Aaron Maybin, a former National Football League star, retired from professional football in 2014 to pursue a notable track in art and philanthropy full time, with the mission of encouraging underprivileged youth to create art. On Tuesday night, the Women’s Center, Health Education Services and the Center of Multicultural Equity and Access invited Maybin to Georgetown to speak about his personal journey that culminated in a unique intersection of art and activism.
Maybin started a career rooted in activism in 2009 when he established Project Mayhem, a nonprofit foundation with the goal of helping underprivileged youths excel beyond what their current conditions would permit. Maybin launched the program in his hometown of Baltimore, which saw major budget cuts for schools in recent years. According to Maybin, the arts and music programs were cut first, both of which were of personal interest to Maybin, a street artist himself.
Maybin said the power of artistic expression can make one a leader in the community.
“Whenever I create something, before I start, I ask myself two questions: One, what positive will people be able to walk away with this? Two, how will the messages I am about to convey positively affect my community and those that follow my work?” Maybin said.
Much of Maybin’s personal artwork, which includes painting and photography, highlights themes and issues for which he advocates. For instance, Maybin’s “Kings Still Exist” series includes a nod toward Nelson Mandela, whom Maybin considered one of the strongest civil rights activists in the world, and boxing icon and social activist Muhammad Ali.
“Painting can be a powerful tool for or against the black community. How will you choose to portray your people? This is by no means an indictment for those artists who choose not to use 100 percent of their platform to fight for the cause. But it is indeed a call to action to anybody who doesn’t understand the responsibility of their platform,” Maybin said.
Maybin said he believes his art has the ability to create a meaningful discussion between unlikely participants.
“I see my work simply as a platform to start difficult conversations. If by me creating a piece of artwork I can have two people that are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum sit in front of this piece and interpret it differently,” Maybin said. “It forces them to have a conversation that needs to be had especially when you are talking about issues that are extreme relevance socially and culturally.”
Maybin’s exposure to activism began while he was still a successful football player. In the 2009 NFL draft, Maybin was selected 11th overall by the Buffalo Bills, and later played for the New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals. He was the youngest in the league at the time at just 20 years old, and he was, as he self-identified, very opinionated.
Maybin described his initial naivete during his time in the NFL, when he was enthralled by the glitz and glamor of being a professional football player. Although Maybin always retained his roots, he confesses that at that point in time, he was not fully devoted to taking action to instill a change.
Recalling an encounter he had with a young child, who explicitly called him out by pointing out his jewelry and clothing choice when he was speaking to an underprivileged community, Maybin said, “I then realized I was a part of the exact system I was retaliating against.”
A period of self-discovery ensued, which inspired Maybin to begin his involvement in activism, an experience he found liberating.
“Football is great, but it’s a game. It’s a kid’s game,” Maybin said. “I hated the idea of dancing to someone else’s tune. I am now my own boss – I can say what I want, publish what I want.”
To explain his focus on social and racial inequality, Maybin presented a scenario of two students enrolled in a single class from two very different households: One child eats three meals a day and comes from an encouraging environment and a stable household, while the other could be hungry, come from a single parent household and even could have been abused.
“Just because you’re in the same classroom doesn’t mean you have equal opportunity. Some kids just don’t have that safety net,” Maybin said.
Maybin recognized that there are still many obstacles in addressing poverty within the black community.
“I wanted to kill the idea of success as ‘moving out of the hood.’ … I can’t change the infrastructure of the black community. But I can say, ‘Let’s make sure a city full of kids have the same opportunity to chase the same dreams as I could.’”
Students who attended the event said they were inspired by Maybin. “Oftentimes, we get wrapped up in our worlds and what surrounds us. We do not understand the other side of the story, and I really think he does,” Ahmed Latif (COL ’19) said.
“We hear in the news about activism, and we see people posting about Black Lives Matter, feminism and other issues,” Claire Smith (COL ’19) said. “I think he gave a whole new perspective from both sides and why you need to go in and make the change yourself.”