Positive youth and community development through sport
Assmaah Helal from Football United talks about the inclusion of people from different cultural backgrounds into sport
In 2007 FIFA had banned the hijab from International football matches citing that it was a cause for medical injuries or medical concerns. In 2011 the Jordanian National Women’s Team all of them wearing the hijab were banned from playing their Olympic qualifying match against Jordan moments before kickoff.
In 2012 FIFA reviewed it and placed the hijab on trial to see if it was still a safe option to actually wear the hijab and play but today if we fast forward a bit in 2014 they lifted the hijab ban because they deemed it to be safe.
Now today sport has been a bit more inclusive and promoted equality because in the opening game of the Under 17s Women’s World Cup just last week in Jordan we had the starting 11 Team have two hijabi footballers actually participate and compete.
So this has been a first for a major International match. It’s been a long time coming for hijabi footballers. During the campaign to lift the ban I often spoke to media and really anyone that could listen because I wanted to highlight the implications on what this would have to just under a billion young people that wore the hijab or that were Muslim girls and women around the world.
When I was interviewed and asked questions about my own experience I actually found it strange that some of the questions that were being asked to me were things around “What were some of the barriers that you faced?” or “Who encouraged you to play sport?” or “What truly did you find challenging when you played soccer?” and for me that was challenging to grasp and understand when they were trying to prod and poke into my life, trying to find some juicy controversial story and for me I was fortunate that my upbringing - I had a very supportive network around me that actually allowed me to pursue sport and do you know what, actually playing sport growing up I was actually taking pride in the fact that I was unique in playing sport and being the only hijabi that I could see around me but then as I grew up and I actually got engaged with my own community and the wider community I realised that this is probably not a good thing. This is not a good thing that I am the exception. Actually there needs to be more opportunities and identify the reasons behind why other young Muslim women are not participating in organised sport.
I recognised that there were many external barriers placed on participation and also barriers and stereotypes that young girls and women were placing on themselves but I want to highlight that actually this presentation isn’t about me. It’s not about Muslim girls in sport but I want to use that as a way to highlight the themes of what I will be talking about and that’s what do young people want in today’s society, what are challenges that they’re facing and 2) What are some of the constraints that currently exist in sport and then 3) How can we use sport as a tool to address and promote positive youth development and community development because I find and I believe that all of these three are crucial in ensuring that sport is inclusive, that sport is diverse and we heard this earlier that sport is relevant.
So yes, my name is Assmaah Helal and I am the Program Operations Manager for Creating Chances Football United.
We use sport. We’re an organisation that uses sport to engage, connect and prepare young people through meaningful activities and to have a voice in decisions and actively participate in their societies. We’re an organisation that develops innovative life skills and leadership curriculum and programs through sport.
So today’s young people or children and youth represent the single largest cohort of young people in history. There are about 1.8 billion young people aged between 10 and 24 and in Australia we have 6.3 million people between 10 - 29 years old and we know that as a nation, Australia - we’re diverse. We’re multicultural and this is our strength. It adds to our quality of life. It fosters innovation and it creates a really dynamic culture but young people in Australia and I guess reflecting on your own upbringing and your own life as a young person; we’re all still young at heart I know that the environment that we grow up in is considerably uncertain. We have changes in the structure of our family, where our place of cultural identity exists is uncertain; rapid and dramatic changes in employment and job prospects. Where and how young people grow up, their cultural identity, their goals, their aspirations all influence their transition to adulthood. Young people don’t grow up in isolation. Their life experiences, their families, their peers, their communities, even the generation they grow up in all have an impact on their growth and development and I know that we’re all pretty much aware of that but I just wanted to use that as a way to set the scene and where I’m going with this but I wanted to ask you what if young people were taught not just to solve problems in tests but solve problems in their life and society?
So the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People asked thousands of young people and children of course about what are some of the concerns they have and what are some of their priorities and out of the top four issues two of them were education and employment. Education - they wanted to see more opportunities or more subjects around things that will prepare them for life after school and then 2) Employment. They wanted opportunities to gain skills so that they can actually get their first job.
So then what if sport can address this challenge or address these concerns that young people have? Young leaders have actually called for sports-based programs to be a platform to promote learning opportunities beyond primary and secondary schooling and a place for acquisition of skills that are transferable to work and society but before we go on and say that, “Yes sport can definitely address this and be the solution” we need to be aware of some of the constraints and again I think some of these constraints were brought up earlier this morning but it’s influenced by several factors within schools and communities and of these include socio-cultural barriers so things around the lack of understanding or appreciation of the benefits that sport has in their community or in their families; resource barriers so financial logistical constraints and then access barriers so institutional or systemic issues or constraining factors that don’t enable young people to participate in sport and currently I must admit most sports are targeting communities that are generally quite healthy and come from households that can afford sport already.
So sport organisations or us working in sport need to be aware of these barriers and find creative ways to overcome them so that we can be effective and relevant so rather than focusing on numbers how about we focus on increasing the value of sport in communities by positioning ourself as a way to be a vehicle to education and a pathway to employment and as a way to build communities. For example, if you want to implement a program as a tool to promote girls’ empowerment inevitably you will need to ask the permission of the communities and the families for these girls to participate right because if you don’t, how are you going to access these girls? These girls that would need to benefit from this program, where do you start?
So as an example we organised a Girls’ Sport Residential Camp over three days, two nights/three days predominantly for Muslim girls but it was for all. I’d say 85% of those would probably never be allowed to sleep over their cousin’s house on the weekend but we were asked by Council and a few other groups we were working with how on earth did you accomplish getting 60 girls to your camp right but we recognised and acknowledged the power that we had in the relationships we built with the community, the trust we built over the years and just the general reputation we had so in all areas of girls’ empowerment for example it’s important to involve and engage the community both as a support system for the girl but as a way for her to transfer those skills and that knowledge to the rest of her community.
As an example, one of our Youth Leaders was strongly discouraged from taking part in sport and this was by her family but when her mother saw the confidence and the leadership skills that she developed as well as the impact she had on other girls in her community she was incredibly proud and today she’s actually the Women’s Football Coordinator at her local club and Head Coach and she managed to take her club from having just one women’s team I think in the 30 year history that it had to now I think five Junior Girl’s Teams and two Senior Women’s Teams.
So if we lived in a society that actively engaged young people, empowered them to find their voice and transform themselves, what do you think that would look like? We as Creating Chances, we empathise, educate and engage young people in productive activities especially when sport is organised well it is probably the best platform to have for young people to thrive but it needs to be intentional. You can’t just obviously set out cones and a football and off you go and play and yes, tick social inclusion. When young people participate in programs like ours they build personal, social and intellectual capacities that enhance their contribution to their home, their school, their community and all over the world essentially.
We equip our Facilitators and our Coaches with the right support, training and opportunities actually to not focus on what is wrong with young people but what is right with young people so instead of us putting them in a box and saying, “Hey, you’re at risk and you’re disengaged and disadvantaged” actually we’ll say, “You’re a champion. You’re a game changer. You’re a trailblazer”. We provide them with a chance to network with other people, young and old in different industries from different communities, countries and we give them the tools to be able to organise their own community building initiatives.
When we give them a chance to dream to embrace their identity and share that with other young people that is truly a powerful thing so just in terms of where sport places community - we mentioned this earlier again sorry that we place people in boxes and place stereotypes and labels on them but what if we enabled young people to lead and decide and to achieve non-sporting outcomes such as social change so as an example some of the most disengaged young people from the classroom that we work with actually thrive in some of our programs to the extent where we had one of the School Principals that we work with - he suspended a student for a week for something he did wrong but he actually strongly encouraged him - the only time that he can come to school that week is to attend a Creating Chances session so the Principal didn’t see it as a reward or an opportunity but it was an actual chance for this young person to grow and to develop.
Our Community of Schools Program is also another great example of building role models and Youth Coaches and some of the primary school students that are coached by the Student Coaches look forward to it every week, look forward to meeting these young Coaches and primary school teachers themselves will strongly actually recommend that they come back every week and say that we can’t engage our children as well as the Student Coaches can.
I’d just like one minute. We developed a Youth Development Pathway and Curriculum that is quite innovative in that we create scenarios that simulate things that would happen in their life so situations where they have to design a game, negotiate a game or negotiate the rules to build those conflict resolution skills and communication skills. We also use innovative tools so just at the camp last week we had them organising press conferences, TV interviews, post match reviews, podcasts - you name it. Things that they can actually connect with and really engage strongly with so just to conclude and this is something I think that many of you may already be doing and I see some familiar faces that are doing this and it’s great to see and that’s having a pathway for young people to be the voice and be the leaders and work with you and the communities so most sport programs are led by or delivered by youth so your Coaches, your participants but it’s when these programs have mechanisms for meaningful youth input that will lead to increased impact and sustainable outcomes for the individual and for the community. There’s this great energy that’s produced in your organisation when people feel that they belong to the program and it’s about shifting the view that young people and community members - moving them from passive beneficiaries to members and leaders of the organisation.