George Floyd’s death, and the racial reckoning it ignited, were renewed calls to action for a group of Harris School of Public Policy students who have joined professional athletes in Chicago to battle inequality.
Students in the Evening Master’s Program — at the urging of classmate Richard Kohng, AM’20 — volunteered to help Athletes for Justice (A4J), a nonprofit committed to fighting structural inequalities in Chicago and beyond.
The organization was started in the wake of the Colin Kaepernick protests by former Chicago Bears linebacker Sam Acho with then-teammates Trey Burton, Chase Daniel, Akiem Hicks, and Mitch Trubisky. Professional athletes don’t often stay in one city for their entire career — for example Burton is now in Indianapolis and Daniel in Detroit — so it had been hard to get A4J off the ground. For help, Acho turned to Kohng, whom he knows through North Park University where Kohng is Director of Civic Engagement.
“Sam and I exchanged texts, grieving after the murder of George Floyd, and Sam decided it was time to get the organization up and running,” Kohng said, adding that the Harris cohort had then just finished the third quarter and was headed to its summer 2020 break.
“I reached out to our cohort hoping four to five people would come forward,” Kohng said.
More than 20 people — about half of the cohort — volunteered.
A4J needed infrastructure so the students, with their range of professional expertise, split into project teams. They drafted marketing and strategic plans, worked on community partnerships and social media, set up legal protocols, and wrote mission and vision statements, said Kohng, who describes himself as the volunteer Executive Director.
“Sam Acho had the vision,” said Kohng’s cohort member Kevin O'Shaughnessy, AM’20, a senior manager at the global investment bank Stout, “and we could help him get it where he wanted to go.”
A4J got to work.
“One of the first initiatives that came out of A4J was they decided to do a fundraising campaign to convert a liquor store into a food mart in an area dealing with food insecurity, an idea conceptualized by local teens” Kohng said. The area was the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, where on a bus tour that athletes, including Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, took with neighborhood teens, they saw many liquor stores and few places to buy groceries.
“Even though A4J was started by Chicago Bears athletes, with Sam’s leadership you had players from the Blackhawks, Bulls, Sky, Cubs, and White Sox represented, who all came together for this project,” Kohng said.
The athletes contributed $500,000 for the food mart that is to be completed this year.
“When they did the groundbreaking,” a July event that drew VIPs including NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, “it was a powerful moment for both the young people who saw a dream for their community come to life and for the athletes who saw the power of collective action,” Kohng said.
COVID-19 safety measures limited attendance at the groundbreaking, but members of the cohort were there, including Kohng, Thomas Gary, AM’21, deputy director with the Office of the Illinois State Treasurer, and Casey Buck, AM’20, a consultant for ConAgra.
“I think a lot of us were looking for a way to stay connected over the summer,” said Buck. “It seemed like a great opportunity to get first-hand experience building something together.
“The fact that we were going to have the opportunity to work with high-profile individuals who could tap into the collective energy of the social justice movement and leverage their social capital made it even more special.”
As work continues on the A4J project Kohng said the emphasis will be on amplifying local organizations and their impact.
“We know,” he said, “that professional athletes have platforms and influence that can steer the public’s attention to these dynamic organizations who drive so much local change.
“Our community partnerships team developed a metric to ensure we’re supporting locally-led organizations that are accelerating impact and reflect the ethos of the communities they serve,” he said.
The athletes are in the spotlight, he added, “but we are using our Harris quantitative skills to tell those stories of local impact in numbers as well.”
Cohort members involved in the project, including Dominique McKoy, AM’21, associate director of the To&Through Project at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, credit Kohng, for the project’s success. Kohng in turn credits Evening Master’s Program Director Krisinda Doherty, Assistant Director Tempris Daniels, and Faculty Lead John Burrows for their work on the cohort model that built such strong bonds.
“I think the great thing about the program is it really builds close relationships and friendships,” Kohng said. “Without those relationships and connections, none of this would have materialized.”
Connections extend beyond the cohort, with Buck getting her brother Jake Toohey and his firm, Adage Technologies, involved. Toohey pitched the idea for Adage to build the branding and website for A4J pro bono, Buck said, and Adage’s CEO agreed.
“It’s relationships,” McKoy said, “that are going to be equally as important as anything we learned in class.”
Those relationships, Kohng said, are a great “on-ramp” for people to get involved in something that can bring value.”
That’s key for a cohort whose members, O'Shaughnessy said, came to Harris with the goal of having an impact on society.
“With everything that happened around the murder of George Floyd,” classmate McKoy added, “there were a lot of folks in the cohort who wanted to figure out a way to be more active and to really try to figure out a way that we could focus some of the energy and emotion that was happening around this really pivotal moment in our country.”
And through the A4J project, to be able to do “good in the city from a little bit of a different perspective was,” he said, “really exciting.”