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Dreads, Super Bowl tickets and a tricky start to NFL-Roc Nation community partnership

By Starla Muhammad Managing Editor @simplystarla23 | Last updated: Sep 11, 2019 - 9:56:56 AM

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CHICAGO—Thousands packed Grant Park in downtown Chicago ahead of kickoff for the 100th season of the National Football League for free activities that included meeting former players, games, other activities and musical performances from hip hop artists Meek Mill, Rapsody and pop star Meghan Trainor.

Hours prior to the start of the game at Soldier Field between the hometown Bears and Green Bay Packers, excitement was buzzing in the Windy City when it was announced Sept. 5 that the NFL and Jay Z’s Roc Nation donated $400,000 to two local community groups: Better Boys Foundation Family Services (BBF Family Services) and Crusher’s Club. 

The donations were through the league’s Inspire Change program. Launched in January the NFL introduced its initiative as a “platform showcasing the collaborative efforts of players, owners and the league to create positive change in communities across the country.” Areas of focus for Inspire Change are to include education and economic advancement, police and community relations and criminal justice reform. Earlier this year the NFL Foundation stated it had matched 365 social justice grants from players, and 28 grants submitted by teams, totaling nearly $2 million.

Meek Mill and Rapsody, both Roc Nation artists spent time and visited with youth from the programs as Inspire Change advocates. 

“The Chicago community has always supported me and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to give back to the Crusher’s Club. Together with Inspire Change, we want to continue putting our youth in better positions to succeed, improve their communities and develop into the next generation of fearless leaders,” Meek Mill said in a statement.

Meghan Trainor
But almost as soon as news of the donations started making rounds, questions and concerns were raised by critics that are still skeptical of the ultimate motive of the NFL and if it can really be a trustworthy partner as a catalyst for meaningful societal change. 

The initiative is the NFL’s response to issues of social justice inequity the multi-billion dollar sports league was forced to deal with three years ago after quarterback Colin Kaepernick first peacefully protested against racism and police brutality but was subsequently barred from playing when no teams added him to their roster. It is widely viewed by social justice advocates that Mr. Kaepernick’s stance “blackballed” him from the league.    

According to reports, BBF Family Services and Crusher’s Club, both of which service Black families and Black youth, founded respectively by Joseph Kellman and Sally Hazlegrove—who are White—were picked by Roc Nation. Founded in 1961, BBF Family Services according to its website is a comprehensive human services organization that offers six programs and service areas for residents of the North Lawndale community. Crushers, a youth boxing program that provides an alternative to gangs in the Englewood neighborhood, was founded in 2004. Both organizations have been commended for their positive work in the community.

Meek Mill
Yet almost immediately, criticism was leveled by critics questioning why at least one Chicago grassroots, Black-founded, Black-operated nonprofit, many which struggle mightily for funding, donations and support—was not chosen as a beneficiary for some of the Inspire Change funds.

Maze Jackson, morning host on WVON 1690 AM was blunt in his assessment: “$200,000—BBF (White Organization), $200,000—Crushers Club (White Organization), 2 Super Bowl Tickets—Kids Off The Block (Black Organization),” he posted via Facebook. 

Founded in 2003 by Diane Latiker after opening her own home for young people to steer them away from the negativities of street life, Kids Off The Block is a program that helps at-risk Black youth in Chicago. The program has service over 3,000 youth. On Sept. 4 Ms. Latiker, joined Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, former NFL players and Commissioner Roger Goodell for a community cleanup in Douglas Park and was awarded tickets to Super Bowl LIV as recognition for her leadership and work. Though well deserved, some felt this was a slight.  

“NFL, that is NOT SOCIAL JUSTICE … and while I am glad Meek Mill is free, this is Chicago, wrongful conviction capital of the world. … We got way worse stories if you want to do social justice!” added Mr. Jackson on Facebook. 

And when a 2016 photo of Crushers Club founder Ms. Hazlegrove cutting the dreadlocks of a young, Black man with the caption, “And another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!” began going viral, blowback was swift. The images came up after the Sept. 5 performances in Grant Park. The posts have now been deleted from the Crushers Twitter account and Ms. Hazlegrove expressed “regret.” 

“Out of 500 youth going through our doors I cut two young men’s hair because they asked me to and we are a family structure and so I did it and didn’t really think about it after that,” she told USA Today. “I tweeted about it without much thought. It’s hair. But I regret it now and I promise you I will not be doing that again if asked,” said Ms. Hazlegrove. “The hatred and accusations from this took me by surprise. ... The backlash has been hard to be honest.”  

At presstime it was reported that a representative from Roc Nation said their comment was forthcoming. The NFL has not responded.

Some people are still remaining optimistic amid the criticism, skepticism and questions that something positive and good can emerge that can benefit Black and underserved communities. 

“I’ve always been a fan of Jay-Z first and foremost,” said Adam Davidson, an artist and Chicago native who lives in Bronzeville. He was one of thousands at Grant Park opening night. He does feel the NFL mistreated Mr. Kaepernick but like many, he thinks Jay-Z is “playing chess and not checkers” and that the billionaire hip hop artist and successful businessman is making strategic moves to benefit Black communities. 

“I may not know the whole plan and what brought him to the table, but I know it’s well thought. I’m kind of encouraged just by seeing this last performance by Rapsody and how much she talked about community involvement and a new partnership. I’m always going to be optimistic. I’m always going to be hopeful and believe that you know what, true change comes from within. We just can’t be so much on the not doing this and doing that. It’s more of us at the table than ever before so with that, again I’m encouraged that it’s a positive shift, it’s a positive change,” he told The Final Call.  

Grammy-nominated hip hop artist Rapsody is signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and is encouraged by the call for people to become more active and engaged in their communities to foment change. She performed selections from her critically acclaimed new release, “Eve” during the pre-game concert.  

Rapper Meek Mill meets with youth from BBF Family Services and Crusher’s Club before his performance in Chicago at Grant Park as part of the kick off to the NFL's 100th season. Photo: Starla Muhammad

“Anytime somebody asks me for help and if my calendar is open, I try to step up to it and especially this project with the NFL and Roc Nation and just trying to inspire people,” she told The Final Call. “I know that things have been rocky with the NFL but Jay has always been a great example of coming to the table and trying to figure out how can we communicate with each other and how can we invest and do what’s right for the community,” she said. 

Rapsody spent time with youth from BBF Family Services. “It’s in a community that I got to mentor with yesterday and the kids live in an area with violence where they have to live with every day. So to be able to go again and get off the stage and really sit with somebody and look them in the eye and touch them so they see that you’re real, that you’re human, that you make music and you may be successful—but I’m still a person,” she continued. 

“To be able to touch a kid and talk to them that just opens their mind up and say like it’s not farfetched for me to do. Somebody is right here and at least I can ask them the questions. That’s what this platform and this program has opened the door for me to do.” 

Aisha Latiker is the daughter of Diane Latiker of Kids Off The Block where she serves as a youth organizer. She is also the president of Fierce Under 40. She is appreciative of the recognition her mother received from the NFL and agrees there is a place for the league as well as artists when it comes to working for positive community change. 

“There is definitely a role to be played. We need as much and as many resources as we can get. For them (NFL) to finally step up and just want to get involved is really awesome. We need as much support as we can get in our communities. So for them to just shed a little bit of light on what’s going on here in Chicago and actually want to help is what we’ve been waiting for,” she said. 

Diane Latiker of Kids Off the Block works with Chicago children and is an anti-violence advocate. Photo: Facebook

If given the opportunity to speak directly to Jay-Z or Commissioner Goodell she would tell them resources are needed in Chicago for young people who have dropped out of school, are in gangs or are homeless. Resources are also needed for youth reentry programs, she pointed out.

Aisha Latiker is well aware of the criticism being aimed at Inspire Change and that Kids Off The Block or another Black-founded nonprofit was not selected to receive money. 

“We have already received comments about them raising over a million dollars to fund other organizations that might not be in the urban communities. I mean all we can do is hope. We’re just glad that they’re willing to help so who knows what’s going to come after this? Or when we do go to the Super Bowl who knows what relationships we can build and maybe they will be willing to help later on down the line so all we can do is just be grateful for the opportunity of them even noticing us,” she said. 

Renaldo Jenkins was born and raised in Chicago and is a union pipe fitter, executive chef and owner of Cooking Creations. The NFL is a corporation and the bottom line is corporations want to make money, he stated.

“Trying to get involved in the communities that they are actually selling a product to is beneficial. Making the community actually feel like they’re actually appreciated for buying their product. So yes, I have been paying attention to certain parts of it but I’ve never really focused on any of the initiatives that this corporation is doing you know? But, it’s a corporation,” said Mr. Jenkins. 

“They do things like that, they get involved. It’s all about money. I don’t care what people say like, ‘Oh, we’re worried about your safety, we’re worried about the community.’ Nah, you’re worried about your fan base, you want them to keep watching. You want them to feel like they’re appreciated. That’s really what’s behind the initiatives that you guys are doing.”

(Stay tuned for coverage from The Final Call’s in-depth interview with Rapsody in an upcoming issue.)