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  • Sophia Goethals, SWB

Storytelling Event Featuring USWNT's Naomi Girma

U.S. Women’s National Team and San Diego Wave Defender Naomi Girma recently joined SWB for a storytelling event where she spoke about community, activism, and continuing to make positive change in soccer. In 2019, Girma captained Stanford to win the Women’s College Cup, and in 2022 was the first pick in the NWSL draft and named Rookie of the Year. Her accolades, however, extend far beyond the pitch, as she has used her platform and voice to advocate for positive and necessary changes both in the soccer world and beyond.

The Storytelling Event was part of SWB’s annual Play It Forward campaign, which raises funds for SWB’s free, year-round programming for newcomer youth. This year, the Play It Forward Campaign is highlighting different individuals and groups that are making positive change across the soccer world. The event showcased SWB’s work, interviewing staff alongside Girma to talk about initiatives that SWB is involved in to make soccer spaces more inclusive — from Switch the Pitch to Play Proud to developing equity as a core value.

On how she got her start in soccer

“As you mentioned, I’m first generation, my family’s from Ethiopia. That’s actually how I started playing soccer. My dad started this thing called Maleda Soccer in the Bay Area and it was pretty much Ethiopians getting together on Saturday and playing soccer and having a barbecue. Soccer definitely wasn’t the focus, but it was a way for the kids and parents to get together to have that shared community as we were all going through the same experience. So that’s how I started playing soccer and I think that’s when I really fell in love with soccer. It was really for fun — there were no stakes, no pressure, just me playing with my brother and our friends and having fun.

On her experience at Stanford

[Stanford] was a dream for me, especially growing up in the Bay. To get a scholarship there was such a huge help for my family and just a big opportunity for me to challenge myself in a way I'd never been challenged before. It showed me opportunities I didn't know where possible and exposed me to a whole new world. Even the opportunity to be a professional soccer player, I didn't know that was there for me, or play for the national team, or start a business, both on and off the field. So I think Stanford really tested me and stretched me and really shaped who I am today.

On the support of her communities over time

I think one of the most special things about the communities I’ve been a part of is that they’re still with me now. As I left Maleda, they were always cheering me on. I would try to go back when I could, just to play. Then as I went on a lot of my club friends and teammates have come to games in San Diego and same with Stanford. So it’s just been great to have those communities continue to support me and I try to support them as much as I can.

On the moment that she realized that the game could create real change

I think the biggest moment that stands out to me was 2020 during BLM [Black Lives Matter] and a lot of protesting. As a team we just got on a Zoom call and said, “We have to do something, we have to say something.” We ended up putting a statement out on our Stanford women’s soccer Instagram and Twitter, which I don't think a team had really done before. It’s always from the admin, never from the players saying what we wanted to say. And I think we realized that that’s our power, that’s our platform and people are following these things to hear from us… People still listened and wanted to hear from us and us doing something, saying something still made an impact. And so I think that was the first time I realized how powerful soccer and sports can be beyond winning on the field. We ended up putting a fundraiser together and for me, the most interesting part was seeing how receptive people were to it. We always knew we had these things, but we never thought people would listen or want to hear it. But I think a lot of athletes during 2020 kind of found their voice and realized that not only do we have the opportunities, we also have a responsibility to use these platforms that are given to us now to create change.

On creating positive change in and through soccer

There’s a lot of good and bad that happened, especially this year. I think it being my first year as a pro I learned a lot. One of the main things that I took away, this generation right now kind of feels the responsibility to keep pushing the game forward and pushing for change. Now being a part of the national team and going to our players association meeting, the things we talk about are never about soccer, it’s about equal pay or how to keep pushing the standards for other federations, not just in the US. And just really making sure that we’re driving things forward. So I think that's been really inspiring for me, just to see older players teaching me this is how it’s done, this is what we do. And I think it’s really important that they’re passing their wisdom onto us, because soon it’ll be us that will be pushing the change.

On the role she sees herself playing in that change

The main role I see in the upcoming year is that I'm part of the U.S. Soccer Safety Task Force and I’m on the Response and Reporting Subcommittee. It’s a group of athletes, lawyers, and admin, and an older athlete asked me to be on it and I think I was honored that they asked me and I’m honored to be a part of that because it’s one of the main responses to the Yates report. And it’s in the beginning stages but it's exciting to see the leadership from Mana Shim and the work that they’re willing to put in to just make soccer a safer sport across the U.S. and really put these protections in places so that starting all the way from youth soccer to being a pro you’re protected and you’re focusing on your game. So that’s the main way I see myself being involved this year, and then I'm hoping to just continue learning from the older players and as years go on continue pushing for change and making sure we’re not getting complacent in what has happened so far.

On advice she has for her younger self

I think as a soccer player: Don’t compare yourself. I think because I didn’t play [in one] of the larger clubs where a lot of people were playing college, I doubted myself alot instead of being confident in myself and showing up as I am and playing how I play. Having confidence in the work I put in even though it didn’t look like everyone else.

Off the field I would tell myself to use my platform earlier. A lot of times I feel like people don’t want to hear from me or dont’ want to listen, but I think just telling myself that there’s a power in speaking out. And there are people you can impact, and even if it impacts one person it's a win. No matter how big or small you think that platform is, it’s still powerful.

On her parents’ reaction to her becoming a professional athlete

My dad re-watches my games! And my mom is just so excited, she would drive me everywhere but at first she didn’t really understand. She didn’t know offsides. I feel like me and her learned everything together. But she’s loved it, she’s been to most games in San Diego because it’s an hour flight. And she went to her first National Team game that I was playing in in November, it was in New Jersey. She includes herself, saying “we won!” or “we lost.” It’s pretty great that they’re experiencing it with me, too.

You can watch the full recording of the event here!


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