This week’s blog features an interview with former PPI-SA fellow Raquel Thompson . Raquel worked for PPI-SA from 2007-2009, and was a Program Director. She currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya working with Ashoka, an organization that identifies and supports individuals with cutting edge approaches for solving their country’s toughest problems.
How did you get involved with PeacePlayers SA and why did you want to work for this organization?
I spent the second semester of my junior year in College at UKZN-Howard because I was intrigued by South Africa’s past and present. I wanted to understand the country from all of the avenues that were available to me, from classroom discussion to film screenings to Thursday night conversations at the BAT Centre and Saturday night observations on Florida road. But by far the greatest tool I knew I would have to embed myself in everyday life would be the same tool that helped with my transition from public school to private school: sport. And one day while kicking it on the bleachers with my Howard teammates, I saw a bunch of guys take the court with very American cross-overs and very American banter. I caught up with them afterward and asked them what they were doing in Durban. They told me about PeacePlayers, invited me to come check out the program, and I was hooked. After returning to Connecticut to finish my senior year, I immediately applied to get back on a plane and join PeacePlayers full time. The chance to extend my understanding of the country and its people through spending time with its youngest aspiring ballers was too much to resist.
What were your initial thoughts about using sports as a medium to promote change?
My thoughts were less conceptual and more based in the reality of my own experiences dealing with the insecurities that flooded me when I left my public school in grade 7 to attend a very new york city private school “on the other side of town.” Frozen to the point of feeling literally incapable of engaging in conversation with girls who only wore pretty dresses and mascara, while I wore ragged slacks, I had almost resigned to six upcoming years of depression until the day they told us we would all have to play a sport every season. It was on the field hockey field, basketball court, and track that we all became equal… gym shorts and tshirts for everyone. It became obvious that we ran the same, got tired the same, and laughed the same. It was through my teammates that I spent the night in my first million-dollar home and realized that the inhabitants were human too. It was through my teammates that I learned what a S’more is as well as a 401K — well, that was through their parents. I learned from them, and more importantly, I came to realize that they were also learning from me. That’s what sport did for me. It’s subtle, but pivotal.
What was the most important thing you learned throughout your time with PPI?
PPI-SA thought me to believe in myself. It also thought me to believe in everyone around me. And to smile because no grand plan to change the world is greater than the little moments you have with the people around you.
Can you share a moment that touched your life while working here?
One moment that always brings a smile to my face is when I sat back for three days and watched the office staff lead our annual life skills training for our coaches all on their own. It had become clear that participation was much increased and the depth of conversation greater when conversations were had in Zulu, however, the Life Skills director – me – had no zulu to speak of. So the office staff put up with my badgering about the importance of asking open-ended questions and creating the opportunity for participants to interact with the subject matter in a variety ways: “let them hear it, speak it, write it,” I would say at nauseam. And just when I thought I would be responsible for the mass quitting of our entire office staff, three days of the most intimate, most laughter-filled life skills training I’ve ever been a part of unfolded. I had no idea what was being said, but I know the conversation never ended.. not at the end of the day, not at the dinner table, not in the common room lounges. And our staff, many of whom were on the other side of the table a few years before were all smiles. It felt like the exact embodiment of empowerment, a word I always thought was much too overused in the social sector, but the only one that could capture the essence of the spirit on those three days.