By Rebecca Shankman
I have been to two Cleveland Browns football games in my life. The first, the Browns beat the New England Patriots; this was a surprise. The second, the entire stadium cheered as a video of the “team” I was going to spend the summer working with (Towards Employment) was shown on the screen with the announcement that the Browns had donated $75,000 to the organization. Since then, Towards Employment has been working with Browns’ players, administration, and stakeholders – as part of their efforts to use their reach and place in the community to do good.
When the Browns first met with the Towards Employment staff in June 2018, our community was facing a lot of sobering statistics: like 1 out of every 5 Ohioans has a criminal or arrest record; and 31% of Clevelanders between the ages of 25 and 64 are not active participants in the labor force1; and that approximately 34.5% of people in Ohio jails are awaiting trials for crimes they haven’t, and potentially will never be, found guilty of. In that first meeting, an action item that emerged was that the Browns organization and players wanted to keep an eye out for legislation coming to Ohio soon like drug conviction decriminalization and bail reform. The first way to get involved, for the players – like any interested citizens – was to learn about the landscape. The players understood that their status and platform could inspire change.
In the next two visits, Browns players took time to get to know the organization and speak personally to individuals working build career pathways. In September, players joined in a job readiness graduation and met with graduates to hear about what they had overcome and their plans for the future. In December, several players visited Bloom Bakery, a social enterprise run by Towards Employment to hire, train and build career pathways for individuals with barriers to employment – most often a criminal record. Players bought bakery items, took a tour and rolled dough with bakers, and topped it off with a gift to Towards Employment from the players’ fund matched by the Browns organization and owners.
Read more about both visits at:
- Christian Kirksey, Seth DeValve volunteer to help Clevelanders
- Browns donate $75K to Towards Employment
In May 2019, the players continued their engagement with this social justice issue, but this time it was a different take. An NFL Social Justice Advocacy Day, coordinated by the Players Coalition (a task force comprised of 12 NFL players that aims to impact social justice and racial-equality reform at federal, state and local levels of government) with local support from Towards Employment, gave seven Browns players the chance to see the real world at work. For a day, the Browns toured a courtroom and a jail in Cleveland. They watched as bail was set and people were formally charged; they heard stories from those incarcerated in the facility, some of whom were participating in pre-release Towards Employment programming in the jail. They began to feel, as well as understand, the predicament of those in the criminal justice system. We at Towards Employment have an understanding of this process: for the past 4 years, TE has provided pre-release services at the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center at Bedford Heights for male inmates serving over 270 sentenced men with job readiness services in the jail. These services include continued case management, job search, job placement, and job retention support, with some people entering technical training or paid work experience.
To me, the Towards Employment and Cleveland Browns relationship is about more than just financial support. It’s about organizations finding their role in the ecosystem of social change and working to use their strengths to address challenges faced by those who have cycled in and out of the criminal justice system. The Browns have sought out community partners with on-the-ground experience and daily engagement in an issue they wanted to take a stand on – and we were happy to be one of the organizations to share community insight on the criminal justice system and its real-life impact on individuals who come through it. If partnerships like this can subsequently inspire, frustrate, or lead to action among people in their fan base, all partners benefit and everyone wins.
We continue to invite our community to join in our mission: to fight to connect people to careers – and in doing so, together we can change lives, advance businesses, and strengthen our community.
Oh, and the Browns won that second game too.