But on a quiet day in April, the Sox executive vice president got his chance to be the guy asking the questions.
“When you leave your house how do you feel? Do you feel like you’re cool and you’re safe? Or not?” Williams asked a group of high school boys sitting in something of a truth circle in the team clubhouse.
Their answers stung like a punch in the gut.
“They said they have a fear of walking out their door and not knowing whether they’ll make it safely to school or not,” Williams said. “That hit me hard. We should all have a certain amount of comfort and safety. And these kids don’t. As part of the community, we have to do something about that. It starts with listening to them.”
That’s the underlying message behind a public service announcement set to hit the airwaves Wednesday — about two weeks before the last day of public school in Chicago. It urges Chicagoans to support community groups that aim to help kids spend the summer "thriving not just surviving."
The video produced by the White Sox and Bulls captures the essence of hourslong discussions about violence in Chicago that Williams and Bulls stars Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson had with boys involved in a program called Becoming A Man — that’s BAM for short — at Hyde Park Academy and Little Village Academy.
“Talking with them, all I could think is, ‘That was me at one point in my life,’ ” Butler said.
Butler knows something about hard times.
He was just a baby when his father abandoned the family. And at 13, his mom kicked him out of the house. In high school, the future Bulls guard lived with a friend’s family that took him in.
But that’s nothing compared to hard times in Chicago, Butler said.
“I mean I can’t even compare to what they’re going through. I grew up in a small town outside of Houston called Tomball. It’s a totally different scale. They’re scared to go to school. Where I’m from you were never scared to go to school,” he said. “It hurt to hear what they’re going through. But it’s good to know that I can help.”
Celebrity aside, what really helps kids in BAM is having the chance to talk with successful men who care enough to listen.
“What’s most significant is that how they feel about how they experience the world is being valued, honored, respected and affirmed,” Youth Guidance CEO Michelle Morrison says. “Having a positive male model engaging in dialogue, and not being talked down to, really helps a young man feel the power of his voice. Not the power of his fists, not the power of his gun, but his voice.”
A lot of the kids in BAM don’t have a father who's “physically or emotionally available,” Morrison said.
“That’s a pressing challenge for the young men we’re working with. It’s a topic that comes up a lot, frankly. For them to be heard by Kenny Williams and Jimmy Butler — and it’s honest, it’s real, it’s intimate and develops a sense of community for the young men, themselves. Think about how powerful that is?”
It’s powerful to hear their stories, too, Williams said.
“Afterwards, I felt conflicted. Talking with them gives me hope and gives me worry at the same time,” he said. “These young men are quality. They just want a chance. They’re able to articulate their worries, their concerns and their fears. I can relate as a man who went through similar things growing up.”
Over the last few months, Williams and other Sox and Bulls employees — including Bulls general manager Gar Forman — have had regular chats with the boys from BAM. And there will be more talks over the summer, so the kids know that they’ve got some good guys on their side.
“This group had such an impact on me on a personal level for sure and I want to do more. We want to do more for them,” Williams said. “These are amazing people and we need to shine a light on them. We hear about all the violence, all the terrible things and still there’s so much good going on in the city.”
Starting this week, the Sox will start playing the short videos on the big screen before home games and between innings. They’ll be on TV and the Internet, too.
Butler says he hopes that they get people to see Chicago the way he’d like it to be — one city, undivided.
“This city has grown on me. I feel like Chicago is part of me. In the summer in this town there’s so much fun to have. You’ve got the best food. Great sports teams. Lots of sites to see. Shopping. But if you go too far on the South Side it’s totally different,” Butler said.
“It’s not just the South Side that suffers. It’s the city as a whole. We have to take better care of each other. These kids are the future of Chicago.”
And they deserve our attention, Williams says.
“People say that someone’s environment shapes their behavior. Well, then we have a duty to change more environments,” he said.
“All you have to do is pay these kids a little attention and it might affect change. You can see it in the young men in this program. I know the attention that they get is translating into some great success stories. It might happen as fast as we want, but there is change going on.”