Following the May Day protests around Europe this year, I want to talk about my worry with the growing (or perhaps simply becoming more visible) xenophobia, racism and discrimination of a system that needs to be challenged, protested and changed. The fight by activists to protect workers and non-wealthy classes is particularly important and I think of equal importance is the fight for a different way of existing together, for inclusion and community. What I mean by community is not defined by our social status or postal code, but by how we treat the people around us no matter who they are or where they come from. For months now I have been concerned with the growing divisions and inequalities perpetuated by our governments and I have been angered by the lack of engagement from the sports and development sector to change or challenge this system. I am concerned that we are simply carrying out activities for the disadvantaged across the world without the political consciousness to understand or want to change the systems that create inequalities and add to the numbers of disadvantaged. The political battle is an extremely important one, and we have an opportunity to support it by actually working for social change through sport.
I want to be clear that when I say social change I am not talking about the sustainable development goals. In sport and development we are saturated with projects, ideas and strategies that aim to achieve these specific development goals. The targets of these development goals are important, but I think that social change means more than improved numbers in school enrollment, and more aid money for clean water although both of course are important. But, I think true social change means challenging the way our society perpetuates inequality and finding ways to fight against that inequality. The first step is to understand the inequalities in the communities in which we live, and the violence and discrimination inherent in our government systems that perpetuate inequality, racism, misogyny, homo and transphobia, and many other ills.
Sport and development is often apolitical, but I see an opportunity to support the political protests across Europe and the social change they stand for. We have to examine who we are working with, who is excluded, and who is affected most by the violence of the system. This is where we need to start. This is not an easy task, because the contexts in which we work can be so limiting, due to funding and public opinion. To succeed creativity and tenacity are essential. I do not think it is necessary for sport and development organizations to make an official political statement, but am suggesting that through creative and directed programs they can contribute to change more effectively.
A few weeks ago I was inspired by an example of creativity in sport and development from and organization in France, a context that is by no means simple at the moment. In France, if you are black or brown, or if you have a name that is Muslim, it is harder to get a job, period. And this problem by no means isolated to France. In 2010 the French Government passed a law, which banned the veil for women working in the public sector, and in turn has made employment for women who wear the veil in France a much greater challenge. I will not use this space to enter into the many feminist and anti-racist arguments against this law, but am using it simply as is an example of the greater barrier faced by Muslim youth in entering an already competitive job market. These youth represent a part of society that faces incredible barriers in accessing and taking on opportunities that would promote changes in their social situation by simply providing the same opportunities available to other youth in France.
A few weeks ago I went to play football with some of these French youth while visiting as organization called Sport Dans La Ville in Lyon. Sport Dans La Ville was started in 1998 with the mission of providing spaces to play sport for youth in neighborhoods, which did not necessarily offer this opportunity. Needless to say, these are mostly Muslim youth of North African decent who live in the poorer neighborhoods. When I stepped onto the football pitch to play with a group of these young men, I will admit that I was at first intimidated and my own internalized prejudices made me shy away from them, worried they would treat me aggressively. In turn, they were not exactly thrilled about a woman and an outsider joining their training. My own personal battle to challenge gender stereotypes on the football pitch was not nearly as important as overcoming of my own prejudices. Those prejudices were certainly overcome as I shook hands with these youth after the game and responded with a smile as two of them told me, “c’etait une plaisir jouer avec vous.”
In the environment that Sport Dans La Ville has created, I was able to come in contact with and play with these youth who otherwise I might never have met. This initial step of bridging a gap across culture, community, race, religion, and gender is something that I see as essential for France, and for ALL European countries at this pivotal moment in history. But, what impressed me even more about Sport Dans La Ville was their program called Job Dans La Ville, which is aimed at helping these very same youth prepare for and obtain jobs. For 18 years Sport Dan La Ville has been working with the youth in the worst neighborhoods in Lyon, Paris and Grenoble and often with the same youth over a period of years. At some point they realized that they were in a position to do more for the youth than simply provide them with sports and safe spaces to play and they asked them what they needed. This was the basis of the Job Dans La Ville program, which every year provides youth from Sports Dans La Ville with coaching, support and mentoring opportunities to increase their skills and knowledge and help them get a job. This is not your run of the mill employability program, because the youth engaged in Job Dans La Ville stay in the program UNTIL they get a job, in some cases this can be years. Job Dans La Ville is partnered with local businesses and professionals in Lyon who agree to mentor the youth, often working with youth from backgrounds and neighborhoods that they have never come in contact with.
When talking with the Director of Job Dans la Ville about the sustainability of the program and she jokingly mentioned how difficult their job would become if the French government should go far right, I was reminded of what a difficult context in which this program is working. Not only are they dealing with the personal prejudices that might exist and create barriers for the youth, but they are dealing with a discriminatory system that is actively changing to make it even harder for these youth to get a job. For me, this is an incredible example of a program reacting to a dire situation in the community and society and doing something that has potential to really contribute to social change. It would have been easy for them to work in the less isolated neighborhoods across these French cities, or with youth who don’t face as many barriers to changing their situation, or it would have been easy for them to set up an employability program that gives the youth a few trainings and then sends them on their way. But, this is not what Sport Dans La Ville has done. They are invested in seeing the youth who engage in their program through until they get the job that they want. They are invested for the long run. And the most exciting thing is that Sport Dans La Ville, through the global streetfootballworld network, is beginning to connect with other programs and organizations from around Europe to share their ideas and look for ways to work together. For me, this is an example of creativity and drive to find a way to really change the lives of the youth in their program, to challenge the rules and barriers they face in France. It is a way of supporting the political protests, albeit indirectly. And the sharing of their ideas is one of the ways to contribute to greater social change that will not happen overnight, or in isolation, but could happen through collaboration and tenacity – and also well beyond sport and development.