By: Teresa Varley
Published: January 15, 2021

For the third year, Steelers players are leading the Steelers Social Justice Grant program. Players are making donations to local organizations that are having an impact on the community, and the Steelers are matching the donations. The Steelers kicked off the 2020 Steelers Social Justice Grant program in December, and it continues today with Avery Williamson making a difference in the community.

Social justice.

It’s something that came to the forefront in the United States in 2020 like never before, a topic that hit home for so many, while uniting many from different walks of life.

But for those who work for the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, social justice is a topic that has always been at the forefront. It’s their daily call, their mission, their passion, their drive.

“We are very pleased that our mission is being more understood and supported by a broader base of Americans,” said Esther Bush, the President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. “I say that because our mission is to assist African Americans to achieve economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights. That is our mission statement. The bottom line is we are supposed to do everything we can do to assist black folks. This year, obviously, with the visual viewing of a police officer’s knee on a black man’s neck, it really brought a lot of police community relations type of efforts to the forefront, and not just with black people making accusations. But the whole country saw it.

“As a child of the civil rights movement, I was extremely pleased to see black, white, Latino, young, old, Chinese, suburban, urban, everybody just honestly asking questions, getting involved and protesting about American rights.”

There was more America did, though. Through the trials and tribulations of 2020, racial injustice wasn’t the only issue that came into play. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the black community hard, not just from a health standpoint, but from an economic standpoint as well. The Urban League, in conjunction with outside support, was able to step in and help. They sheltered over 2,800 families through mortgage relief and rental assistance, provided over 3,700 families essential hygiene items through the AllOnePittsburgh initiative, supplied over 900 families with Thanksgiving provisions, and connected 148 unemployed or underemployed adults to pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs.

“You had the police community social justice issues, which tie into the race issues, which ties into the pandemic, that really promoted more use of our food pantry, more use and I am pleased to say additional income to help our housing program where we help people with their mortgage, rent and utilities,” said Bush. “Not just through our housing programs which is what we do, but through all of our programs we hear the needs and get the referrals. I am extremely proud that the City of Pittsburgh, as well as Allegheny County, has reached out to us to give us additional funds and service those laid off employees that work in the hourly jobs, restaurants, etc. The Urban League staff are absolutely essential workers when I look at the hundreds of people we have helped during this pandemic.”

In addition to those challenges, the Urban League also worked locally to engage the community to get out and vote.

“I have to say, just in general, the fact that the Urban League was put in a position of trying to provide clarity and support for the state that our country is in, I can’t stop talking until I say that the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh takes a great deal of pride in bringing in some of the votes that were cast here in the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County,” said Bush. “We were very involved in voter education and registration and get out the vote. It was a wide range we dealt with, including police community relations, social justice issues, voter registration education, get out the vote and helping people with food insecurity and the ability to pay their rent and mortgage.”

Like with everything that involves organizations such as the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, they need help. They can’t do what they do alone, needing support from the community in many ways. And that is where linebacker Avery Williamson has stepped in. Through the Steelers Social Justice Grant program, a program which is led by the players in an effort to engage with various factions, including law enforcement, charitable organizations, military and more to strengthen the community at large, Williamson is making a difference. He has donated $5,000 to the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, with the Steelers matching the donation for a total of $10,000.

“What they are doing is a great cause and I just wanted to add to it,” said Williamson. “Equal rights are something that has been fought for to achieve for years. I am glad a lot of these situations are being brought up with the injustices. Hopefully all the things going on will make a difference and change the spectrum of racism in America and across the world. It can be an uncomfortable situation to talk about, but it helps break down a lot of barriers. It can make a lot of people’s perspectives change, just having a conversation.

“I try to make sure I am always a good role model, even when I think nobody is looking. You never know when somebody is seeing what you are doing. I try to make sure I am being a good example and doing things right. I am glad I can be an example for young men. I try to make sure I am always the best person I can.”

Williamson, who said he takes pride in being an example for young men in the community, is doing just that by stepping up and helping the Urban League.

“The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh has been around for 102 years,” said Bush. “We are pleased that we can lift almost every aspect of the community in an ongoing basis or at some point has really embraced us and brought us closer. Our relationship with the Steelers goes back for some time. When you see a Steelers player choose the Urban League, and he has heard about us or read about us through the work we do every single day, we are hoping what we bring to the community to make the community better, especially for black folks and low income individuals, is making the right impact.

“For the organization, the Pittsburgh Steelers, to match Avery’s donation, it means so much. We are extremely appreciative and grateful that we were chosen and chosen by a star like Avery. The organization stands behind its reputation for caring about the community. I just want to say thank you to Avery and the Steelers organization. The Steelers organization has been a good supportive friend of the Urban League for a number of years.”

This isn’t the first time this season the Steelers are working with the Urban League in the last few months. Previously they held multiple Zoom calls with players and the Black Male Leadership Development Institute (BMLDI), a program that brings African American males in grades nine through twelve together to participate in year-long activities that increases educational and leadership opportunities for them to expand their leadership skills to make an impact in their local communities. The calls were done with Dean Richards, the program manager for BMLDI and facilitated by Dr. Amber Moore, the Associate Department Director of Youth Leadership for the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

“Being able to engage with the Steelers, the young men who are part of BMLDI were reminded it doesn’t matter which walk of life you come from, whether you a high school student, or an average working adult, or a celebrity like the Steelers, everybody has experiences that shape who they are, the Steelers included,” said Dean Richards, program manager for BMLDI. “Our BMLDI students were enamored because they were Steelers and the Steelers wanted to learn about them. The Steelers players came to the table not wanting to change the agenda we had, but work with the structure we had. They came as normal human beings who happen to be celebrities. It was a structured, but informal conversation where the BMLDIs got to learn who the Steelers are and the Steelers and BMLDIs were able to share their personal experiences.

“We had another meeting where we talked about advocacy and focused on understanding what advocacy is, knowing what you care about and once you know what you care about, how you advocate for said cause based on the way you try to live it in your everyday life, not just here and there. That was an event where everybody shared ideas with one another, and I think some definite gems were dropped on both sides.

“It was nice for them to learn the Steelers organization isn’t just about playing the game and going to practice. The organization is about having their players and staff do much more than just that and focus on more than that. The engagement with the BMLDIs and Urban League isn’t the only thing they are engaged in and speaking to people about to advocate for causes. That was a great thing for the students to see. They thought those guys just lift weights and play and they do so much more than that.”