CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - When Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton returned to Auburn to finish his degree a few years ago, a sociology professor began her first class by asking students to recall the first time the experienced everyday interactions with people of a different race.
Newton, sitting low in his seat near the back of the class, remembers being embarrassed to say that his first experience dealing extensively with non-blacks was as a 17-year-old freshman at Florida.
"Seventeen years of my life was devoted to an all-black, African-American community," said Newton, who grew up in College Park, Ga., a south Atlanta suburb.
"So you put a person – at that particular time it was the University of Florida – that has pretty much no coping skills with another race, you don't even know what they eat. It's weird how they talk … what they listen to. I didn't even know who Kenny Chesney was."
Newton shared that story Tuesday night – the Chesney line drew a laugh – at the launch of Un1ted As 1, a program designed to help local middle-schoolers to embrace diversity and promote inclusiveness.
Sixty students from three CMS middle schools and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Charlotte were chosen to attend a three-day pilot program over MLK weekend in January.
Tuesday's event was an opportunity for Newton to meet the diverse group of students – and take selfies with them – and for organizers to introduce some of the topics that will be covered next month.
Newton said he wants the weekend to be fun and interactive. Program leaders seemed to get the message, putting together a rap that included a few dance steps (and a dab) for Tuesday's kickoff.
"This is not something that's boring or something a person may say, 'Oh, that's been done before,'" Newton said. "We really did our research in trying to find the right group that we could become a partner with."
That turned out to be the Winters Group, a Charlotte-based consulting group that helps businesses create inclusive work environments.
Founder Mary-Frances Winters said her group has been leading cultural proficiency training with CMS teachers the past two years, but Newton will be the first athlete it has worked with.
Winters appreciates the way Newton keeps it real when dealing with kids.
"He brings youth. He brings vulnerability and an honesty and an authenticity," she said. "One of the things we really focus on in our work is to be authentic – the unique you. There's so much pressure for kids to conform and to be like everybody else.
"I think he has advocated this idea that you can be unique, but you can still be part of a team."
If Newton's Auburn professor planted the seed that would become Un1ted As 1, the violent protests that erupted in Charlotte last year following the police shooting of Keith Scott moved him to action.
"It was something that was extremely personal to me because it was right outside my home, my condo," said Newton, who lives in an uptown high-rise. "I'm literally looking at it on CNN and just looking outside my window and seeing it. I was like, 'Man, this is crazy.' It was that point where it was like, 'Man, we've got to do something because this is really taking off as a wildfire for the wrong reason.'"
Newton would love for the program to grow beyond Charlotte someday. But for now, he's excited to promote unity at the local level.
"I may not impact millions. But I just want to impact that one person that may impact millions," he said.