Trey Flowers comes from a family that has fought for the right to vote for generations. On his father’s side, his grandfather and uncle participated in the famous marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama as a nonviolent protest to help register African American communities to vote.
On his mother’s side, his grandmother, too, was helping the effort. Pregnant at the time, she was only able to provide water to the protesters, but she also bore witness to what her fellow activists were risking by marching in the streets. A woman right behind her was killed by people trying to stop the protests.
As a result of their hard work and sacrifice, Flowers doesn’t want to take the right to vote for granted, especially in these times today.
“My grandmama, my grandfathers, my uncles they were that close to being sacrificed, and putting their life on the line for voting,” Flowers. “So I think grownups or adults knowing the sacrifice people here in the deep south and all over the world have put towards the right to vote, that experience right there encouraged me to make sure I register to vote.”
On Tuesday night, Flowers participated in a town hall panel organized by RISE—a nonprofit that aims to educate and empower social change through the sports community—on the importance of voting. Joining Flowers on the panel were teammates Duron Harmon and Matthew Stafford, along with team president Rod Wood, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford.
For Harmon, it was his mother that taught him the importance of voting. She reminded Harmon that this right to vote hasn’t lasted long in the black community, and that some have literally put their life on the line for this right.
“We’ve got to think about it, 60, 70 years ago, my grandmother couldn’t vote,” Harmon said. “My great grandmother. who just passed. couldn’t vote. That’s just what it was and she fought for us to have that opportunity.”
A common theme throughout the panel was the importance of race issues. Whether it was the passing mention of honoring the late congressman John Lewis, who led those same Selma marches back in 1965 or the written statement given by new Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp and her husband Steve, as read by Wood.
“We all desire real and lasting social change, racial healing, abundant opportunity for all, and meaningful social justice progress in many aspects of our democracy,” Hamp wrote. “But for this to happen, our democracy needs to be responsive and to improve. We all need to register to vote, learn about the candidates who are running for office and then cast our votes in person or by absentee ballot through the mail.”
When asked about the community issues that they care about, the panel of Lions players all agreed on one topic: improving the conditions for the impoverished youth through education. Harmon mentioned, off the cuff, how he had done research that found eighth graders in Detroit had the worst reading and math scores in the nation, and the adult population has a staggering number of people considered functionally illiterate.
“That right there is the root of the problem,” Harmon said. “When you can’t read on a certain level or do math on a certain level, how do you continue that type of education? How do you go to college? You don’t, because you don’t have scores, you don’t have the SAT scores, you don’t have the resources to continue to educate yourself to get yourself out of certain situations—out of poverty, out of drug-infested communities. You’re stuck.”
Stafford, himself, has seen first hand what improving the community can do to these impoverished kids. Along with Detroit Free Press writer Mitch Albom, Stafford helped renovate the SAY Detroit Play Center right in the heart of Detroit at Seven Mile and Van Dyke. The new center has an impressive new football field, but it also provides other after-school activities like music, art and robotics. Those activities act as the “carrot” to get these kids educated, as they can’t participate until their schoolwork is done.
“The potential is there for these kids, it’s just about providing them with that opportunity,” Stafford said. “And like Duron said, it’s the opportunity not only to be successful and go to school, go to college, get the degree they want, be a part of the society they want to be a part of, but it’s also integral in their ability to form a voice to go on and vote when it’s their turn to vote.”
And that’s where these players see the opportunity they have to pay forward the gift they were given from their ancestors’ fight for voting rights. Using this moment in history of social justice to make those same sacrifices that their kids can point to as a source of inspiration when they’re in the voting booth decades from now.
“I had a son at 20 when I was at college, and [my mom] broke it down even further,” Harmon said. “‘You’re voting for your son, as well. For the rights that he will have eventually, you’re trying to set that legacy to let him know that this is an opportunity that we fought for as a group of people. Let’s not take it for granted.’”
For Stafford, being a leader, being an example for the next generation can come from anyone. You can come from any situation or place in your life and help change simply by speaking up.
“Everybody on this call can be a leader in their own community just by sharing the story that Trey just told,” Stafford said. “That’s going to inspire people. That’s going to get people out there and get them up off their butt to go out there and do what’s right. And that’s using their voice for change.”
This town hall meeting is just one of many social initiatives planned by the Detroit Lions with many future events centered specifically around registering to vote. Senior Director of Community Relations Jen McCollum noted that while putting this event together, the feedback she received was to continue to broaden the scope.
“We created it, initially, to be a very intimate dialogue with them, and the interest that we received both internally and externally was that we should be taking this broader and that’s why we made the decision to live stream and carry the conversation beyond our partner organizations,” McCollum said. “It demonstrates the commitment we have as an organization to let our players have a voice and to engaging the community around this issue.”
You can watch the entire town hall below.