Sport for Good is alive and well in Atlanta.
I was heading to the USA for two weeks, visiting Atlanta, and wondered what programmes there might be running over there that use sport to promote social change. The first step in my quest to learn more on this trip was to visit LinkedIn and see what contacts I had, there I found Jason Longshore. At some point we had linked up with each other due to a common interest in football, or soccer, for development. Jason had been the Chief Development Officer with an NGO called “Soccer in the Streets”, but has since moved on to work in the media and to become the commentator for Atlanta United FC which began to play in 2017 as team in the Eastern Conference of the Major Soccer league (MLS).
I met up with Jason for a coffee and chat at a Starbucks in an area of Atlanta called Buckhead. He was passionate about soccer and the power that sport has to make a difference in the lives of young people. We had a stimulating conversation during which I learned a lot about the development of soccer in Atlanta and the background to Soccer in the Street. I discovered we had similar views on how sport can be used to promote social change. My big take away from our conversation was this idea of “intentional” design. Playing sport alone does not lead to positive youth development and young people ready to make positive healthy decisions in life. If we want that to happen through sport, we need to intentionally target the development of values and life skills alongside developing the physical, cognitive, technical and tactical skills required to play soccer.
Prior to traveling to Atlanta, my second “reach out” was to Mike Geddes who is the Managing Director of streetfootballworld USA. I know Mike from his time in Cape Town around the 2010 FIFA World Cup and was aware that he had recently run an event in Atlanta for streetfootballworld. Mike made two great contacts for me, the first was Pharlone Toussaint from Laureus USA, and second Phil Hill from Soccer in the Streets. It just so happened that Pharlone was organising a Laureus Sport for Good Atlanta Alliance meeting whilst I was in Atlanta and she kindly extended an invitation to attend. Phil was also attending the meeting so we agreed to catch up there.
The Laureus Sport for Good Atlanta Alliance meeting proved a great opportunity to meet up with lots of superstars using sports programmes to develop young people living in communities that face social challenges. My big take away from this meeting came was from a resident of Westside, Atlanta, who told it straight and stressed the importance of consulting local communities before investing in programmes. He essentially was arguing for a bottom up, as opposed to a top down, approach to designing programmes for his community. His contribution to the conversation highlighted the importance of “consulting the community” in order to understand local challenges and needs before designing interventions. This is a global principle which is equally applicable whether in the USA or here in Africa.
In addition to local stakeholders, some members of the London based Laureus Global Team were also in Atlanta attending the Alliance meeting. It was great to bump into Vicky Lowe again, now Head of Development at Laureus Global, whom I had previously worked with when she was with Barclays Spaces for Sport programme.
There were many local sport for change organisations participating in the Alliance Meeting in addition to “Soccer in the Streets” but two that caught my attention were “Girls on the Run” and “The First Tee”.
Girls on the Run works to encourage pre-teen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through dynamic, interactive lessons and running games, culminating in a celebratory 5k run. As I have a background in endurance running from my UK Athletics days and a sport for social change background from my work in Africa, I was naturally going to be attracted to a youth development programme featuring running. This programme is targeting girls and is the type of programme needed in South Africa. I had recently been corresponding with contacts in South African athletics regarding the lack of participation by black African women in running. At many local competitions the first ten or so men finishers are invariably black African men, but by contrast the first ten or so women are invariably white. This begs the question why black African women are not in running in equal numbers to their male counterparts. I would say, that one of the reasons is that South Africa remains a patriarchal society where girls are not encouraged to take up sport. A programme such as Girls on the Run could do much to build the self-confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy of young women in black African communities and could encourage more black African girls to take up running as a sport.
The First Tee is a youth development organization that impacts the lives of young people by providing educational programmes that build character, instil life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf. As I was born in St Andrews it was pretty hard for me to not sit up and take notice of a golf based programme. Also my consulting colleague, Donny Jurgens was until just recently a member of the Executive Committee of South African Golf. I am sure he will be interested to know more about The First Tee and their work in youth development work in the USA. This was another programme that I thought could easily have relevance in South Africa.
To Jason, Pharlone, Phil and all the other superstars promoting sport for social change in Atlanta, thank you for meeting with me and sharing your programmes and ideas. I hope to follow up and see what we can learn from your work that can be to applied around the world especially in an African context.