Soccer Without Borders Co-Founder and Executive Director, Mary McVeigh Connor, was recently featured as a guest on In Her Corner, a podcast celebrating and empowering women working in sport on and off the field. This episode features Mary speaking with podcast host Liseli Sitali about gender equality, inclusion, and soccer–and how all of these come together in our work at Soccer Without Borders.
We encourage you to check out the full podcast interview here, Spotify, Apple, or wherever you go for your podcasts, or check out some of the highlights in the partial transcription below.
On aligning values in partnership... (15:30)
“I read this quote and I don’t know who to attribute it to, but it says: Change happens at the speed of trust. I think that is where there can be a disconnect of culture where you’re saying, ‘how do I know what your intention is and how can I trust that?’ and that’s the case for partnerships like you’ve described or a corporate entity with a nonprofit, but it’s also a nonprofit with its beneficiaries and its communities– you need to build trust even if you are perceiving that, ‘well I’m bringing this resource that you need or want or that you say you need or want,’ there needs to be a trust there, otherwise it reinforces a power dynamic that is harmful and counterproductive to what you’re trying to achieve together. So the answer to your question is to figure out who are the relationships involved, and what will it take to build that trust. How long will it take?”
On football as a cultural phenomenon...(18:30)
“If you view football as a business, as a product, as potential revenue as entertainment, then I think that narrows your view of what football and sport have the potential to create. I view it as a cultural phenomenon...Football has somehow, as a phenomenon, it motivates people all around the world to play it, to engage with it...that to me is a very unique thing that there would be something that pervasive in the world that touches so many people’s lives...What I love about Soccer Without Borders and this side of the game is that I believe the game belongs to the people who play it. I’ve been involved in the game as a coach and administrator, but it is a player’s game. When the game kicks off, the decisions belong to the players, there isn’t much you can do as a coach, If you take that analogy and apply it to the game as a whole, the game belongs to the people who are in it. And it should be that way. I think it is very limiting to view the game solely from a business perspective because that’s actually quite the minority of people that get to be involved in the game in that way.”
On shaping women’s football not in the image of the men’s game, but to be more inclusive...(24:40)
“I believe there is an opportunity to create women’s football, not in the image of men’s football which, let’s be honest, reflects the inequality of the world. It is an exact mirror image of the economic and social inequality that we see in the world. It should be surprising to see racist attitudes playing out within the field that we revere so much, right on the field we’ve allowed it to be embedded, and that’s because men’s football is a mirror of the world that we say we want to change. Let’s build something better. Let’s build women’s football in the image of the change we want to see in the world. That has to mean that girls everywhere have the opportunity to access it. It has to start with that.”
On Title IX....(29:30)
“You named Megan Rapinoe and you named my experience...we are a generation that benefited from Title IX, from Billie Jean King taking on the iconic message of ‘this has to be equal and it has to be equal in law.’ We’re still working on the accountability to that law, but when it is written that’s incredibly powerful. To have something enshrined in the way that institutions are designed...I would love to see that enshrined in clubs, leagues, federations, governance (globally). Against what law or rule will you hold someone accountable when they get $10,000 and they spend $9,900 of it on the men’s side and the women’s team gets a new ball.”
On investment in and commitment to social change through football...(33:00)
“If you believe that sport can be that influence, can be the change agent, well then we need to stop investing $999,000 in the tiniest sliver of sport (the commercial professional game) and then throwing used equipment at the sport for social change movement and then saying, great, improve our outcomes, improve education, address homelessness. You can’t address the problem with minor investments when 99%+ of the investment is at best, reinforcing the status quo, at worst, creating the problem. And that is the inherent power dynamic that we are seeing...If you truly want to create a movement of change that advances gender equality from fields in Nicaragua where we work all the way to Wembley stadium, then you need to invest properly in those change agents, in the change you want to see. I think those can be one and the same- the women’s game and the football for social change effort, could be embedded together so as we mobilize investment, actually it’s supporting the communities where there is a women’s team there’s also a community movement....Enshrine it into your reason for existence, so if you have a founding document, a by-laws, whatever it is, it needs to be in there so that it’s not that ‘oh Covid hits so now we have to cancel this part because it’s not profitable.’ It’s like no, this is a part of who we are and if we are not doing this, then we are not doing.”
On identifying a need...(38:30)
“We started the program in Nicaragua in 2008 focused on girls. At the time there were leagues up and down the bracket for boys and men. As a country Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, so I don’t want to pretend that even the men’s side was well resourced, but the resources that existed were going to boys and men...So a community identifies a need and we can then help make it happen. What’s the vision that we want to create together? We want to create more gender equal opportunity for sport and we want girls to be able to succeed on the field and off. So everything we were seeing in soccer in sport, in terms of lack of access for girls, lack of opportunity to advance–that’s also the case in education. That’s also the case in careers. This is a reality that girls live in where 30% of them are pregnant by the age of 18. You watch girls bear the disproportionate burden of taking care of younger siblings. They are less likely to go to secondary school. What you see on the field reflecting other barriers and challenges for girls off the field is very true there. And when you are able to create something that is different on the field, and provide other educational supports, tutoring, school scholarships–all these other opportunities–you can create pathways from the field to opportunities off. And so that’s what we’ve done there. We’ve been working there for 12 years… that program really taught me about the intersection between programming and cultural norms.”
On program design...(40:55)
“Great program design, absolutely (essential). We go to schools, we run gym classes, we recruit girls to come to the program. They’re able to work with a caring trained mentor coach who coaches them on the field. Off the field, they have access to school scholarships, which provide school uniforms, tangible financial resources that they can access to make sure they stay in school, that they have a community of peers to help them navigate adolescence, and a strong team culture that supports them to make healthy choices and avoid risky behaviors. So all of that intentionality is there. I don’t want to pretend that it’s only about culture or only about relationships. So strong program design, plus recognizing that this is a cultural context that’s defined by. Machismo is a word in the Spanish language because of this culture of men first and a lack of accountability. More than 70% of the girls in our program, their parent at home is a single Mom. There is very little accountability for men to financially or emotionally care for their kids and so that burden falls on women. The program has this intentional design and then it also said if we want to create pathways for these girls, do we create a bubble that then sends them off into a community that is like ‘oh that’s great you graduated from high school but we don’t believe that women should be in these other spaces.’ You also have to address the norms around this that the girls are experiencing. And so that has to come from change-makers within the community who know the community best.”
On changing perceptions...(44:30)
“So the first time I was there (Nicaragua) in 2008, I was there with a friend of mine, Ann Cook, who played for the Washington Freedom with Mia Hamm and they won the WUSA Championship–she was a really great player and left-footed which makes her that much more tricky…She and I were walking home with one of our local coaches named Chepe, in the evening, it was dark. And like so many places in the world, we come upon a 3v3 pick-up soccer game under a street light with six men playing. So there’s three of us, it’s teams of three, we ask if we can challenge the winners, you know whoever wins the next game, scores the next goal. They just laughed at us. Two women and one of our coaches who was male, but he knew these guys and was like “we will play in” and they laughed and said “sure whatever you want Chepe.” So we play in and, every time I tell this story I think the number of wins gets bigger, but we won something like six or eight games in a row and these guys that we are playing against, they just go through, it’s almost like stages of grief or something. You know, they are laughing at us, and then they’re angry, and then they’re mad at each other, and then by the end, there was just acceptance like all right you are just good players and if you can play you can play. They had genuinely never seen this. For all of these structural reasons, there were not women in their 100,000 person city who could play like this. And so how do you kind of envision what you can’t see?....I’m starting from the baseline that I can’t play...I try to channel that into the opportunity to exceed expectations every time, and try to convert people along the way....In the process of exceeding your very low expectations, well now I’ve got your attention, and what am I going to do with that attention? How do I channel that into preventing that same assumption from perpetuating?”
On building your organization to be the change you want to see in the world (55:10):
“Taking with that thread of authentically being what you are advocating for, the Founder of Soccer Without Borders is Ben Gucciardi. He’s the one that signed the paperwork. He had the original idea. I actually didn’t come into the organization until a year later when it was very small, under $20,000, all volunteer, very sort of amorphous vision for what it could be, and for a while my title was just Executive Director. I don’t think many people know that or remember that, and it wasn’t actually until later that Ben went to the board and advocated that I be named Co-Founder, because Soccer Without Borders as it became–we founded that together. We brought this into existence together and what it is today is not what it was. And I think that’s really important for people to know when we talk about women’s work being undervalued, and underpaid, and under-recognized, that applies to titles as well. I meet so many women who are sort of like second in command at an entity and they are not named equal as the man who signed the papers to create the entity, and I think that was a really defining moment for me and for Soccer Without Borders... I hope that lesson goes to people who have that position of power and maybe holding onto it too tightly.”
On the long game…
“We believe in generational change. To take it back to the Nicaragua example, that game that I played on that field was in 2008. You fast forward twelve years and girls who were 8 years old, who had just come into our program, they’re now 20, and they work for us. They are in college and they are coaches in addition to college, it is helping them pay for college. That is a generational change where now an 8 year old is not seeing me as her coach, she is seeing Hasly, and Natalia, and Mileidy, all of these women who started as her, and 12 years later they are the ones coaching. That leads to my third piece of advice which is play the long game. The kind of change we’re talking about takes a generation. It takes 5, 6, 7, 12 years.”
“For me I think that the best legacy that I could leave is people who genuinely felt that we did something together that was meaningful, that made their life happier and fuller and better, and I think that is the philosopher in me that is like, what is the greatest good that we seek in life–and to me that’s love and friendship and empathy and trying to be a person that lifts others up. And I think that the only way to measure that would be in true friendships and people that believe not in me, but in carrying the work forward...I would love for that to be my legacy–just for people to seek and act on the change that they want to see and to get up everyday and try to do that.”
Please check out the full episode here, or wherever you get your podcasts.