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Six-Pack Interview Series: Soccer Without Border’s Founder Ben Gucciardi

Editor's Note: We continue our interview series, this time with questions for Ben Gucciardi, Founding Director, Soccer Without Borders. As opposed to our "Starting 11" series, this is what we like to call the "FBM 6-Pack," a short, straight-to-the-point Q&A.

Soccer Without Borders is an international organization focusing on youth and community development while giving children the opportunity to play organized soccer alongside learning. Read on about SWB mission, accomplishments, and Gucciardi's future vision for SWB.

If you'd like to donate money, time, or soccer equipment to Soccer Without Borders there are links at the end of our interview.

1) Where did the idea for Soccer Without Borders come from? When did the organization get off the ground? What was your first project?

The idea to start Soccer Without Borders came from a strong desire to contribute something positive to the world and to do meaningful work. At the time when it started, soccer had been such a powerful force in my life. Mostly, soccer had been a positive thing, but towards the end of my playing career, I also started to feel that there was a lot of missed opportunity to do more with soccer to address social issues, both large and small. When you look at sports, you see so much negativity in the way people interact, fighting, trash talking, parents complaining etc, and all of this is an expression of larger societal issues. But none of that is inherent in sport. Instead the coach and program leaders create a certain environment and set the tone for the way a program functions and behaves. So my thought was to try and expand the potential of soccer and capture the extremely powerful and positive aspects of the game. You can then use that appeal of the game to engage youth that are often difficult to engage, and once they are engaged, it becomes possible to use soccer as platform to create dialogue around relevant social issues.

Like most things, you start with an idea and with time it evolves and becomes more focused. I think our program is still very much in the process of being refined and finding its best expression. We have learned so much about what really works well and what is less effective since the organization got off the ground with our first program in Granada, Nicaragua in the fall of 2006.


2) What does a traditional (if there is such a thing) project look like for SWB abroad? What are your core areas of emphasis (models and methods)?

There are four aspects of an SWB program: soccer play and instruction, life-skills education, training coaches from the communities and themed camps and tournaments. Our programs are always run in partnership with schools, community centers and local NGO’s and we try to staff them with local staff as much as possible. We also maintain an SWB office in each of the communities we work in that serves as a youth centered sage space for the community, as well as a place kids can come for programming and gear.

The life-skills aspect of the program varies from place to place, and we try and get a lot of input from community leaders about what to focus on as well as inviting them to leas sessions. One of the programs we use is the Girls For A Change program (www.girlsforachange.org) . This program asks youth to look at the negative issues in their communities and work together to design a project that works at addressing the root cause of the issue, and then the youth actually go out and do the project. In this way, young people can start to see how much of an impact they can have, which I think is a key aspect of confidence, just feeling like your voice and your actions matter.

3) How many projects has SWB established thus far? Where? What have been some of the organizations greatest accomplishments?

So far we have established six ongoing programs in Granada, Nicaragua, Solola, Guatemala, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ndejje, Uganda, New York City, NY, and Oakland, CA. I think our greatest accomplishment to date has beet the growth of the program in Nicaragua. When we were first there, there was about a handful of girls playing soccer. Today we have more then 200 members of the girls program and we run a league for girls and hold popular life-skills events on a daily basis. I think across the board, our biggest success has been in engaging populations that would otherwise not have access to soccer opportunities, and witnessing the positive things the program has brought to their lives.

Another thing I would say is that we have been able to reach a lot of young people here in the U.S. through presentations about the program. These presentations are done by our staff as well as volunteers that travel abroad and return, and in this way, we are able to use soccer as a way to raise awareness about social injustice and the huge disparities in opportunity that people have in different places.

4) You have been personally involved in a refugee and immigrant team in Oakland, CA. Can you tell us a bit more about what that encompasses? Some of the hardships and some of the successes?

The program in Oakland is run in partnership with an amazing public high school called Oakland International High School. This is the school where most newcomer immigrant and refugee students that arrive in Oakland get referred to because of its emphasis on English language development across the curriculum. Our teams are called “Internationals United: and we play in a club soccer league through the CYSA, and we practice two days a week with games on weekends. What is unique about our team is that in between the girls and the boys teams we have youth from 13 countries (Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Uzbekistan, Russia, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua) speaking a wide range of languages. It is a pretty amazing experience to watch the team begin to form connections across language and cultural barriers and build meaningful friendships. For most of the girls, it is really there first time playing soccer and being on a team, and while not always easy, it is pretty special to watch them progress and build their confidence by learning a new skill.



The challenges are many as well, things like paperwork for the league (many parents don’t speak English and the forms are not translated), getting to games (very few parents drive so al the kids bus in to downtown Oakland and we have volunteers who drive to the various fields), end up taking a lot of time and energy to get done. Cross -cultural relationships can also be complicated as well. There are tensions that need to be worked through and talked about and misperceptions that occur all the time, and while we can usually deal with them, it is not easy for people to want to say something to their teammate and not be able to communicate. Things get bottled up, and then let out in unhealthy ways. A final challenge is that much of Oakland is a difficult place for all youth to be in, and immigrant and refugee families are often targets of gang violence and recruitment. For example, a father of one of our girls players was murdered last year outside of his apartment in Oakland by a random drive by shooting. This was a refugee family from that came here seeking safety and the chance to build a new life. While this is an extreme case, a lot of these youth experience and witness violence in their communities.


Soccer Without Borders: 25+12+6=1 from Clare Major on Vimeo.





5) SWB is particularly committed to promoting girls’ involvement in soccer and education. Why is that such a crucial component to the SWB mission? Give us a few examples of where this has worked well.

 
About 85% of our staff are women who played in college or the pros. I think across the board these women had immensely powerful experiences playing soccer, and they have done so much in order to share their experiences with other girls that lack the same opportunities afforded to American female athletes. The two most successful areas where girls’ programming has really taken root are in Granada, Nicaragua and in a slum Buenos Aires, Argentina. In both of these areas, we have built a girls soccer movement that has far reaching affects that girls have verbalized about their self-confidence and the perception their communities have of their abilities.





6) What would you like to see SWB grow into? What are some future goals for the organization and what are you doing to help accomplish them?

 
Right now we are in a transition period from an all volunteer staff to beginning to have some full time people that actually make a living doing this work. I would like to see us make this transition successfully and to begin to be able to really improve our existing programs. We are currently doing a lot more on the business side of things, trying to focus more on fundraising and standardizing a lot of our policies and procedures. This is the less fun but equally necessary aspect of our work.
 
Once we really hone in on best practices for our programs and solidify the existing programs, I would like to see the program spread to new areas. One thing about this work is that there are just so many areas where a program could be successful. In most of the world, nothing gets kids attention like soccer.
 
We have lots of ideas we would like to implement, like having a tournament where the girls from all our different programs could travel and play each other, to having the players in Oakland and NYC go to the other project sites to coach and volunteer. It’s all just a matter of time and funding…
 

Editor's Note: There are several way to support the Soccer Without Borders mission.

 

 

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