Today’s blog is written by Ivy Le, a member of the Texas MBA group that visited PeacePlayers last month. Ivy is the Principal at 9Terrains, a social media strategy firm that offers website design, content creation, social media guidance, and print service.
I came to South Africa for a school trip about nonprofits and social enterprises. I’m in the evening MBA program at the University of Texas, and our business school has been meeting with Peace Players International for the last two years. Each year our time together starts off with the dedicated people running the organization telling us about nonprofit management, organizational challenges, and needs. Then we ball hard Texas McCombs vs. PeacePlayers International, playing for nothing less than national pride for our respective countries. The children get a kick out of watching their coaches beat us.
By us, I mean my athletic classmates. My parents came to America as refugees from Vietnam a couple years before I was born. Extracurricular sports – or anything requiring the purchase of special equipment, clothing, or arranging personal transportation for that matter – were not exactly a priority for me growing up, so I felt an affinity for the kids playing with no shoes. I just knew, they didn’t want to ask their parents for sport shoes when it was stressful enough for them to get their children school uniforms and class supplies. Kids understand a lot more than we give them credit for.
So I went on the court without shoes, too. Trust me, shoes could not make me a better basketball player anyway. Right away, a young lady named Tiara answered my fashion statement. Tiara asked with a smile “You like to play barefoot? I used to play barefoot, too. But then I got cut, so my mom got me shoes.”
In true PeacePlayers spirit of bridging divides and changing perceptions, Tiara and I began talking. It didn’t take long to find out that we both like the same hip hop artists, we both have relatives in Germany, and we both love to travel! She hasn’t had much of a chance yet, but she’s only 11. I never left my country until I was 15.
PeacePlayers International pours asphalt for basketball courts at disadvantaged schools, but that asphalt is actually bringing kids together. These kids face no shortage of challenges. Their bathroom stalls are covered with cruel slander, but it’s feasible that some of the girls named in the graffiti really are pregnant. The neighborhoods are defined by race and many of these kids, young men and women alike, are tempted, threatened or both by local gangs, not to mention the pressure to do drugs, alcohol and more.
Students aren’t signing up with Peace Players International because of the basketball; South African children know a lot more about American movie stars than American sports. Children sign up to play basketball, because they don’t have other after school choices. That’s fair, because the PeacePlayer’s coaches also have another motive: bridging divides, developing leaders and changing perceptions.
As we prepared to leave, I looked for my new friend to say goodbye. The other girls, I noticed, were gathered in gaggles around the other MBA women from my class, but not Tiara. She watched the game quietly slightly apart from the others. Knowing what it’s like to have trouble fitting in, I asked Tiara who her school friends are. She told me, “The girls on my basketball team.”