Rodney McLeod can feel the pain.
McLeod and his wife, Erika, frequently visit high schools around Philadelphia. During their conversations with the students, gun violence is a reoccurring topic that has impacted far too many of the youth in the city.
Tears are shed. Frustration mounts. There is a sense of desperation in the air. The kids just want to be ... kids.
"Ever since I arrived in Philadelphia as a free agent in 2016, this has been my home," said McLeod, the team's nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2020. "It hurts to see so much heartache and suffering in our communities as a result of these senseless acts of violence. We are losing family members, friends, mentors, role models, and future leaders because of the gun violence in our streets. No one should ever have to live in fear of going to school, hanging out at the playground, or just walking out the front door. Yet, for so many in our communities, they do."
According to the City Controller's Office, there were a record 562 homicides committed in Philadelphia last year, a 13% increase from 2020, and 486 involved a gun. In total, there were 2,327 shooting victims. To help combat this troubling crisis affecting thousands of families and communities across the region, the Philadelphia Eagles are launching a targeted, multilayered anti-gun violence campaign in conjunction with area-based nonprofits and the City of Philadelphia.
To start, the Eagles Social Justice Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation is awarding $316,600 in grants to 32 Philadelphia nonprofits committed to serving the region through specialized social justice work. The Eagles Social Justice Leadership Council, comprised of players and club executives, works to identify grant recipients and secures contributions to the Eagles Social Justice Fund. The Fund is built through donations from players and the club. Players on the council include McLeod, Shaun Bradley, Dallas Goedert, Brandon Graham, Anthony Harris, Jordan Howard, Avonte Maddox, Miles Sanders, and K'Von Wallace.
In addition to the grant funding, the Eagles and the City of Philadelphia have created EndPhillyGunViolence.com, a resource website designed to aggregate information and steer young people to proven and effective help. The website will be complemented by a robust social media and PSA campaign, which will serve as an important call to action to end gun violence once and for all.
"This isn't going to be a campaign that ends once the season stops because change isn't going to happen overnight," McLeod said. "I hope this campaign brings attention outside of Philadelphia to what's going on here, encourages others to want to get involved, encourages the people here to look a little closer at themselves and our communities, at our children, to see what we're actually doing. We're stripping and taking lives from one another, particularly African American males. We've talked about how Black Lives Matter and we have to really live that out as a Black community and be there for our own people. It's frustrating when you see your race just deteriorating."
Harris grew up in a single-parent home in Richmond, Virginia, and he credited his support system in helping keep him on the right track. His work in the community has allowed him to see how much more of a struggle that is over the past year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. People either lost their jobs or had their hours cut back, resulting in financial instability when it might have been a tightrope walk to begin with. The resources needed for virtual learning exposed the educational inequality in neighborhoods where the residents are most likely minorities. The stress leads to mental health struggles that bubble below the surface. Adults feel like there's no way out. Children think they are forgotten, falling through the cracks of society. People are fighting just to survive and, in turn, choose violence.
"Education is the gateway to success and to opportunities," McLeod said. "We ultimately put them in a position to have a bigger and brighter future, understanding that through them, through the next generation, that can bring about change. We just want to afford all those kids the opportunities to succeed ultimately."
"I am inspired by our players for the way they have leveraged the Eagles Social Justice Fund this year to address one of our city's most concerning issues – gun violence," said Jeffrey Lurie, Philadelphia Eagles Chairman & CEO. "I stand with them in their efforts and am grateful for those who have joined us in helping to create safer, more equitable communities for all Philadelphians to live in peacefully."
Gun violence has permeated into areas of society that were once considered safe havens for children.
In 2019, the Eagles hosted a high school football game between Camden and Pleasantville after it was postponed due to a fatal shooting in the stands. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident of gun violence affecting high school teams in the area.
"It's why it's so important that we have our arms around them and be able to work with them on a daily basis," said Pat Montgomery, Head Coach of Boys' Latin High School's football team. Kaylin "K.J." Johnson, who would have been the team's quarterback this past season, was killed over the summer.
"It was hard going into the season and looking to your right and your left and those guys weren't there," said Chester High School quarterback Isaiah Freeman.
"The players are not playing for the game, not for themselves, but for the guys," said Chester High School's LaDontay Bell, who has lost players to gun violence during his six years as head coach. Chester went undefeated and won the United X League this past spring, made up of teams that missed the 2020 fall season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After speaking with his teammates and hearing the stories in and around the city of the lives stolen by gun violence, Harris asked, "How can I use my platform and some of the resources I have to help uplift, encourage, or support the community?"
Enough keeping score. The End Philly Gun Violence campaign looks to provide hope, inspire people to act, and empower leaders in the community who are already doing the work.
"I think it's a big step," Harris said.
|Social Justice Nonprofit Recipient||Area of Concentration||Grant Funding|
|Chester Community Coalition (project of Urban Affairs Coalition)||Ending Gun Violence||$15,000|
|Education Law Center||Educational Equality / Reform||$15,000|
|ManUpPHL||Ending Gun Violence||$15,000|
|Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence||Mentoring||$10,600|
|100 Black Men Philadelphia Chapter||Mentoring||$10,000|
|Community Legal Services||Poverty||$10,000|
|Drexel University Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice||Mental Health||$10,000|
|Face to Face||Poverty||$10,000|
|FathersRead365||Educational Equality / Reform||$10,000|
|Frontline Dads Inc.||Mentoring||$10,000|
|Girls on the Run Philadelphia||Sports-Based Youth Development||$10,000|
|New Leash on Life USA||Workforce Development||$10,000|
|Pennsylvania Innocence Project||Criminal Justice Reform||$10,000|
|Philadelphia Auto and Parole, Inc.||Workforce Development||$10,000|
|Philadelphia Futures||Education / College Access||$10,000|
|Police Athletic League of Philadelphia||Community / Police Relations Reform||$10,000|
|Sankofa Healing Studio||Mental Health||$10,000|
|Steppingstone Scholars||Educational Equality / Reform||$10,000|
|Summer Search Philadelphia||Mentoring||$10,000|
|The Anthony Harris Foundation, Inc.||Poverty||$10,000|
|United Way of Delaware||Support of Black-Owned Businesses||$10,000|
|University of Pennsylvania Netter Center for Community Partnerships||Poverty||$10,000|
|Why Not Prosper||Support of Formerly Incarcerated Women||$10,000|
|Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project||Criminal Justice Reform||$10,000|
|Youth Service, Inc.||Poverty||$10,000|
|Change Our Future Foundation||Educational Equality / Reform||$5,000|
|Philadelphia Youth Football Academy||Sports-Based Youth Development||$5,000|
|Strawberry Mansion Area Renaissance Trust Corporation||Community / Police Relations Reform||$5,000|
|Motivating Young Moms||Mentoring||$1,000|