A Time for Action

Dec 2 2016
Malcolm Jenkins
New Orleans Saints
Dec 2 2016

What now?

Like so many others, I’ve been asking myself that question a lot since the election.

As someone who has been working to bring people of different backgrounds and perspectives together for meaningful, substantive dialogue about how we can improve society, I found the rhetoric Donald Trump used during the campaign extremely disappointing. But, you know what? On election night, our president-elect came out and said that he was going to be a president “for all Americans.” And he’s repeated that statement several times since.

So now, more than ever, I feel strongly that we need to speak up about important issues that influence how our society functions.

If our next president is serious about being a servant to the people — all of the people — then the people need to be able to articulate what it is that they want. And for me, personally, the election of Donald Trump has really sparked the urgency in me to raise awareness about, and help mobilize people on, issues of race relations, police brutality and criminal justice reform. I mean, we all saw the kind of campaign that our president-elect ran, and a lot of what he talked about focused on ramping up law-and-order measures — including the expansion of stop and frisk policies, as well as other initiatives that disproportionately impact minority communities.

img_6183aMalcolm Jenkins

I was part of a group of five NFL players who visited Capitol Hill to speak with members of Congress about criminal justice reform and race relations in this country.

Malcolm Jenkins

We can’t afford to just sit around and expect things to somehow get better on their own. This is a critical moment in time. And we need to be doing all we can to make sure leaders in our government are hearing and addressing our concerns about injustice within society.

In that spirit, I was part of a group of five NFL players who visited Capitol Hill two weeks ago to speak with members of Congress about criminal justice reform and race relations in this country. It was me, Anquan Boldin, Andrew Hawkins, Josh McCown and Glover Quin. We met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and had sit-down conversations with representatives Keith Ellison, Patrick Murphy and Daniel Webster. We also met with Paul Ryan’s executive team.

In a lot of ways, our trip to D.C. came at a perfect time, because there’s a great deal of uncertainty right now relating to what our new president is going to do — what his priorities are going to be as we move forward, and what issues Congress will attempt to address during his presidency. We wanted to do what we could to ensure that, moving forward, civil rights and criminal justice reform are at the top of our government’s list of priorities.

We wanted to speak up, and to listen, and to build alliances that can help to spur positive change. After all, an opportunity like this doesn’t come around every day, and that fact was not lost on the five of us. We understood that we had a responsibility to make the most of it. And we weren’t messing around.

For me, the visit to Capitol Hill represented a chance to learn more about how our federal government works, and how lawmakers are attempting to address things like police shootings, or the relationship between police and minority communities. I’m continually trying to become more informed about what I can do to help make things better, and the more engaged I’ve become on social issues the more I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to achieve real, positive change. There are always more complexities to grasp, new approaches to dissect and strategies to tweak. To be honest, everything about my activism around police brutality issues and criminal justice reform has been a learning process. And when I met with congressional leaders in Washington, I drew on some of the things I’ve already learned.

For instance, a few months before arriving in D.C. for our visit, I learned some valuable lessons when players around the league began protesting during the national anthem and taking other symbolic actions in response to the police shootings happening around the country. I was part of a group of players who wanted to do something big and ambitious during Week 1.

Organizing action on a league-wide scale proved extremely challenging. But I realized that a protest or a statement doesn’t always have to involve a majority of players, or be a huge mass movement. It can just be the acts of a couple of people that hopefully will spark the interest and spirit of everyone else.

Another thing that’s become even more clear to me this year is that white players can and should play a role in efforts aimed at curbing injustice, addressing police brutality and denouncing discrimination.

jenkins-pull-01Mitcell Leff/Getty Images

It’s important.

These issues affect the African-American community more than any other group in our society, but at the end of the day, we’re all Americans. When there’s police brutality going on, or discrimination, or other forms of injustice, it’s crucial to have a diverse group of people who are out in front on these issues, because that can help to get a more diverse group of people engaged. When you only have black players that seem to be fighting for an issue that mostly affects black people, and there are no white athletes or advocates — or any leaders from other communities — who are helping, then it’s harder to inspire collective action from members of those other groups.

I know, personally, I really appreciated having Josh McCown participate in our meetings in D.C. Josh acknowledges that these issues are not ones that necessarily affect him or his family on a daily basis, but he knows what’s right and what’s wrong. He understands the issues, and he wants help bring about positive change. I’m proud to say that Josh was active and very vocal in those meetings we had. And just like Colin, or myself, or others in our league whose activism can set an example, Josh is someone who guys can look to and see how they can make a difference in their own way.

If we’re going to make positive change, everyone’s going to need to pitch in. And that’s a sentiment that came up again and again during our meetings with congressional leaders.

When we first arrived at the Capitol, I have to admit: I didn’t really know what to expect. The pessimist in me was figuring that we’d walk into some offices, take a couple of pictures, talk a little football and then that would kind of be it.

But I was pleasantly surprised, because we actually got to engage in some meaningful conversations about what was happening in our communities, and what efforts were being made at the congressional level to address things like police brutality and civil rights violations. Even more important, we were able to ask the representatives we met about how we could help their efforts to make progress on these issues. And we left with a series of next steps and tangible action plans that will allow us to move beyond talk. We got commitments from these members of Congress to 1) provide us with literature and information on upcoming bills or other congressional actions relating to these issues that we can rally support for or fight against, and 2) reconvene additional meetings with us on these issues during the off-season.

So now we can take the information we’re given and distribute it to people in our communities. This way, they will be better able to advocate or push for the change they want to see.

In a lot of ways, the experience showed how much can be gained when we are willing to step out of our comfort zones.

img_6185aMalcolm Jenkins

One of the reasons I was so excited to be a part of those meetings on Capitol Hill was because they represented an effort to bring people from different backgrounds — and with different perspectives and life experiences — together for open and honest discussions about important issues in our country.

Unless you can understand somebody else’s perspective, you’ll never understand their actions, or the reasons why they do things. And what I’ve come to realize through my work on social issues — whether it’s on Capitol Hill, or it’s engaging with the Police Commissioner Richard Ross in Philadelphia, or it’s out in the community — is that most people want the same things. Everybody wants good relationships. Everybody wants justice and peace and prosperity. But until we really understand each other, it’s hard to work together toward those goals.

So what I believe we need to do is bring together as many people as possible who are willing to work and willing to listen and willing to push for change — even if their perspectives may differ greatly. You have to bring everyone to the table, people of all backgrounds and views. And, in a lot of cases, it’s almost more about listening than anything else, because everyone can speak on their experiences and everyone can argue their sides of an issue, but often times we’re not listening to each other. We’re just talking past one another.

When we do take the time to listen, there’s so much that we can learn from each other. And the more you engage with different perspectives, the more knowledgeable you become. Then you can move beyond conversation and begin to take some action aimed at making things better in your community.

While our visit to Capitol Hill was sort of a whirlwind of meetings and discussions, I’m happy to report that I left feeling optimistic and better equipped to continue doing things that can make a difference. We came away educated on what our next steps should be. And that was encouraging. This wasn’t just a one-time series of meetings, and then I leave and I’m on my own out there trying to do things. We developed some true commitments and partnerships that we can work with going forward.

For me, one of the most important goals of these discussions was always to come out of them with some plan for action. I truly believe that if you’re trying to change something, not only do you have to want to change it … but you need to have a plan for how to change it. It is, of course, always important to be heard. But at the end of the day, conversations cannot be an end point. They’re useful in so many ways, but, you know … then what? I can tell you how I feel about an issue and you can tell me how you feel about it, but if we don’t have a plan to do something, then the same things will continue happening in the world and the only difference will be that I’ll know what you think about it.

That’s not going to be good enough going forward. We need to be able to move beyond talk and be able to pursue intelligent, well-thought-out actions. And this applies to everyone who cares about making things better in our country.

Since I’ve become more vocal about taking a stand on issues of police violence and criminal justice reform, people often come up to me and ask me what they can do to help.

The first thing I always say is that you have to educate yourself about how and why injustice persists, and you need to understand the political decisions that impact your community.

Then you need to work to elect individuals who will press for the change you desire — people who will work to pass laws, and regulations, and directives that will improve things.

If you’re not at least doing that, then it’s probably time to reassess your strategy.

One of the things that was especially disappointing about the most recent presidential election was that there were a lot of Americans who didn’t vote. That is heartbreaking to me. People need to understand the significance of voting … not only for a presidential candidate, but for elected officials at the state level, and in your county, your town or city, at all levels. All of that stuff matters, because those are the people who will directly affect how your community is run.

jenkins-pull-02Al Tielemans/The Players' Tribune

Even if you don’t like any of the candidates running for office, you can write in whoever you want. And if the issue is about not having candidates who are going to make the changes that we want to see, then we need to find and support candidates who will actually fight for the change we desire.

The reality is that it’s hard to create any sort of change in this country without involving politics. So if you really want to push for a better society, start at the ballot box and then follow up by writing letters to your elected officials. Start advocating for and demanding change.

One of the main reasons why I wanted to go to Capitol Hill was to learn more about how we can go about changing bad laws or outdated, ineffective policies. How do we make that happen? How do you deal with the larger system?

And, in all honesty, a lot of that comes down to who we select to represent us as our elected officials.

As I saw firsthand during my trip to D.C., there are all sorts of ways we can put pressure on those individuals to change things.

But it takes some effort. And it all starts with voting for individuals who are going to work on behalf of the issues you believe to be important.

When people stand up and say, We won’t have this anymore; we want answers, we want justice, we want transparency, then and only then is there a shot that any real progress will occur. Just posting something on Twitter or Facebook isn’t going to generate the change you want to see. And while protests are good because they spark conversation among people, if there’s a protest with no action behind it, then you’ll just continue to protest against the same things over and over.

This is no time to be spinning our wheels like that.

Simply put: We need to do more.

Malcolm Jenkins
New Orleans Saints