“Kids that play together can learn together” is a hypothesis from social psychology that simple contact between two groups can reduce tension/competition, and stimulate cooperation.
In a world of increasing interconnectedness, communities are constantly plagued with division, tension, and conflict. For example, the ongoing crisis between Israel/Palestine, HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, riots in Belfast, and natural gas off the coast of Cypress all produce conflict that preys on civilians.
Most notably is the division of groups within society and a particular outgroup bias in which members of one group inherently fear, hate, and distrust the other. The only solution to these worldwide issues is a bottom-up approaches that changes not only the dialogue and public opinion between groups, but more importantly the attitudes of civilians. By shifting attitudes toward favorable reconciliation, trust, cooperation, and negotiation, peacebuilding will be able to overcome exogenous conflicts and keep societies united. Attitudinal changes eventually lead to policy changes, making individual influence just as important as institutional influence.
In 2001, two brothers Sean and Brendan Tuohey spent time coaching basketball in Ireland shortly after graduating college, during a post-conflict period after a deep sectarian division called “The Troubles” had just ended. They noticed how Protestant and Catholic youth didn’t only live separately, but they even played separate sports. Protestants played rugby and cricket, while the Catholics enjoyed hurling. The two groups were able to come together while playing basketball, a neutral sport, which is also popular because its American and “cool”.
The brothers were quick to jump on this observation. They started a peacebuilding initiative by integrating the two groups in basketball practices, clinics, and games. Heads started turning quickly. People wanted the Tuohey’s to come to their regions and reduce conflict/tensions as well. A South African who was in Ireland at the time suggested the brothers test their ideas on a greater scale in post-Apartheid South Africa. This is where the original “Playing for Peace” was launched.
Overtime, the organization has greatly expanded due to institutional grants, local support, and the commitment of Brendan and Sean. More heads turned. In 2012, PPI aligned with the Brooklyn Nets, a professional basketball team, in a generous sponsorship package. Currently, the organization is trending towards proactive transition to local leadership and constant innovation. PPI’s managing staff are becoming more and more local, helping to better innovate with individuals deeply embedded in the communities that the PPI operates within.
PPI has long term goals to increase its outreach and develop best-in-class strategies for achieving peacebuilding goals by using basketball to bring children together and teach them vital life skills. Results showed the kids involved in the program were more likely to be open to others.
As of 2007, the organization is operating in all four of the conflicted areas I mentioned above: Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Cyprus, and South Africa. In just 6 years, they had reached 45,000 children.
You have to find a way, or make one.
Peace Players International built courts where they did not exist, constructing 70 in South Africa alone by 2007.
As I’ve written in previous posts, methodology and implementation are two of the most important factors in instituting change through sport.
How is Peace Players International achieving their goals?
First and foremost, each of PPI’s four sites cater to their community’s specific needs. Discretionary programs based on local needs, resources, and culture are more effective than standards. However, all programs are built upon the same core principles:
- Frequent, long term integration: The curriculum and facilitation strategies of the program are implemented not only for a fixed period of time, but over years to create sustainable change. For example, the first steps involve simply learning each other’s names, and then more advanced steps involve bringing different groups together.
- Local leadership development: “Graduates” of the program are invited to take part in a leadership program where they impart their leadership skills on the youth in their communities. They serve as mentors and assistant coaches, and eventually graduate as head coaches.
- Peace and Leadership Curricula: This educational component of the program is crafted to meet local meets and differs amongst each site. For example, in South Africa the participants learn about healthy lifestyles to avoid infectious disease, whereas in Ireland the participants learn about growing up in a post-conflict society. The curriculum emphasizes “out of the box” thinking, and uses simple soccer and basketball drills to teach lessons about social dilemmas and communal conflict.
Peace Players International started with a simple idea and two big hearts. The power of that idea to change the world for 250,000 kids (and counting) is immeasurable. One of the brothers’ greatest achievements is that the idea isn’t as unique today as it was in 2001. People are latching on to the power of sport for change, and that’s something that can’t be stopped.