When Eagles safety Rodney McLeod was signed as a free agent in 2016, he quickly embraced his new city.
A native of nearby Maryland, McLeod wanted to know everything about his new surroundings. He studied the city’s rich history. He reached out to some of the franchise’s greats. He swiftly immersed himself in Philadelphia. Along the way — through his own initiatives and also being involved in the team’s community efforts — McLeod was struck by one of the city’s most enduring problems: gun violence.
“Since I’ve arrived here it’s just felt like family — from the locker room to the city,” McLeod told The Inquirer. “This city is full of blue-collar workers, and that resonated with me.
“But being here this long, I’ve been able to take a deep dive in this community, specifically with the kids and the youth. One thing that has been evident is the gun violence and how it’s affected so many people, so many young lives. ... It’s something we want to clean up and change.”
Philadelphia has long experienced high rates of gun violence, but the rate exploded in 2020 amid the pandemic and has not abated. In 2021, the city experienced 562 homicides, far outpacing the all-time record of 500 set in 1990, according to police statistics. The surge was driven by shootings, which accounted for the vast majority of homicides, and the killings were largely concentrated in neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia, long subject to poverty, underfunded schools, and other markers of disinvestment.
The Eagles are launching a multilayered anti-gun violence campaign that will support area-based nonprofits and the City of Philadelphia. The campaign, titled End Philly Gun Violence, launches Tuesday morning and will include more than $316,600 in grants to 32 different nonprofits that specialize in social justice work.
The team identified recipients by working with the social justice leadership council, which McLeod serves as an active member. Other council members include running backs Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard, tight end Dallas Goedert, defensive end Brandon Graham, linebacker Shaun Bradley, and defensive backs Avonte Maddox, Anthony Harris, and K’Von Wallace, along with team executives and owner Jeffrey Lurie.
“We understand the role we have on the city and how us winning shapes the week for a lot of people here,” McLeod said. “That’s great understanding how we’re idolized. But if we can bring attention to this terrible situation that is going on within our community, it’s going to grab eyes in the right way. We want to inform — but also grow our numbers and have people want to help.
“There are lives being lost to senseless violence. It can all be avoided with a little guidance with us rallying around these individuals in the community. We want to give them something else to do rather than pick up a gun and resort to violence.”
Added Harris: “It’s so important for everyone to take notice. If we can all take a collective effort, we can make a positive impact to get this thing right.”
The city is far from alone in seeing such a violent year. Shootings surged across the country in 2020, and the uptick continued through this year. Of the 10 largest cities in America, eight recorded more homicides in 2021 than in 2019. Criminologists, experts, and authorities say it may take years to sort out why.
Philadelphia officials are testing a variety of measures aimed at addressing the crisis, including some outside traditional law enforcement. There has been a new focus on steering funding toward grassroots organizations that work in communities most vulnerable to gun violence, and the city itself committed about $20 million this year to dole out in new grant-making.
Even some of the city’s most established nonprofits have been stretched thin by the gun crisis and are cash-strapped, so any infusion of grant dollars is welcome news.
Solomon Jones, a radio host and executive director of the mentoring program ManUpPHL, said a $15,000 grant from the Eagles will allow the group to continue to provide a small stipend to the young men who take part in its Listen To The Streets program. The effort, which includes a series of workshops, connects men aged 18 to 35 with mentors, job readiness, financial literacy training, and a host of other resources.
Jones said the group specifically targets mentees who are at high risk of experiencing gun violence — some have been charged with gun offenses; others have been shot themselves. He said the organization doesn’t claim to have a singular solution for the city’s ails.
“But what we can do is focus on one life at a time,” he said. “So these men can lift up our community rather than traumatize it.”
One of the other $10,000 grants is going to the Philadelphia chapter of 100 Black Men, a mentoring and education organization that works with dozens of boys and teenagers in the city.
Tajh Jenkins, the group’s education chair, said the group provides mentorship, fellowship, job readiness, and various types of leadership training. Their goals include reducing gun violence and improving relationships between the community and police.
The grant, Jenkins said, will allow the organization to continue to help young men in the city “realize their potential and realize that they do have a way out.”
“More now than ever, parents and students are realizing the need for different outlets in order to keep kids out of trouble and get kids engaged in things that are productive,” he said, “by turning them away from the different negatives and social ills affecting the city.”
In addition to the grants, the Eagles have generated a public service announcement that features members of the social justice leadership council. The team is hopeful its message is heard across the fan base throughout the week and beyond.
“It’s more than the scary numbers that keep rising,” team president Don Smolenski said. “It’s the victims and people behind the numbers. Over the course of our dialogue with the leadership council, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we be part of the solution?’ It’s built into something meaningful.”
The team’s regular-season finale, which was originally scheduled to be played Sunday, has been moved to Saturday versus the Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field. When the Eagles played the Cowboys earlier in the season, coach Nick Sirianni generated a lot of attention from the “BEAT DALLAS” shirts he created for the team.
This time around, Eagles players and coaches are planning to wear T-shirts that promote awareness of the team’s End Philly Gun Violence campaign. The shirts will be worn during practices this week and also during pregame warmups on Saturday night.
“As players and as coaches, we have such a huge platform to inspire change in our world and communities,” Sirianni said. “I’m just so happy that our guys are involved [on the social justice leadership council], and we have so many people in this organization involved and so many players and coaches involved.
“I think that shows you about our team, about how they connect with each other and how they look to connect with our communities and make it a better place. I’m so excited for our guys that they’re involved in that.”
Here is a list of the nonprofits scheduled to receive grants from the team, generated through the Eagles Social Justice Fund:
Chester Community Coalition
Project of Urban Affairs Coalition
Education Law Center
Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence
100 Black Men of Philadelphia Region, Inc.
Community Legal Services
Drexel University Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice
Face to Face
Frontline Dads, Inc.
Girls on the Run Philadelphia
New Leash on Life USA
Philadelphia Auto and Parole
Philadelphia Youth Network
Police Athletic League of Philadelphia
Sankofa Healing Studio
Summer Search Philadelphia
The Anthony Harris Foundation, Inc.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project
United Way of Delaware
University of Pennsylvania, Netter Center for Community Partnerships
Why Not Prosper, Inc.
Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP)
Youth Service, Inc.
Change Our Future Foundation
Philadelphia Youth Football Academy
Strawberry Mansion Area Renaissance Trust Corp.
Motivating Young Moms