While the Chicago Bears practice in suburban Lake Forest during the week, the team is focused on leaving a positive influence on the city where they spend Sundays.
Last season, in the wake of a national conversation around professional athletes and social justice, after the NFL announced an initiative that promised each team would match up to $250,000 of their players' donations to social justice efforts, a group of civic-minded Bears players formed a social justice committee to use their platform and financial resources to support local nonprofit organizations aimed at addressing the roots of these issues.
"One of the reasons that I came to Chicago is that I wanted to do stuff in the community," said tight end Trey Burton, one of the committee's first members. "When we found out that the NFL was going to match up to $250,000, a couple of guys got together and were like, 'Hey there are already guys doing some cool things in the city. Instead of doing it individually, let's figure out a way to get everybody together and do kind of the same thing.'"
Through the framework provided by the NFL, the social justice committee divides its mission into three components: education, criminal justice reform and community-police relations. Over the last two seasons, the players' social justice initiative has invested and raised $957,450 through donations and matching grants from the team, Bears Care and NFL Foundation for 10 different organizations including Breakthrough Urban Ministries, By The Hand Club For Kids, Dovetail Project, HerStory, Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, Kicks 4 the City, Lawndale Christian Legal Center-Community Restorative Justice Hub, My Block, My Hood, My City, Saga Education and YWCA Lake County.
"We play a core role in the violence reduction partnerships in Chicago," said Nonviolence Chicago founder Teny Gross, "adding a comprehensive blend of services which include victim services as well as outreach, case management, nonviolence training and community organizing. We are incredibly grateful to be partners with the Chicago Bears because altruistic collaborations and community commitments are key to dismantling violence and building a more peaceful Chicago."
Through recommendations from the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the committee began to donate time and resources to organizations focused on the growth of individuals, such as the Dovetail Project and My Block, My Hood, My City. The latter, called M3 for short, was founded by Jahmal Cole in 2014. Sheldon Smith began the Dovetail Project five years earlier.
The Dovetail Project helps African-American fathers between the ages of 17 and 24. In the program's 11-week course, participants develop their professional and parenting skills as well as sharpen their awareness of felony street law. Graduation includes a GED or trade certification and a $450 stipend.
In a decade of operation, the Dovetail Project has gone from the initial nine participants to handling 120 cases a year. Over 515 young men on the South and West Sides have graduated from the program.
Smith's efforts grew from his own experience. He started the project as a 20-year-old who had recently become a father himself.
"I grew up with my father in and out of my life," said Smith. "Then, I became a dad. I wanted to do something different to address the fatherhood issue."
Dovetail's relationship with the Bears began with a trip to Halas Hall last fall, where 13 fathers were able to watch practice and mingle with players. Meeting with the fathers after training and building that personal connection helped keep the work Dovetail does and young men they serve top-of-mind for Bears players.
Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky set aside his tickets to the December game against the Dallas Cowboys for Dovetail students. Receiver and Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee Allen Robinson II donated Super Bowl tickets as well.
One player, who wishes to remain anonymous, donated $13,000 to be split among 13 different fathers to pay for Christmas expenses. Two other players also made donations to Dovetail through the social justice initiative. They will also receive matching grants from the team, Bears Care and NFL Foundation.
Smith sees the interaction between his students and Bears players as a way to improve morale and find positive role models.
"The communities that they come from and live in," said Smith, "it's hard to find inspiration. You have the chance to see some of the people who you look up to and see them work. As a young person looking to build yourself as a professional, it's always great."
Cole started M3 to help curb what he sees as a destructive cycle in struggling neighborhoods and the segmentation of the city. Cole's idea took root after working with incarcerated men who had lived their entire lives in Chicago, yet had never visited the Loop. M3 works to expand the goals of young people in the city beyond the under-resourced areas in which they live.
Cole's mission became more salient as more teens on the South and West Sides became entwined with the violence as victims, bystanders and, all too often, perpetrators.
"Ultimately, our mission is to interrupt trauma," said Cole.
The description of young men and women spending their entire adolescence within a mile radius of their home struck a chord with Burton, who was raised by a single mother in a small town in Central Florida.
"I know specifically for a kid that might be similar to me," said Burton, "knowing that there is a better opportunity than where you're at or there's more than what you see, and what you've done your whole life, you can better yourself and then the next generation."
Donations from the Bears' social justice initiative in 2018 funded 120 entrants into M3's Explorer Program during 2019, which takes youths from under-resourced neighborhoods on a series of 10 excursions a year to discover the cultural and educational opportunities that exist in the city outside of their home neighborhoods. Experiences varied from the visceral to the practical. Explorers went to SkyDeck Chicago at the top of the Willis Tower to get a perfect view of their city as well as a River West tech incubator to learn about the opportunities in the industry.
M3 also received a $15,100 donation this past fall through the classic jersey and helmet auction and matching Bears Care grant; they were joined on the field pregame on December 5 for a check presentation with Akiem Hicks, one of the five players on the social justice committee. Saga Education, which serves historically under-served young people through personalized, consistent and caring tutorials that result in youth gaining confidence and academic strength, also received a $15,100 donation through the auction and matching Bears Care grant.
Beyond the money, however, Cole appreciated the outreach from the organization, which included a visit to Halas Hall. Coach Matt Nagy gave Cole a copy of "The Captain Class" by Sam Walker, a book about leadership in sports and elsewhere.
"We're proud to be working with coach Nagy and the Chicago Bears on social justice work in Chicago," said Cole. "They've shown great leadership."
While the South and West Sides have seen positive trends in the past few years, particularly in the form of falling crime rates, organizers like Cole and Smith are focused on personal victories.
"We alone can't keep youth environments from being traumatic," said Cole. "Poverty, violence, lack of affordable healthcare, these are social issues that have been built over decades within communities in our city, but My Block, My Hood, My City is working towards mitigating the effects of youth trauma."