sensitive that this is something that they might be confronting for the first time in a social space where they’re required to talk and going to be listening to really dynamic conversations about these topics. First and foremost, I wanted to deal with the players who I know have had experiences like this, and include in that Amy Cooper incident because that’s a really powerful example of showing the privilege that white women have over black men. So I got these guys on a call and really just said, “hey, let’s talk.” To hear where they were about it was really important because at the end of it all, I want them to feel like they’re in a place in a moment in time that they can affect change. That they can really be vocal about how they’re feeling and to orient that in the right direction, not to orient that in a hate of police because I don’t believe in that. My best friend, who’s half black and half white, is a police officer. I can’t get down with hating police. But police as an institution and the way it’s been constructed? I would say my only experience with the police where they were actually there to serve and protect was when I was in Germany. Here, they’re not even crime stoppers. The crime has happened and they’re there to follow up afterwards. I didn’t want our guys to go out there and be a part of the riots and the continuing hatred because that’s not productive. I wanted our guys to really recognize the possibility of moving the needle rather drastically because of the moment in time and where they are playing currently, which really, I think, athletes, musicians, artists, they have a really important position in society. I’m just trying to make guys aware of that. I tried to share some of my experiences with them so that they knew where I was coming from. I don’t share those things with everybody because I don’t believe that’s always productive. I’ve told that story (of the officer putting a gun to my head) to a couple of people and you’d be surprised about how many people, prior to this George Floyd event, who said, “nah, man, that didn’t happen.” They weren’t saying, “oh, man, well maybe it was something else.” I have had people literally tell me that that didn’t happen. And I said, “wait, what? You’re telling me that this experience that I know happened, didn’t happen?” But that’s just cognitive dissonance, right? They can’t fathom that that would happen to somebody because that hasn’t happened to them or anybody they know or they haven’t seen it. I’m very lucky to be coaching at Oakland Roots because that was part of our partnership with Common Goal. Sharing that story has been really well-received by a lot of people. I’ve heard a lot of people have appreciation for me putting that story out there because you’ve got so many people who feel as if they don’t know somebody who has suffered from that type of injustice, but they would be surprised of maybe how many people they know who have gone through that. For me to be able to share, and confidently share, and not feel like it’s going to affect my job, but actually feel as though the people around me are supporting me in that way, I’m lucky. I’m lucky to be where I’m at for sure.

NorCal: You mentioned Common Goal and in your article, you and the Roots pledged one percent of your salaries to their cause. Tell us more about this project.

Ferrell: Common Goal was started by Juan Mata and Megan Rapinoe. Klopp is on now and there are quite a few other players and football people who have jumped on it. People always wonder how to do something, how to affect change. For a lot of professional footballers, they make really good money, so one percent of their salary is actually quite a bit. Common Goal came along and just said, “what are the social ills that we can attack?” If you look at, I think it’s the World Health Organization, they have 17 social ills that they put to the forefront and recognize as the biggest issues currently. So Common Goal is a way to get people who want to affect change in one of those spaces. It’s to create a link. What it is is everybody wants a better society, everybody wants a better world. Whether it’s hunger, whether it’s income inequality, whether it’s a whole host of different issues. Our club, as I said from the beginning, there’s a big power in sport and our club has always said that we want to harness that for that purpose. As a club, we elected to sign on, whereas a lot of it is individual (contributions). It’s been something that we’ve been doing since the start because our Chief Purpose Officer has been involved with Common Goal and knows the platform as well as the good work that they’re doing — it’s not unknown to our organization. But it was really a way for us to join the global conversation and join on with other people who have the same ideals as us. One percent is a negligible amount when you look at it, but it can have a really big impact especially when almost everyone in our organization pledges that amount. For us it’s the ability to learn from what other people are doing, maybe elsewhere in the Common Goal organization, how people are affecting change in different places. We really have a purpose within our own local community to target those issues in Oakland or other issues in Oakland that might be big. That might allow us in our network of Common Goal to say, “hey, person in Paris, or someplace across the world, you’re fighting this battle and you’re using your resources in this way, but let’s share best practices so you can improve your fight and we can improve our fight.” So that’s a big part of joining Common Goal, not just to do it, but the exchange of ideas that comes from being connected with other people who are doing similar type work all around the world.

NorCal: So how can the group of people, who aren’t necessarily discriminated against or maybe don’t share the same lived experiences as you, still help out?

Ferrell: I was talking to my grandfather the other day. He grew up in East Texas and was in the army and has lived a lot of life. He was saying that for him this is the first time that he’s seen the front lines of protests as a very diverse space. It’s not just black people with a couple of white people supporting them. It’s Hispanic people, indiginous people, white people, Asian people, and black people all fighting against injustice. What I would say to allies and people who desire to be allies is the No. 1 thing that you can do is listen and educate yourself. There’s so many good resources out there that really shed light on the structures that have continued oppression of people of color, long after slavery was quote-unquote abolished. So listening and trying to actually learn about what people of color are trying to voice, for me that’s one of the big first steps because so often people have just said, “I don’t want to listen to that,” or, “that isn’t entertaining.” And it might bring you to tears, it might challenge your entire view of society, view of government. And that’s the hardest part, that is the hardest part, that if you’ve grown up believing that something is good and designed to help people and now the curtain is being pulled back and you’re realizing that that was designed to hurt people, that was designed to continue impression, that’s something that you have to come to terms with. So by listening and really doing the work to learn, I think what you’ll find is that you’ll become more empathetic. You won’t view events, when you see them on TV, as, “oh, well, they must have done something.” Well even if they did do something, maybe there was a preset bias towards how the situation happened. So that’s No. 1. And then No. 2, I think is have those same conversations with the people around you because there can be very good conversations had amongst white people about how to change their ways of thinking and their practices. If you’re somebody who owns a business, I’m not saying that you have to go out and only hire people of color, but to be able to step back and go, “okay, what’s my bias in the hiring process? And how do I combat that bias?” Because hiring bias is very real, there’s been tons of research on it, but some people refuse to do the learning part, they refuse to learn about hiring bias to be able to change their practices. I think the positive conversations that people are having, and at the end of the day, race is a social construction, it’s not a biological construction, race is a social construction, so what we’re saying is if you can step back and look at people as human beings first and treat people the way that you want to be treated, you’ll end up treating people well. I think the more that you learn about how the system of oppression has been set up, how the people of color view the world because of certain things that have happened in history or just the way that our society is built, I feel like as an ally, you can be more empathetic and more importantly, you can stand up for what is right in the right moments because you’re more aware. If you’re not aware, you’re going to keep silent or fly away from a conversation that could change somebody’s life and I think that’s a good, really important step for society. People now, more than ever, want to understand and want to learn and want to hear about things that have always kind of been taboo to talk about. I certainly feel like we’re moving forward.