Working together to Inspire Change
Steelers players continue to make a difference in the community through social justice programs they are spearheading
By Teresa Varley Dec 17, 2021

Inspire change.

Two words that on their own can have so many meanings. But when they come together, their meaning can be extraordinarily powerful.

And when Steelers players come together to inspire change, the difference it can make can't even be measured.

Over the last few years, inspire change has become more than just words for the Steelers and those around the NFL. It's become a call to action as a part of the league's Inspire Change Initiative. It's an opportunity for players to use their voices, their actions, and their hearts to make a difference. And Steelers players are doing just that as in 2020 they formed a Social Justice Committee, a player-designed and player-run group that engages with the community on a personal level to address issues.

The program focuses multiple facets, including the following that the Steelers focus on: the educational achievement gap, police and community relations, criminal justice reform and violence in the community, in particular gun violence.

For the Steelers it began, and continues, with the team's Social Justice Fund. Since 2018, players have been giving to local causes as part of this program, as well as ones in their hometowns, that focus on social justice issues. The donations are all matched by the Steelers, helping many organizations continue to be able to do their work, including during the pandemic.

Steelers President Art Rooney II has been behind the program from the beginning, working early on with the players to give them the support they need to make their voice heard in the community, while at the same time making sure the program is one that is driven solely by the players.

"We've been fortunate to have many of our players get involved in the community down the years, as well as our alumni," said Rooney. "The social justice fund has helped the players, particularly those who aren't all that familiar with charitable giving, find the right place to make a donation.

"There are a lot of needs in our community. Having our players be able to partner with some of these agencies that are in the communities trying to make a difference is great to see. We're happy as an organization to match their contribution so that we can even make a bigger difference."

Cameron Heyward helped to kick off the Social Justice Fund for 2021 by making a $50,000 donation to the Homewood Children's Village and a $50,000 donation to Gwen's Girls, both of which were matched by the team. A number of Heyward's teammates also donated to both of the organizations.

"Helping the Homewood area has always been important to me," said Heyward, who has given to the organization since the inception of the Social Justice Fund. "Homewood Children's Village has so many people that depend on that that space. It's a great tool for kids growing up, adults to use the space, to help them grow. Not many places are that dedicated to being safe havens for youth to adults.

"And I did some homework and I got to meet some people that are involved with Gwen's Girls. I think it's really cool how they help young women and work spiritually, holistically, educationally and socially as well. They really do try to look out for these young women. I love what they stand for.

"I think donating is only one aspect of it. I talk about giving back to my community, whether it's my time, or making a donation. I was raised to give back to others and be thankful for what you have. Hopefully I can emulate this for younger guys and just for people in general, to give them a chance to give back because so many people need our help. Our youth need to be given every opportunity."

And giving youth an opportunity is what has inspired so many of the programs the Social Justice Committee has undertaken this year, many of them hands on working directly with community groups.

"There are multiple levels of engagement that I think the players wanted to get involved with," said Blayre Holmes, the Steelers Director of Community Relations. "Our guys want to be hands on. They're in schools and with organizations that are doing this work, having conversations and also talking about what's the best way for them to be involved and engaged. It's a deeper involvement, building upon the work that they have done."

“I talk about giving back to my community, whether it's my time, or making a donation. I was raised to give back to others and be thankful for what you have. Hopefully I can emulate this for younger guys and just for people in general, to give them a chance to give back because so many people need our help. Our youth need to be given every opportunity." Cam Heyward

Some of the work they are doing in the community includes social justice movie screenings where the players are joined by youth from local community groups, giving them an opportunity to talk about issues in society that are currently impacting them.

Linebacker Alex Highsmith, who is on the Social Justice Committee, selected Remember the Titans to watch with area kids, something he enjoyed as much as they did.

"It was cool to see their reactions to the movie, but just being able to be there for them as a source of hope for kids right now is the most important thing," said Highsmith. "These kids can then go on to be a source of hope for their friends. Sometimes people can be raised the wrong way. When they get to that age, where they're able to learn more on their own and be around good influences, that provides a sense of unity for them to be able to talk openly with their peers.

"I'm a firm believer that the next generation is our best generation. It's important to be able to impact kids. It's a good thing to be able to be involved in the community. A lot of things are going on in the world and the nation right now. For us to have a presence in our community is a big thing. To impact kid's lives, especially now with the violence going on around the city. Being there for them, providing them a sense of hope and encouragement is really important."

A sad reality right now in Pittsburgh, and nationwide, is gun violence.

Every day more than 100 people are killed with guns in the United States.

More than 30 people have been killed because of gun violence in Pittsburgh this year alone, and more than 100 others injured.

The Steelers are doing what they can to raise awareness for those who are trying to find a solution to the problem, through conversations, through talking to youth and through a series of PSAs highlighting organizations battling the gun violence pandemic.

"A good chunk of the team actually comes from areas that are riddled with gun violence and having experienced it, they understand the importance of stopping it," said guard Kevin Dotson. "The more we get out and actually talk to the youth, sympathize with them and what they go through daily because of our own experience, the more it helps. It helps kids to know they aren't the only people going through these tough times, that we have too.

"I know people who lost brothers, cousins, family to gun violence. I know when you lose somebody abruptly it can really mess up some people's future. Some people can't move on from it, and it turns into more gun violence. We need to try to stop that cycle. That is one of my main concerns.

"I don't like to see people go through turmoil, go through any type of real pain. This is preventable, things that have solutions and stuff like that. I want to try and stop it."

He isn't alone. Tackle Zach Banner, who is also on the Social Justice Committee, has worked with an organization, MOMS GROUP Inc., that is made up of moms who lost a child to gun violence or something similar.

Banner supported the efforts to stop gun violence through his cleats as a part of My Cause/My Cleats and wants to continue to find a solution to the problem.

"I think it's relevant in the City of Pittsburgh, in the heart of Pittsburgh, especially some of the neighborhoods on the East side, inner city Pittsburgh where they need help with the gun violence," said Banner. "My city back home, East Tacoma, Washington needs help with gun violence. It's a topic we have to keep talking about. We have to do what we can to keep it out there to help control it.

"We are creating a natural spotlight that comes with our platform. We are able to shine it on things way more important than football."

Banner not only hopes there is a way out there to stop the violence, but he also wants to be sure those who are impacted have someone in their corner.

"Whatever the conflict is, it's not worth a life being taken away," said Banner. "Regardless of the situation, it's important to shine light and create empathy for the families who are impacted by it."

With all the programs the team and the social justice program is involved with, it starts with education.

It starts with knowing where the problems are, and how to go about addressing them. That is why the team initiated a Social Justice Education Series. This is an internal program, where community group leaders work with the players to help them be an advocate for causes.

"It's important to educate yourself first and understand all the different factors and make sure you understand where everybody comes from," said Heyward. "We're in a world that is constantly changing, but we need to equip ourselves to help out everybody and not everybody gets a fair shake. I can only speak for myself, but I want to make sure that everybody goes about their life safe. I want to make sure I give kids a future that is worth living for."

One of the main speakers, chosen by Heyward to talk to the Social Justice Committee and the rookie class, was Reverend Paul Abernathy, who leads the Neighborhood Resilience Project.

"The first thing that people need to do is educate themselves on the drivers of these major social issues," said Abernathy. "A lot of times these issues seem so overwhelming that we do not know where to begin. And in fact, there are solutions to the problems. We need to familiarize ourselves with the problems as well as potential solutions. Then we need to build coalitions that are able to execute the very things that can mitigate these negative drivers. It also helps to build protective factors in these communities. And if that is done, it's very, very possible to see real change of some of these very old issues."

The team also works with the same organization on Meet at the 50-Yard Line, a program with local schools to discuss gun violence in neighborhoods and encourage the kids to stay positive.

The influence the players can have on the young lives is something Abernathy said is invaluable. Their voices carry weight that others might not, and the more their voices can be heard, the better.

"If they put their mind to it and move in a concerted way with one another and key regional partners, they could truly transform our community," said Abernathy. "Their level of respect and admiration that they carry with them gives them an ability to inspire change that few can. I believe they recognize that and are really working to leverage the credibility that they have in a way that really helps many lives.

"I don't even believe that we can measure the impact that it can have on our younger population. Young folks, like all Pittsburghers, are enamored with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Whenever we see these guys, when the young folks see these men taking time to show an interest in their lives. It is not only inspiring to them, it's also incredibly healing to them. I believe the healing that comes from these interactions with Pittsburgh Steelers players is the kind of impact that truly leads to transformation in very profound ways, ways that can inspire change."

And that is what the goal is, to inspire change.

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