As a young Black man who played his college football at UNC, linebacker Andre Smith feels a kinship with the children growing up around the Carolinas, whose education has been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A member of the Panthers' Player Impact Committee, Smith participated in a reading program for Charlotte-area youth this spring — reciting books like "Clifford the Big Red Dog" to help promote literacy for second and third graders. That program, in particular, encouraged Black men to engage.
"They told me they wanted majority Black men because that's who was struggling in the Charlotte area. Little Black boys had the lowest reading scores out of all the demographics," Smith said. "I just know how important it is to be able to read."
When the pandemic struck, children's education became even more at risk — particularly for those in low-income neighborhoods. So the Impact Committee worked with the North Carolina Department of Public Institution to identify which counties were most in need.
Since many cities were already working on expanding broadband access, the committee decided it would be best to donate laptops. So through a partnership with North Carolina-based Lenovo, Columbus County and Richmond County's school systems will each receive 300 Chromebooks to provide better access for remote learning opportunities.
"The sudden transition to distance learning put a spotlight on the digital divide that still exists and is a very real obstacle for too many K-12 students and public school systems," said Matthew Zielinski, President of Lenovo North America.
The uncertainty surrounding when or if children will be able to return to the classroom in the fall only creates more urgency for the laptop donation.
"You never know what could happen, so it's just a real iffy time right now, and we have to be prepared for whatever can arise," Smith said.
While the laptops will help more than just Black boys around the counties, aiding them was a significant motivating factor for Smith.
"I think I see it from a different perspective because I've seen Black men who didn't take education seriously, and they're not as successful as they could have been or want to be," he said. "So I just don't want these young men to be in the same position as others.
"What I learned from growing up with these young men who didn't take school seriously is how important it is. So often, especially little Black boys and little Black girls too, we all chase the big dream. We all want to be on a stage with the microphone, or on TV, or dribbling a ball, or scoring touchdowns. The odds of making it to these levels are very small."
What Smith wants young Black children to avoid is putting all of their efforts into going down those avenues of fame. Instead, he'd like kids to see education as their first option, not just a fallback plan.
"I want them to begin to understand that, for us to be successful, we don't have to be a professional athlete, or a singer, actor, or actress, or rapper or anything like that," Smith said. "That's something I actually think about a lot — I think about guys my age and how they could've maybe turned the situation around once their big dreams didn't work out. So I just know that from my perspective, I've learned a lot of things, and I've learned that there's a lot of ways to be successful in this world."
And to Smith, having the Panthers back a project like this helps it carry even more weight.
"The Panthers are the biggest brand in North and South Carolina. So if the Panthers say anything, everyone's gonna look," Smith said. "Whatever we do, people see. People care about what we do to an extreme level, especially our huge fan base. So having the Panthers backing is the best backing for this area.
"That's why we also like to give people our support and allow people to use our platform because we understand how huge it is, and our reach can be global."
The Chromebooks are scheduled to be delivered by the end of the month, which will give the school systems enough time to get them ready for the 2020-2021 school year.