How Local Athletes Are Creating Change For Chicago

A collaboration of Chicago athletes is creating a movement for a local neighborhood.

Chris Emma
June 05, 2020 - 5:30 pm

(670 The Score) In the wake of George Floyd's death in the streets of Minneapolis, the issues of racial injustice and police brutality have been at the forefront across America. It has left our society with a daunting question.

How do we create change?

NFL linebacker Sam Acho has asked himself that question far too many times -- before America knew Floyd's name and plenty in the days since his death. A former Bears linebacker, Acho was nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2017 and is a relentless presence with his activism. This week, he was part of a new team in Chicago.

On Thursday afternoon, Acho was joined by 10 professional athletes with local connections at the By The Hand Kids Club in the Austin neighborhood in Chicago, where they met with 30 kids in three local organizations and several city police officers. Acho reached out through connections with the Bears, Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks and White Sox (who didn't have players available in Chicago on Thursday) to help bring the group together.

The group of athletes was comprised of Acho, Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and receiver Allen Robinson, Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis and outfielder Jason Heyward, Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews and goaltender Malcolm Subban, Bulls guards Ryan Arcidiacono and Max Strus and former Northwestern football players Tyler Lancaster and Austin Carr, both of whom are in the NFL. U.S. Representative Danny Davis (7th district) and alderman Emma Mitts also joined the group. 

Those 11 athletes arrived in Austin not for publicity or a photo op. They weren't even there to speak. They listened.

"Whenever you want to make change, it takes a holistic approach," Acho said. "It takes using your resources, using your influence and using your time. It's not just writing a check. It's not just sending a tweet. It's showing up. When you can invest in that way, that's when you see change made."

Teenage kids from those three local organizations -- By The Hands Kids Club, Westside Health Authority and BUILD -- spoke of their upbringing in Chicago's inner city and the challenges they face. They were coping with the death of Floyd, the latest instance of a black man being killed by police brutality, and those emotions were shared between the kids, police officers and athletes.

There was also discussions about how solutions can be found.

"If everybody continues to speak up and not be silent or not turn a blind eye to it, I think that we'll continue to make this world a better place," said Robinson, whose Within Reach Foundation has donated to many Chicago organizations. 

"That's the biggest thing. And that's that people who are actually living in it, like myself, like my family, like my teammates, for guys to continue to get in the community and to continue to impact the community. 

"It's to impact things when this isn't going on, to continue to be able to transcend things going in a positive direction on an every day basis, rather than just sparingly when events like this happen."

A native of Northbrook, Kipnis admits he couldn't relate to what kids in Austin have experienced. But since the death of Floyd, Kipnis has been searching for ways he could contribute. Then he received a phone call from his new teammate Heyward asking if he wanted to join the group in Austin. 

Kipnis found himself just 18 miles from Northbrook but a long way from home. He was moved in listening to the kids, and one fact he heard stood out to him -- the Austin neighborhood has an area with 22 liquor stores and only one food mart. When Kipnis returned home Thursday night, he couldn't stop thinking about his experience.

"I came away with it that I'm living in a different world than some people miles down the street from me," said Kipnis, who signed with the Cubs in February. "We may be that close, but we're living in two different worlds right now.

"They were schooling me on what life is like and what they go through each day. What they see from the police side and justice on that end. Just the struggles of the daily routine, where you're trying not to go down a bad road because you don't have anything pulling you in a good direction.

"A lot of times, they don't think they have anybody listening to them."

On Thursday, some of Chicago's most prominent athletes were listening. They were there to help bring change.

The athletes have created group chats in which they're collaborating on ideas for how they can make an impact in Austin and communities like it. One idea the group realized as it gathered on a bus was buying out a liquor store and converting it into a food mart, which would be run by kids like those they met Thursday. The liquor store is next to a vacant Chicago club once known for gang activity, violence and prostitution.

While the athletes were on the bus ready to depart Austin, they received a message from congressman Davis, an avid fan of Chicago's teams. He was moved by their efforts. 

"Things are constantly changing," Davis said. "Bob Love, who used to score 30 points for the Bulls, learned how to shoot baskets shooting in a basket the bottom was cut out of. Scottie Pippen grew up 12 miles from where I grew up in a semi-rural town (in Arkansas). When I was growing up, they didn't have a high school for blacks in that town where Scottie Pippen came from. Things do change. They are a part of it. 

"When you have that kind of leadership, positive things can occur and happen. I think that America is going to become a better America because people are responding and still looking for ways to respond positively. I'm optimistic. I also believe dearly in America. I think America is on the verge of becoming the America that has never been before. 

"I'm optimistic in spite of the tragedy and the tragic things that have occurred. Out of darkness comes the light and after night, there's daylight. I think we're heading for a brighter day."

In the athletes' eyes, their meeting in Austin wasn't a victory but rather a small, initial step forward. It's the beginning of a collaboration between some of Chicago's most influential athletes as they work toward building a better city.

Their work will continue forward with tasks small and large. Acho will be back in Austin next Thursday to help distribute more than 75,000 pounds of food. On those group texts, plans are being made for how they can rebuild the neighborhood -- first with a liquor store turned into a food mart, then even more from there.

Change won't happen with just one day. This group of athletes is expressing its commitment to however long it takes.

"We're in it for the long run," Acho said. "We're not going to be hopping from group to group to group. We're in it for the long haul.

"This is about long-lasting change. It's a marathon, not a sprint. It was a step.

"Change will happen. I'm sure of it."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.