It has been nearly 155 years since slavery was abolished in America. Yet, atrocities committed against the Black community, like the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, have shed a spotlight on the harsh reality that there is still much work to do to eradicate racism, inequality and police brutality in the United States. As individuals across the country come together to stand against injustice, the Buffalo Bills have too pledged to be part of the solution. Recognizing that knowledge is vital to creating change, Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula have emphasized the importance of continued education for staff, players and coaches. On Friday, June 19, the Bills, along with all Pegula Sports & Entertainment entities, will give employees another key opportunity to grow as they observe "Juneteenth."
Celebrated annually, Juneteenth commemorates the pivotal events that occurred on June 19, 1865. Two months after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox and two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, declaring that the Civil War was over and that all enslaved people were free. In a statement issued on Wednesday, June 17, the Pegulas explained that employees are encouraged to utilize the company-wide holiday "to celebrate Black history and culture, seek a greater understanding of social injustice and racial inequality, and embrace our nation's diversity."
For Kim Pegula, the approach can be explained in three simple but impactful words, "Listen, Learn, Love." The phrase – one that she has fully embraced – is quickly becoming a unifying mantra within the organization.
"I've always felt that I was a big supporter of social justice, racial equality, diversity and inclusion," said Pegula. "The murder of George Floyd and the attention that it's brought to the Black community and the outcry that we've heard from around the country, made me really look at myself and stop to say, 'What have I really done?' 'How do I really feel?' 'What are some of the things I can learn?' And that is why we brought it forward to our staff in our 'Listen, Learn, Love' panel. We really want to make sure that people stop and learn and listen about the issues, the experiences and what people have to say.
"We also heard from some of our players, from some of our coaches and staff that said, 'Listen, we just want to have this conversation. We just want to share; we just want people to hear what we've been through or what we've seen.' I think it was really important for us to take that approach to listen first. If we don't listen, we're not going to learn and if we're not learning, we're not empathizing. It's hard for us to push agendas forward when we haven't even stopped to listen to what the message is."
To enable a productive and meaningful conversation, employees were recently given a chance to hear directly from organizational and area leaders on ways to foster a community focused on equality and love through a virtual discussion. Moderated by former Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, the "Listen, Learn, Love" panel featured defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier, defensive end Jerry Hughes, director of player engagement & alumni Marlon Kerner and local pastor and advocate Ken Simmons. The group answered staff questions and shared personal stories, offering different perspectives.
"We had a great response to the town hall 'Listen, Learn, Love' conversations and we're going to continue those on a regular basis," said Pegula. "There's a group within the organization that is working on what the next panel looks like, the timing of that and what the topics are. There were a lot of questions from our staff that we didn't get to address at the last panel – a lot of them were about what our organization is doing, how our organization feels and what we are doing moving forward."
While Pegula admits she does not have all the answers yet, her devotion to taking the necessary measures to ensure that continued learning is a priority within the organization is evident through her work at the team and league levels.
"We have been talking to people at other clubs and at the league. There are many people who have skills, experience and training in this space," she said.
Encouraged by the outpouring of support from staff eager to get involved, Pegula is confident that the upcoming Juneteenth observance is, like the panel, another critical step in the right direction and one that she plans to continue for years to come.
"I felt that it was really important to share the meaning of Juneteenth with the rest of our staff – especially as a follow up to our town hall conversations," she said. "I sent out a message to all the staff not about just getting the day off on Friday, but using that as a day to reflect, to learn, to listen, to understand about the history of Juneteenth – what it means, where it came from, what it represents, what it represents for this country, what it represents to each one of us individually.
"I think that it is really important to take these small but really meaningful steps that can inspire change within ourselves and then share that with others in our lives."
As a member of both the NFL's Workplace Diversity Committee and the NHL's Executive Inclusion Council, Pegula is also highly invested in ensuring progress is made across the leagues.
"I'm on the Workplace Diversity Committee at the NFL and the Executive Inclusion Council at the NHL. Even before the murder of George Floyd, both leagues had programs in place to address how we move forward in getting our clubs to be more diverse and to promote racial equality," said Pegula. "There are a lot of issues to go through to make sure that you're approaching this the right way and doing it with transparency, and I know both leagues are very committed. I really enjoy my time on these committees and have learned a lot and hopefully I'm able to bring those learnings back to the clubs."
At the Bills, there are several programs in place, such as the Social Justice Committee, diversity and inclusion luncheons and a book club, as well as others being developed, that aim to eliminate biases, promote diversity and facilitate learning among front office staff, players and coaches.
The Bills Social Justice Committee, like similar groups around the NFL, was formed in 2018. A collaborative effort between players, the NFLPA, the teams, owners and the league, the committees came together to create awareness around social justice, police reform, jail reform and other important issues facing our country. Driven by the players, the Bills Social Justice Committee, which includes Lorenzo Alexander, Jerry Hughes, Micah Hyde, Harrison Phillips, Patrick DiMarco, Tremaine Edmunds, Dion Dawkins, Stephen Hauschka and Lee Smith, seeks to raise money for local organizations that they're passionate about. Funds collected by the committee are matched by the Bills.
"It's not just about funds, though," said Pegula. "It's also about them going out and being active in our community, helping out. There have been a lot of different initiatives over the last three years. I'm proud that we have consistently had players contribute and participate and inspire change right here in Buffalo."
With support from ownership and front office staff like the Community Relations department and Marlon Kerner, director of player engagement & alumni, the committee has been able to assist nonprofits such as The Belle Center, Matt Urban Hope Center, Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo and many more.
As the members of the Bills Social Justice Committee, along with their teammates and other NFL athletes and personnel continue to advocate for justice and equality, Pegula – as she did in 2017 – expressed her support for Bills players and their right to kneel should they choose to do so this season. Like everyone, Pegula has been shaped by her personal experiences, giving her an understanding that her perspective may differ from others.
"We were and continue to be supportive of our players' rights," she said. "I was adopted and born in South Korea. This past year, I had an opportunity to go back to South Korea. I was able to visit where I was born and spent the early years of my life before being adopted and becoming an American citizen. Seeing where I was born and the orphanage that I spent time in allowed me to reflect on the opportunity I had been blessed with, the opportunity to take an oath and become a naturalized American citizen. For me, that journey is represented in the anthem and the flag, and I will always stand.
"That's my personal experience. I have come to learn that we all have these very personal experiences and we need to embrace each other more than ever. If people, players included, want to peacefully protest and if the anthem means something different to them, I have to respect that, just as I would want them to respect my choice. I can't step into their shoes, just like they can't step into mine. However, listening, learning and loving them as a human, is really important, along with making sure players know they're supported and loved not just because they can play football, but more importantly that they have the right to be who they are. We're very supportive of our players and their right to have a voice."