It was the penultimate session of a RISE program bringing together four Buffalo-area high school football teams from different socioeconomic areas in Western New York, and Harrison Phillips had joined to help the student-athletes build skills to be leaders for racial equity.
Having listened to the Buffalo area youth during previous sessions, however, the Bills defensive lineman and team's 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee realized the players and coaches were having just as much of an impact on him. Through the RISE Multi-Week Leadership Program that in conjunction with the Buffalo Bills brought together players and coaches from Frontier Central, Niagara Falls, Salamanca and South Park high schools, Harrison said hearing the different perspectives during the RISE-facilitated curriculum helped him see the world in a better light.
"One of the things I take from this Zoom and others is it kind of restores faith in humanity. These kids are genuinely trying to do better for themselves and their communities and it's not just athletically. That's the type of person they are. These kids show great character and real maturity," Phillips said. "… Their questions aren't about how they can become better football players. Most of the time their questions are about how they can be better people or how they can make lasting impacts in their community."
The experiential-based RISE program educates and empowers youth and adult participants to be leaders in discussing and addressing matters of racism, prejudice, diversity and inclusivity within their teams, schools and communities. Joining them over the eight weeks were the Bills' Phillips, assistant head coach and two-time Super Bowl champion Leslie Frazier, former captain Lorenzo Alexander, Preston Teague, Bills Senior Director of Community Relations and Youth Football, and Jeremy Kelley, Bills Alumni Manager.
Over the course of the program, topics such as identity, perspective taking, how sport is a vehicle for change, privilege and leadership, among others, were covered with the students through sessions that included activities and group discussions. Those discussions fostered relationships between the participants, coaches and staff and helped them build skills to be culturally competent and advocates for racial equity.
"I always had an open mind to other people of different races, never discriminated for how they looked or where they came from, but [in the program] I learned and realized people of other races have a lot of different backgrounds and might not have as privileged of a life as I've had. I'm a lot more open to helping them out and seeing their side through their eyes and understanding them a lot more now," said Shaun Gallagher, a senior at Frontier Central.
Said Javion Carter, a senior at Niagara Falls: "[The program] can give you perspectives and give you stuff you didn't know to make you grow as a person, as it did for me."
As RISE advocates for racial equity, key to achieving the mission of ending racial discrimination is promoting thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that build cultural competency. The program provided a safe space for students, coaches and Bills personnel to have difficult conversations, especially as Western New York has recently experienced several incidents of racist violence that have caused division within communities.
"I hope the long-term impact is the [student-athletes] take some of the skills and tough conversations we had and implement that in their life as much as possible," Frontier Central coach Rich Gray said. "When they get caught in a situation, they can rely on some of the skills learned in the RISE program to combat difficult situations or be more tolerant in situations or see someone else's side and look past the outside and into someone's heart."
Added Donald Bass, coach at Niagara Falls: "Racism is learned. Once you know that, you can be taught different, and I think looking at players from Frontier and Salamanca and South Park, it gave them an opportunity to see they're not that different from us. They're just living in a different place. … I hope that they come together and start treating each other differently and they become that light in the darkness, become leaders and realize there's a better way to do things."
Frazier, the Bills' associate head coach and defensive coordinator, saw that leadership as he joined the participants for a session.
"Everybody on this call, you're a leader in own right," Frazier said. "You don't have to be the captain of the team or star of the team, but there are certain qualities that if you have those, people want to follow you. Influence is what leadership is – being able to influence people to do things they sometimes think they're unable to do."
As he finished his last RISE session, Salamanca freshman player Archer Newark said he was ready to take these skills back to his high school and share that message to create positive change.
"If you see someone, go up and help them if they need it, even if they're not the same race," he said. "… [It's important] so people can know what life is about and stick up for other people."