By Carol Andes
In Uganda, a woman is using soccer to inform thousands of young people about HIV/AIDS education and prevention strategies. Meanwhile, another woman in Pakistan is working to educate parents and increase societal acceptance of girls playing sports. What do these extraordinary women have in common? They are both graduates of a unique international mentorship program designed to improve lives through sports.
Since 2012, a total of fifty women from thirty-nine countries have completed the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP). One of the major reasons for the success of this US State Department initiative is the expertise of its sole implementing partner—UT’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society (CSPS).
The center, founded by Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman, uses sport to promote cultural understanding, enhance student learning, improve community welfare, and foster social change.
“We are trying hard to inspire people and to tell the story that everybody—no matter their age, ethnicity, religion, gender, or ability—can do something that makes their community a little bit better,” Huffman explained.
To find the best candidates for the GSMP, the State Department asks embassies to nominate two women with passion and ambition who would benefit from training, resources, and stronger networks.
The center reviews the applicants and invites the seventeen most promising matches to Washington, DC, for a month-long workshop. There they work on improving their management and business skills and create a sports-based action plan to address issues facing girls and women in their community.
Hillyer and Huffman, both clinical assistant professors specializing in sociocultural studies of sport, are integral to developing the curriculum, programs, and guides used by the GSMP. “The activities are designed so women can create something culturally relevant and have the opportunity to collectively problem-solve with other women and mentors as well as our team at UT,” Huffman explained.
During their first week in DC, the women discuss challenges they face in their communities, visit the State Department, hear from leaders at espnW, receive executive coaching, and learn about strategies to shape their action plans. Next the women spend three weeks with their mentors, who are female senior executives of major sports industry companies. Representatives from the center conduct interviews with each pair to obtain data for the program.
After the women return home, the CSPS provides tools to measure the progress of their action plans and conducts regular follow-up surveys. These surveys illustrate the breadth of the program’s work and how an investment in one person can lead to the empowerment of many. So far, 83 percent of the women have implemented their action plans in their home countries, reaching thousands with the message of sport-based social change.
Geraldine Bernardo, program graduate and former national dragon boat team captain from the Philippines, praised the efforts of Hillyer and Huffman. “They implement programs that go way beyond the one-off approaches that most programs fall prey to. Even years after, they continue to connect and involve us, ensuring that the ‘sisters’ will always have a web of support and opportunities for long-term engagement.”
Bernardo returned to the Philippines with an action plan to improve the economic plight of national team athletes while promoting sports and fitness opportunities nationwide. But when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, the plan changed.
Huffman went to visit Bernardo six months after the typhoon. “There are no words to explain what we saw. There were miles and miles of rubble. It was the one of the deadliest typhoons in human history,” she said.
Bernardo was already helping rebuild communities using sport as a tool for psychosocial healing and recovery. Rising from the rubble were basketball hoops made from cocoa lumber.
Basketball is hugely popular in the Philippines, and Bernardo worked with other local leaders to use the sport to bring people together, giving them a reason and space to laugh again and reinforcing the importance of teamwork as they faced the massive challenge of rebuilding. Bernardo garnered support from Sony to build new basketball courts—118 of them, to represent the storm’s November 8 date—and restore a sense of community, health, and belonging to the post-disaster Philippines.
“We know the women in our program can change the world, and every story is a tribute to what they have accomplished,” Huffman said.
The center wants to continue telling stories like Bernardo’s, giving faces to the successes coming out of the GSMP. It also continues to create opportunities to connect UT students to a growing worldwide network of people and programs.
“We want everyone to experience what we’ve experienced, especially our students. The stories of these women are universal—hope in the face of adversity, inspiration in the midst of chaos,” Huffman said.
The center is also expanding its reach into new areas. Hillyer and Huffman are applying for an additional grant to be part of the State Department’s new cooperative agreement, which will add a Sport for Community initiative in 2016 to their current outreach for women and girls. This new initiative will leverage the power of prominent events like the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games to draw attention to the importance of sports for men, women, and children with disabilities.
Hillyer and Huffman are excited about the possibility of applying the center’s 4-E Model of Empowerment—Expose, Equip, Engage, and Entrust—to a mixed-gender sports mentoring program. Having twice as many ambassadors for social change all over the world could lead to a whole new ball game.