An urban basketball court in Leon, Nicaragua.

The Common Denominator.

“Tom Brady? Teddy Bruschi? The Patriots, right?” These were not the questions I expected to be asked at the small, humid border crossing between Guatemala and El Salvador. And yet here stood the imposing guard, looking much like the former NFL linebacker himself, glancing at my American passport and rattling off football names like a New England native.

Immediately all of my preconceived notions of the country shifted. In 2011 El Salvador had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world; two of the most notorious international gangs run out of the country, and the US Department of State warns travelers of violent extortion and kidnapping rings operating out of several prisons. When planning a trip to Central America this summer, you might understand why El Salvador did not top my list of countries to visit; I definitely didn’t expect a welcome into the country that included inquiries about my local American sports teams.

After a semester interning at Sport in Society, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. As a program that recognizes the power of sports and the “extent to which its worldwide audience cuts across gender, race, and socioeconomic lines” I knew the connections diverse groups make over kicking a soccer ball or cheering for familiar athletes. But tired, sunburned, and backpacking so far from home, I hadn’t expected to experience that connection in such a powerful way. In my mediocre Spanish, and his slightly better English, I learned that the border guard had a friend who had lived in Lexington, MA and recognized Boston in my passport. This opened a conversation about general sports, and then popular local surfing, and ended with the guard recommending a visit to an international surfing competition along the coast of El Salvador.

Travelling internationally as an American can inspire a host of different reactions, but when names from the New England Patriots are the first thing mentioned by a government security official, you realize just how universal sports are. It’s especially amazing when you consider the worldwide appeal of football vs. futbol, a topic that particularly incited debate when America’s gold medal potential in the World Cup was proposed.

Toward the end of my five-week trip, my first serious journey abroad, I had talked not only the Patriots, but discussed the culture of machismo in bullfighting, kicked around “soccer” balls made of wrapped up plastic bags, and read proud articles about successful Panamanians playing Major League Baseball. In part due to these real life experiences that contextualize the work we do here, I had also made the decision to dedicate more time to utilizing the “power and appeal of sport”; at the end of my summer vacation I chose to return full-time as an intern and facilitator with Sport in Society.

No matter where these experiences occur, either on a dusty field in Guatemala City or crowded basketball courts in Roxbury, I think everyone who witnesses the universality of sports can understand the potential for using that to create social change and I can’t wait to see what this next semester brings!

I am he as you are me and we are all together

These last few weeks I have been exposed to a new side of society, the philanthropic side, that I didn’t really think existed except in the government’s welfare offices, or in the fairy tail lands Disney movies. It seemed like people cared more about cats and dogs than their fellow man. I was beginning to lose faith.

My last co-op at an economic research firm was on the flip side of SIS. Their mission statement: Make a profit. Don’t get me wrong I met lots of nice people while working there, and learned many things that will help me get to the next level in my professional career, but I needed something more wholesome. I truly believe that your work defines who you are as a person. I would rather spend my time working for the empowerment of other people than for the empowerment of a corporation. It just feels better at the end of the day.

This week I had the opportunity to go to a professional development seminar taught by Sport in Society’s very own Jarod Chin. All the YMCA teen directors, and SIS co-ops were there to be educated on violence prevention, and the power of the bystander. Jarod is a great facilitator. I can tell because he hardly ever speaks or comes up with a ground breaking idea. He intentionally steers the conversation one direction, and lets us come up with the epiphanies and examples that are great take-aways.

We have all witnessed a fight in our lifetime. (I know me personally, I saw about one a day in middle school, especially while playing sports). It was usually a fight over a basketball game that escalated into physical violence and punches being thrown. What did the rest of us do while this was happening…? We gathered into a circle and watched, oooooing and ahhhhing as our friends tried to kill each other. Living in a society that glorifies violence as an essential attribute in being macho dilutes every kid that receives Mentoring in Violence Provention (MVP) training. I feel like for every person who sees the real problem in settling arguments with violence there are 10 more that are watching playground fights on youtube, or playing the latest GTA video game. This just makes it harder for those kids, teachers, and YMCA staff members who actually are able to react positively when a fight breaks out, and defuse the situation.

On Thursday night I went to the AltrUHelp event in this swanky building along Marina drive on the wharf. I was with my friend Brett who was a co-op at SIS last cycle. This event was cool. Lots of people had set up tables to explain their non-profits and causes. Brett, Caitlin and I spent the majority of the night meeting other people in the industry, and explaining our experiences at SIS. I was amazed at all the different ideas that people had for their start-ups and non-profits, and the different ways they went about attaining resources they needed in a heavily capital driven society.

Drinking free ‘Gansett, eating free Boloco is every college kid’s dream right? But it was the people I met that stole the spot light in my mind. I now understand how important networking is for my future, and last night i got three business cards (I’m currently ahead in the co-op biz card competition) from people I talked too who were interested in our cause as well as interested in me for future job openings and volunteer opportunities.

It’s funny how you don’t really realize there’s a community around you until you are actively helping the people of the community. Then all of a sudden you meet tons of other people who are also on your side working towards a common goal of economic and racial equality. You also get the chance to interact with the participants who you are trying to reach out to in order to provide support for them. Most people are grateful, friendly, and heedful when you lend them a hand. Sport in Society gets lots of positive feedback for the work they do in the community, and I bet if you asked any employee here they’d say it’s worth it to continue their work. As the weeks go by here, and I attend more meetings, events, and training sessions I get a better sense of how everyone in the community comes together in faith.

By Charlie Pioli

Two weeks through

As the two weeks of training come to a close I am still left with many questions. Being a BPS co-op in a field designed for the YMCA co-op has been a challenging but informative process. At first I had little knowledge of what I was at Sport in Society to do, or even what they did as an organization. I started to learn what the YMCA co-op needed to do and started to embrace their position as if it were my own. I find the Dodge motto “Grab life by the horns” lead me through this training. I decided to embrace what we were doing, and train as if the YMCA would be my placement for my 6 months at Sport in Society.

This initial period seemed tiresome at times but was helpful to open my eyes to a unfamiliar world of non-profits. BPS, being a huge struggling urban district, holds many problems of it’s own. Aristotle once said, “What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.” Many problems that the YMCA faces are common within those of BPS. Hopefully with what we learned, and Sport in Society’s support, we can make a positive change within BPS’ organization. Education of the logic model and organizational learning will be important to recognizing some of the goals that BPS should strive for, and how we as a team can meet them.

Posted by Brett Fink