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  • Soccer Without Borders

The Place for Sports in Development

"Before entering the MDP program, I spent four years working for a sport for development organization, Soccer Without Borders (SWB). My time there allowed me to learn about non-profit management, communications, grant writing, program coordination, coaching for inclusion, and the distinct challenges that the communities in which I worked faced. My time in the MDP has allowed me to zoom out and more deeply consider the role that sport can play in development.

SWB uses the sport of soccer to engage newcomer refugee and immigrant youth, leveraging the global language of play to improve educational and behavioral outcomes and empower youth to achieve their goals. The nature of a team provides a social support system, a safe space for some the world’s most vulnerable youth. It also provides a platform for inter-cultural exchange and understanding, a shared vision for which it is worth finding common ground.

During my time in Oakland, I witnessed seventeen year-old boys from Afghanistan and El Salvador move from classmates without a shared language, to teammates, to best friends. I saw girls from Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Mexico, and Burma all step onto the field representing one team with a shared goal. I also saw a girl who had never considered the possibility of participating in sport hesitantly kick the ball for the first time, and then fiercely slide tackle in a formal game two months later.

When I consider “development” within the framework of broad concepts like economic growth and political/systemic change, I have found it difficult to place the work of SWB. But one of the best parts of this program is the opportunity to define development for ourselves. In doing so, I ask myself, “How does creating a safe space for learning, growth, and social connection ultimately result in a more equitable community and world?” The answer to that question came to me with a text from one of my former players a few weeks ago.

A Somali refugee, Fatuma grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya. She had never played soccer before her family was resettled to Oakland in 2012. When I started coaching SWB Oakland’s high school girls’ team in 2013, Fatuma was a junior in high school and an integral member of the team. She became the captain her senior year. Earlier this year, Fatuma texted me to ask if I could help her find a protest to attend. She was itching to use her voice and resist the harmful rhetoric and policies put forth by the current administration. It was then that I recognized the deep value of sport for development and SWB’s work.

The community built on a soccer field extends far beyond the end lines. When we create teams where diversity is celebrated, where each person’s success is tied to the others’, we create small movements. When Muslim girls and Karen* girls and Latina girls all see each other as crucial members of the same team, there is a small shock to the system. These girls are going back to their communities in East and West Oakland knowing that they have a team behind them. They are exercising their voices and lifting each other up. They are advocating for their rights and changing their communities. And to me, they are demonstrating the powerful way in which sport can be a catalyst for development.

*The Karen people are an ethnic minority in Burma.

Read this piece from our former SWB Oakland girls program director, Katy Nagy who is now a full-time graduate student in UC Berkeley Master of Development Practice program on the UC Berkeley website here>>>


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