49ers announce social justice grants, players visit RYSE youth center in Richmond

Three members of the San Francisco 49ers spent their free day delivering good news to young people in Richmond.

“It’s my job, even after I come out of it, come to the NFL and try to help and give back as best I can,” linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair said. “Let the kids know they have someone who’s been through this and made it through.”

Al-Shaair, Marcelino McCrary-Ball and lineman Spencer Burford visited the RYSE Youth Center in Richmond, spending time meeting and sharing their experiences with members of the community. The 49ers chose the nonprofit to be one of the recipients of its social justice grants. “What’s so special about this organization is that it’s really youth-focused,” said Stacy McCorkle, senior director of community relations for the 49ers.

Players toured the facilities at RYSE, where young people from all walks of life created a community for and with each other. Staff and youth share a passion for social and racial justice. “It’s a place where they can be creative, a place where they can heal, a place where they can organize, it’s really about safety,” said Kimberly Aceves-Iniguez, executive director and co-founder of RYSE. “Create a container where young people can be themselves.”

Sunny Thomas calls the RYSE community her family. “RYSE is everything to me, I had mentors, I had people who showed me every day that they cared.”

Thomas brought his challenges to RYSE in middle school, turning them into art and a commitment to his community. She is now part of the staff, giving back what she received. “Going back to being that little girl, in that moment, in that moment, if I could somehow manifest her in that space,” Thomas said. “She would feel so important, she would feel so listened to that these famous people, who have all this money, all this access, who just had a game, take the time to be here.”

These professional athletes listened to the beats created by the students, sat down to paint with them, and formalized the partnership between RYSE and the Niners, with a personalized t-shirt. For Al-Shaair, it is difficult not to see himself in these young people. Growing up, he experienced homelessness and poverty, overcoming challenge after challenge before becoming a Niner.

“When it comes to children and poverty, there’s not a lot of consistency,” Al-Shaair said. “I went to a different school every year, having a place like this where the kids lead the way. They have a place where they can come, and feel safe and cohesive, you can’t beat that.”

Al-Shaair is part of the Players Social Justice Council which helped the organization receive this year’s grants totaling $500,000. The money helps these groups advance societal change in the Bay Area. “It is our responsibility to support the community in any way we deem necessary,” McCorkle said. “Each organization we work with has its own unique way of supporting the righting of past wrongs that have been done to marginalized communities.”

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The players signed autographs and took many photos with the RYSE youngsters. But, perhaps more important than a keepsake, a message from a role model who plays for your favorite team and knows what you’re going through.

“A lot of times you can’t see better for yourself, you just see the situation you’re in,” Al-Shaair said. “The first thing you need to do is believe, believe that you can be better, make decisions that are going to align with what you want for your life and for yourself. It gets better later, but you just have to trust the process.”

RYSE and Urban Ed Academy were selected from a pool of grant applicants with the five returning organizations: Californians for Safety and Justice, Dream.Org, Operation HOPE, San Jose African American Community Service Agency, and Student Program for Academic & Athletic Transitioning. (SPAAT). After awarding an initial $1 million in grants to ten Bay Area and California-based social justice organizations in 2020, the 49ers announced the expansion of their grant program to commit $5 million over 10 years. focusing on promoting racial equality in policing, an end to mass incarceration, and the educational and economic advancement of young black people.

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