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February 3, 2021

Denver Broncos Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons was asked at the virtual culmination event of the RISE Super Bowl Leadership Program on Feb. 2 what he felt youth needed to do to become leaders for change in their community.

After listening to student participants from the program talk about the projects they had created to address racial inequity in our education systems, Simmons said he was being asked the wrong question.

“That's easy,” said Simmons. “I would actually challenge the 'adults' on this call to really listen to our youth and to follow their lead, and to buy into the ideals and truths that they're standing on.”

This season, RISE expanded its Super Bowl Leadership Program beyond the 2021 host city of Tampa, Florida, to engage students across the country. Beginning with virtual sessions in November 2020, the RISE Super Bowl Leadership Program focused on racial inequities in education, empowering these young leaders to advocate for meaningful change in their communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic as well as a turbulent and tragic year that led to a national reckoning on race only served to highlight and expand the systemic racism in the American education network.

“What is the education system supposed to do? If nothing else, one of the promises of the American Dream is that, through something like the education system, we are creating meritocracy. That if everyone gets this education, they do have this opportunity to go on and succeed and realize their fullest potential,” said RISE VP, Curriculum, Dr. Andrew Mac Intosh. “But what we've seen and one of the challenges is people do not in fact have a similar experience when going through the education system. People aren't having the same experience, and there are huge disparities that are distinguishable by people's race, socioeconomic status and areas that they live in.”

Said Isansa, a high school participant from Tampa: “Everyone deserves a fair opportunity in their education, and we should start recognizing there are inequities in the educational system.”

So participants not only learned to recognize those inequities but were challenged to produce written, visual or audio projects that outline specific changes they hope to see in their community, state or the country to reduce racial injustices in the education system. In a virtual format that created valuable connections among high school and collegiate athletes, professional athletes, coaches and other community leaders from all over the country, participants were challenged to lean on their program teammates to creatively develop ways to inspire change.

In all, the RISE Super Bowl Leadership Program brought together young leaders from Denver, Los Angeles, Southeast Michigan, Tampa and other parts of the country.

“Coming from a community that doesn't have much diversity, I like hearing what other people experience and it's just eye opening for me,” said Elyse, a high school participant from Southeast Michigan. “Through hearing other people's stories, I can bring those stories back to my community and I can say this is exactly what is happening and this is why we need to focus on diversity and we need to focus on getting to a point of equality and equity. I can be a leader in my community talking about my experience in this program.”

Throughout the program, collegiate and professional athletes and leaders in sports joined sessions to speak with participants.

“It's inspiring and motivating to see them,” Alex, a Southeast Michigan high school participant, said of interacting with athletes and coaches. “They're already at the highest level of their sport and them being able to empower others gives me more motivation to get to where they are and have an effect on kids like me when I'm older.”

Said Jacques McClendon, Director of Player Engagement of the Los Angeles Rams, who joined a December session: “It's encouraging that youth are wanting to do the great work to move the needle and make sure everyone has equitable opportunities and equitable visibility. This is the work that matters most.”

On Feb. 2 during the week of Super Bowl LV, the RISE Super Bowl Leadership Program concluded with a culmination event that included participants, their families and sports leaders – who walked away from the event in awe of the dedication of the program's youth participants to build a better future. Simmons, Molly Higgins, Vice President of Community Engagement for the Rams and Jesse Washington of ESPN's The Undefeated joined the event for a roundtable discussion with some of the participants.

“I grew up going to a prestigious [white] boarding school and now I'm at a predominantly white institution… and the first time I ever learned about the Black Panther group or Malcolm X, from these people who I am paying, was my sophomore year of college,” said Trinity Monteiro, a former RISE intern and senior at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “There's a lot of absence of information [in what's taught in schools]. There are a lot of groups and people who have just been erased from history… What I want people to take away is to just hear every perspective, challenge your own perspective and then challenge yourself to think about who's missing from this story.”

Simmons, a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee, worked with Denver youth in 2020 as part of a RISE Multi-Week Leadership Program with the Broncos and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Denver. Two of the participants Simmons worked with, Nashara and RayRay from Denver, are organizing a march for peace in their neighborhood later this spring, and now Simmons plans on joining them.

“It can be a scary realm to step into, so I applaud all of you who are stepping up and fighting the good fight and speaking out and making legitimate change in our communities,” said Simmons. “Keep doing what you're doing, and you'll always have a friend in myself supporting you. You guys inspire me with all the hard work you're doing.”

To view the participants' final projects, visit risetowin.org/champions and click “Meet Our Champions of Change.”

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