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The RISE Critical Conversation, hosted in partnership with EVERFI, features players with NHL and Olympic experience and Buffalo-area high school students.

May 13, 2021

BUFFALO – RISE hosted a Critical Conversation with the Buffalo Sabres and EVERFI for high school students and teachers across Western New York, providing a platform to discuss issues of race, injustice and inequity and how individuals and organizations can take action in creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces, schools and communities.

The conversation features former NHL defenseman Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, former Olympic hockey player and RISE Group1001 Fellow Michelle Picard and local high school student De'Marie Johnson with RISE's Ian Cutler serving as moderator. Panelists discuss their own experiences with racism and discrimination, the role of athletes and sports organizations in addressing social change and what more the NHL and hockey can do to make their game more inclusive.

"When I played in Sweden, I was the only Black person in the whole town, and people were accepting," said Grand-Pierre, who played for four NHL teams and in leagues across Europe during his career and now works as a studio analyst for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Bally Sports Ohio. "It was a completely different climate to what you see in the United States. Sometimes [in the U.S.] you'll just get that look, right? And I don't know if it's something that's just in the culture here, but you go to a country [like Sweden] that's probably 99 percent Caucasian, and somehow there's less racism there than there is here, so it's the entire culture that needs to change."

"The good news is, I feel like the younger generation is much more accepting," he said. "And to me, that gives me hope."

Picard, a former player and executive in the National Women's Hockey League who won four IIHF World Championships and a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi with the U.S. Women's National Hockey Team, said the events of the past year, which included more publicized examples of systemic racism and ignited a national reckoning on race, raised her awareness of key social justice issues and her role as a change agent.

"For me, the past year has caused a lot of reflection," she said. "What more can I be doing? How can I support? [This past year] was a call to action."

Johnson, a 10th-grade student from South Park High School in Buffalo, participated in a RISE Multi-Week Leadership Program with the Buffalo Bills earlier this year that brought together four local high school football teams from different socioeconomic areas over eight weeks to educate and empower student-athletes and coaches to be leaders in discussing and addressing matters of racism, prejudice, diversity and inclusivity within their teams, schools and communities. He said sport was a powerful platform to engage in these types of conversations because of its ability to unite diverse populations and the ability athletes have to be leaders on issues of racial equity and social justice because of the way they are seen within their communities.

"Sport can bring a lot of people together from different cultures and create friendships and bonds," Johnson said. "Yes, I do have a lot of impact on people because I play football, so for me, doing something positive, I see a lot of people follow me."

Thursday's conversation was born out of a partnership among the Sabres, RISE and EVERFI that was formalized in February when the Sabres announced the team would bring the Diversity Foundations for High School program free of charge to all high schools in Western New York. Diversity Foundations is a curriculum that introduces students to key concepts of identity, bias, power and privilege, while establishing the importance of ally behavior, self-care and creating inclusive spaces.

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