ABOVE PHOTO: Rodney and Erika McLeod (Photo: Change Our Future Foundation)
By Kharisma McIlwaine
Superbowl LII Champion and former Philadelphia Eagles safety Rodney McLeod and his wife Erika McLeod have dedicated a lot of their efforts to creating opportunities to give back to the youth.
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, they founded their non-profit organization, the Change Our Future Foundation.
The goal of Change Our Future is to “empower youth through education, advocacy and developmental programs.” Through unique programs and fundraisers like their annual fundraiser Sneaker Ball and the I Am Youth Leadership Summit, the McLeods have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for those in need. They have also donated sneakers and school supplies, and have provided countless hours of mentorship to school age children.
Their latest initiative under the Change Our Future umbrella is called Next Man Up. Next Man Up is a youth mentorship program designed to provide opportunities for young Black men, while eliminating gaps in the system that perpetuate vicious negative cycles. The McLeods spoke with the SUN about the importance of the Next Man Up program and what they hope it will achieve.
The Change Our Future Foundation’s mission to serve young people in need continues to expand. Rodney shared some of the startling statistics that acted as a catalyst for creating Next Man Up.
“Next Man Up is a mentorship program that serves young men of color, specifically 9th and 10th graders,” he said. “The reason why we decided to start this program is because of two statistics that were very alarming to us. One being that there’s only 5.5% of college students that are Black males. Then there’s only 58% of Black boys that graduate high school on time. When you look at those statistics, we have to figure out how do we solve this issue. We felt the best way to do that was to form Next Man Up.”
Next Man Up seeks to aid young Black male students through a myriad of programs that will connect them with mentors. The workshops within the program are designed to ensure on-time graduation, and foster leadership and self-respect.
“The way it’s structured is to eliminate these stigmas that have been placed on African American men over the course of history,” Rodney said. “The goal is for them to understand the value in education. Being able to provide this access to inform, inspire and empower our young kings — that’s what Next Man Up is going to do. The way we’ve structured these workshops is basically going to take them through a wide range of subjects from entrepreneurship, to philanthropy, to learning about investing. Then we’re also going to address human behavior and how to respond when certain issues may arise.”
”We’re doing case studies on people who may have made mistakes, who are now able to talk through what brought them through that situation and what would you do differently to prevent it,” he added. “I think that the importance of being a mentor is pouring back into our youth, allowing them to see the mistakes that you made and learning from them. We need to guide them, inspire them, and set them out on the path of excellence. At the end of the day, we want to be able to now create this cycle of success. The best way that we do that is [through] this [concept]of passing the torch.”
Change Our Future has partnered with Parkway NW Highschool to pilot the Next Man Up program this fall.
“The first cohort will be launched at Parkway Northwest,” Rodney said. “We’re very excited about that. Principal MacFarland has been very helpful. Our lead mentor, Alex Evans, is going to do an incredible job with these young men taking them through this journey together. Having a role model like Alex in front of them is huge. Seeing what I’ve been able to accomplish is important and you see two different paths. You have the athlete, but you also have a gentleman like Alex who established himself in the tech space. You want to give different examples for those boys to pinpoint and admire. That’s the beauty of Next Man Up. Another statistic said there’s only 2% of Black male teachers [ who] are represented. This isn’t just a Philadelphia issue… these stats are worldwide, so this is a call to action to everybody.”
Initially, Rodney and Erika want to start the program small and expand it over time.
“What we’re hoping is for 10-15 students this year as the pilot for the program,” Erika said. “The hopes are that once we implement this program into this Philadelphia school, that it becomes a trend. I know finding male mentors is also a very tough thing, as well as having a low percentage of Black male teachers. We’re encouraged that it can spread to other schools in Philadelphia, and hopefully, it can touch ground in other states, especially Prince George’s County [ in Maryland] where Rodney is from. This program is very near and dear to his heart. I think for Rod to lead that charge and get hands-on in these schools as well, to show a different light in terms of academics vs. athleticism and merging the two together… I think it would be a good fit for him to come in as another Black male that’s gone through similar high school experiences.”
The Next Man Up program is geared specifically toward 9th and 10th graders. The McLeods are currently in the process of sending out flyers and special invites to all of the boys within those grades as they prepare for an open house.
“We’re going to have an open house (which we’re opening up to parents as well) where we talk about the program, see who’s interested and have them fill out an application which we’ll go through and select 15 boys to be a part of our program, and we’ll kick off beginning in October with our welcome ceremony,” Rodney said.
As the McLeods continue to build Next Man Up, they are looking for Black male mentors to volunteer.
“The biggest thing is more mentors,” Rodney said. “In order for this thing to grow, we have to build out our mentor database. We’re encouraging all Black males who want to get involved to reach out. We have our volunteer list. We are going to push out various messaging and have a mentor sign-up sheet that will be going out as the program begins.”
To find out more details about Change Our Future’s Next Man Up program and how you can volunteer, visit: www.changeourfuture.org and follow them on IG @changeourfuturefund. You can also stay updated by following Rodney and Erika McLeod individually on IG @rodmcleod4 and @elee413xoxo.