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July 22, 2020

By Jared Shanker

As an NFL Pro Bowl quarterback, former No. 1 pick and 12-year starter for the Detroit Lions, Matthew Stafford knows everybody looks at him as the team leader.

"Everyone looks at the quarterback and say he's the leader, but in reality there's tons on the team," Stafford said.

Lions QB Matthew Stafford speaks on the importance of leadership in the virtual RISE Town Hall.

The record-holding quarterback was speaking during a July 21 live stream Virtual Voter Education and Registration Town Hall that RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford hosted for the Detroit Lions, and he was talking about how it will take leadership to rally communities and empower them to use their voices to vote and be civically engaged. Joining Stafford for a panel discussion were Lions players Trey Flowers and Duron Harmon, and the town hall also included critical information on voting rights and how to register from Michigan Secretary of State and RISE Board Member Jocelyn Benson.

"Anyone [watching] this can be a leader in their own community to get people off their butt and get them to do what's right, and that's using their voice for change," Stafford added. "Just because you're in a certain place in your life doesn't mean you can't lead. You can lead your family, friends, co-workers, whoever it is. … Don't ever think your voice doesn't count or what you say to somebody doesn't make a difference."

Early in the town hall, Benson talked about the importance of voting, especially as the county mourns John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, civil rights icons who dedicated much of their lives to protecting the voting rights of Black Americans and communities of color. Flowers, the Lions defensive end, then told the story of why he voted the first year he was eligible: He knew firsthand the sacrifices that his own family made to protect his liberties, including on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965.

"My whole family is from Alabama, so that march from Selma to Montgomery was definitely taught to all my brothers and sisters in our household. My granddad on my dad's side and my uncle marched in that march, and the stories coming from my dad on how much the family personally sacrificed to go out there and march.

"My grandmother on my mom's side was pregnant at the time but was giving water and helping in that way, and there was a white lady behind her that was killed. … My family was putting their life on the line for voting. Adults need to know the sacrifice that people all over the world have put toward the right to vote, and that experience right there encouraged me to make sure I register to vote."

Three Lions players share their stories on voter rights with Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford.

Harmon, a leader in the Lions' defensive backfield, also spoke about how his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother impacted him to become civically engaged. Before the 2012 election, the first presidential election he was eligible to vote, his mother sat him down and stressed the history and importance of voting not just for him but for his community and children.

"She broke it down: 'You're voting for your son as well and for the rights he will have. You're setting that legacy for him to know this is the opportunity we fought for as a group of people,' " Harmon said. "Let's not take that for granted. It's my duty to vote for our ancestors that laid down their lives for this opportunity."

Benson began her career working in Montgomery, Alabama, with the Southern Poverty Law Center investigating hate groups and hate crimes, and she previously served on the SPLC's Board of Directors. She saw up close the enduring sacrifices people made to protect civil and voting rights. At the end of the town hall, she spoke about how Michigan residents can register and vote in 2020.

"We're in the midst of a global reckoning that Black Lives Matter and a national acknowledgement of our collective responsibility to dismantle structural racism," Benson said. "In working to ensure that the voices raising awareness about these inequities are not forgotten or silenced and to make sure this historic reckoning is more than just a moment but a turning point in the long arc of our nation's history to bending toward the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and justice, we have to think about our part, as a community and as individuals, to ensure we're seeking to move the ball further down the field."

Billings-Burford noted how important leadership is and how everyone, especially athletes, can use their platform to effect meaningful change as a final note. She encouraged people to become leaders that inspire others to create a nation unified through sports committed to racial equity and social justice.

"We're going to keep democracy real in this country," she said. "We're at a significant time in this nation. So I say to everyone that whatever you're doing, do more. Society is not where it needs to be, and the only way it gets there is if we get it there."

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