Five months after owner Jeffrey Lurie responded to this summer’s social justice movement with a statement saying “silence is not an option” when it comes to systemic racism, the Eagles are handing out $460,000 in grants to 24 local nonprofits working toward social justice in Philadelphia.
The grants come from the team’s Social Justice Fund, a program established in 2018 across the NFL. The team also contributes funding, and decisions on who gets the money are influenced by the players.
As a team, the Eagles chose to focus on four key issues: educational equality, election voting, positive transformation of policing, and strengthening Black communities.
“We tried to as much as possible help out everyone this year,” said team captain Rodney McLeod. “This climate that we’re under, COVID and all, [we know] how important it is for us to help all of these organizations, and keep their mission alive.”
The players read through 75 grant applications, the most ever in the program’s three-year history, according to Eagles Director of Community Relations Julie Hirshey. She noted players also do research on each applicant — which makes the choices even harder.
For example, the statewide Education Law Center applied in 2019, but didn’t get chosen.
McLeod remembered them and their mission to ensure public education for all children. On Monday night, he and Carson Wentz jumped on a Zoom call to surprise organizers and let them know they had been picked this year, with a $25,000 grant forthcoming.
“You could tell by their faces they were surprised,” McLeod said. “We actually didn’t have our cameras on and had our names hidden — I was Tom, and Carson was Bill — and then we revealed ourselves and that started the meeting. It was fun. We even got a little Eagles chant in at the end.”
Sometimes persistence pays off, other times it helps to have a long-standing personal relationship, like Philadelphia Auto & Parole, which had a connection with ex-Eagles captain Malcolm Jenkins. The organization, which teaches formerly incarcerated people to earn a living in the field of automotive repair, received a $15,000 grant this year.
“I think the process is very important,” said McLeod, who credited Jenkins’ influence in selecting grantees. “We look over a lot of organizations and speak up on why we want to support them.”
In total, the Eagles have awarded $1.3 million in grants over a three-year period.
One of last year’s recipients was the Philadelphia OIC (Opportunities Industrialization Center), which provides tuition-free job training to people who are unemployed or experiencing homelessless. The organization was able to turn a $50,000 workforce development grant last year into a state-of-the-art computer center.
“The players really got to see the impact on that one,” Hirshey said. “This was a thing that didn’t exist before and now it does.”
A growing cohort of players involved
McLeod heads the Eagles Social Justice Leadership Council, which was started under Jenkins’ leadership. The collaborative of players and club executives regularly meet to discuss topics related to social justice reform and identify potential grant recipients.
McLeod said the council started with just four members in 2018 — Jenkins, McLeod, Chris Long and Nelson Agholor — and added two more in 2019 before reaching record numbers in 2020.
Along with McLeod and Wentz, current members include Zach Ertz, Jake Elliott, Darius Slay, Malik Jackson, Brandon Graham and DeSean Jackson, as well as high-ranking officials like Lurie, community relations director Hirshey, GM Howie Roseman, president Don Smolenski, and head coach Doug Pederson.
Everyone has a voice, Hirshey said. “It’s such a collaborative process. There are plenty of players not formally on it that join at times, share their thoughts and feelings.”
McLeod credited the Players Coalition — an organization founded in 2017 to improve social justice and racial equality — for forcing the NFL to pay attention to these issues and create the funds across the league. He said he’s seen activism grow by leaps and bounds.
COVID offered plenty of new challenges for the players and nonprofits to address.
The entire application process had to be done via Zoom, so that prevented face-to-face meetings — a big disadvantage when trying to seek out an emotional connection. But organizers took a perceived problem and turned it into a positive by inviting more people into the virtual meeting room.
“It’s just been a triumph for them to be able to pivot and take work they had been doing in-person and translate it online,” said Hirshey. “So many nonprofits were able to take these incredibly challenging circumstances and deliver amazing results.”
Eagles Social Justice Fund 2020 Grants
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