Reflections part 3: Dreaming of Community, Being an Ally

Out of this trilogy, this third part is the hardest to write because it requires a certain kind of honesty. In order to actualize a vision of community through sport, one has to have participants and allies; people who share in what you do or at least enjoy, like, love the thing that you offer.

It has always been hard for marginalized people to take up public space, to redefine mainstream institutions in order to meet their needs and wants. Sport is no different in this regard as many marginalized athletes have had to facilitate their inclusion in sport and challenge deep-seeded prejudice in order to have access to basic rights, funding, and opportunities (see Chantal PeticlercWaneek Horn-MillerJesse Owens, Renee RichardsJohn Carlos, Michelle DumaresqMuhammad Ali, Megan Rapinoe, Rick Hansen, Fallon Fox to name a few!).

For many decades now sports such as basketball, baseball, American football and soccer have been a pathway for some marginalized athletes to have a thriving and lucrative career (although this, for the most part, has applied to able-bodied men who are marginalized by race and class). But what about those who don’t fit in to prescribed norms in professional sports and get paid practically nothing? What about the folks who are not famous and don’t compete at the elite or professional level? What about those who engage in sport later in life? Where do we fit in?

While I don’t want to attribute what I’m doing at LUYC to the revolutionary, I do think it’s different. When I first started operating LUYC there were (and still are) lots of opportunities for women to play soccer, but futsal notsomuch. Nowadays there a few options for futsal, more opportunities to play soccer albeit in a coed atmosphere and the interest in all of this is growing. However, transgender athletes still very much get left out of the conversation of recreational sport, but I hope this changes. LUYC is operating within a city that is very active around sport leadership and recreational programming. To exist and be doing well in this context has been a wonderful surprise.

The thing about operating a business with social entrepreneurism as a tenet is that not everyone shares your principles, recognizes the value of what you’re doing and why, and/or thinks of sport as anything more than fun and being health conscious. People have their differences and these differences become evident the more you dive deep into what makes people tick in sport and in life. And with so much choice available and the freedom to pick what is convenient, how does a “specialized” community thrive and grow? How does one measure success in this context? How do groups stay open and not insular?

I struggle with these questions all the time. I celebrate what I’m doing “right” and agonize over if I’m doing something “wrong”. I fear failure. I fear people’s disengagement. I wonder if going at it alone requires too much energy and emotion. I wonder if working within a Collective puts too much stress on interpersonal dynamics. I try and shift my expectations, but then I realize PART OF DREAMING IS HAVING EXPECTATIONS. When I let go of all of this and enjoy myself, I am reminded that LUYC is really fucking fun, and participants reciprocate because they are feeling the good times too.

To be a leader requires putting yourself out there with people, in other words being vulnerable; it also requires having a thick skin so that you are able to refresh and begin again when and if need be. Being an ally requires understanding what is being asked of you, understanding the issues, the history, the differences, and how you can use yourself for the greater good. It’s a huge task, but I thrive off of it and challenging others to do the same.

How many of us have investigated our place in the world and how that has been constructed as beneficial and/or disadvantageous? How many of us choose what is familiar instead of gravitating towards what is different and ultimately balancing the two? What is it that we think we need from people – nothing or everything or what feels just okay? How generous do we think we can be with each other and is it possible that we can give more?

LUYC is a project that reflects my lifelong interest in social justice, sport, community and leadership. I experience such satisfaction and joy from seeing people have fun and make new connections when participating in LUYC programming. And I gain more confidence and conviction in what I’m doing when participants express a shared understanding of the meaning behind Lace Up Your Cleats, but, as expressed the work does come with challenges.

Ultimately, LUYC will exist for however long it does. I have yet to see or measure its impact, but it is teaching me so much about myself and community. And I am constantly grateful to those who have and continue to support this endeavour through their participation, words and actions. YOU ARE THE BEST and WE ARE DOING THIS TOGETHER.

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Reflections part 2: Let’s Go Back a Bit to Where this All Started

3 years ago I was introduced to futsal by a friend who is both a soccer fanatic and a sport organizer. He was hosting casual coed futsal games in the west-end of Toronto for players who were intermediate to competitive – I tried it one night with his group and immediately felt it would be an excellent game for women and transgender folks who wanted to develop their skills. So that’s where that part of the story starts.

As you can tell, Lace Up Your Cleats (LUYC) is more than sport, it’s about community. I use sport as a vehicle to create connection, inspire fun and support individual empowerment as a player and person. I think for the most part I succeed in these goals and I try to tweak LUYC so that it appeals to more and more people.

In my early twenties I was involved in the activist scene in downtown Toronto, which was racially diverse, included people on all points of the gender spectrum, some had disabilities – some didn’t, mostly-if-not-exclusively queer, feminist in nature, there were people who identified as working-class, as hipster, as everything you could imagine. I tried to find my place in all of that, but it was hard. I was young, insecure, overwhelmed, in pain and generally alone. I wanted to belong and I wanted to be loved – doesn’t everyone?

I was friends and lovers with so many different people. I worked with those who had been activists for years and some that were newbies. I saw people change genders, change partners, fuck-up and do good work all at once. It was an illuminating time and it taught me that: A. I wanted to be a part of social change; and B. I was drawn to leading and creating community that was comfortable, down-to-earth, inclusive and challenging (in a good way).

So I learned these things, but I also racked up a lot of hurt, misunderstandings, burnt bridges that towards the end of my twenties I had had enough. I couldn’t be and fuck in the thick of it anymore, it was just too much. At the same time, I fell in love again with sport, particularly soccer (and then futsal), and embarked on a journey of self-discovery in sport. I became a certified soccer coach, I worked in sport as a leader and facilitator and then I launched LUYC, partly on a whim and partly because I yearned to create a sport community that spoke to my needs and the needs of so many like me who had experienced, and continue to experience marginalization both within the broader echelons of society and within specific niches and identity groups in Toronto.

I like to think of LUYC as a project in order to keep my expectations of it and myself in check, but I also don’t want to downplay the success and coolness of what I’m doing, where I come from and how my past and current experiences have shaped my approach. I love community, I love connection, I love sport and I love fun. None of that should be difficult, it should all be easy. That’s why LUYC started and why it continues.

Reflections part 1: Why I Run A Sporty, Socially Conscious Small Business

I think about this quite a lot, especially when things are stressful and unpredictable, which is often. It takes an enormous amount of energy to run a small business no matter the industry you are operating in and each has its own challenges, which can make or break goals, ambitions, budgets.

At the same time, it is an empowering and educational experience. As a woman who identifies within the LGBTQ community, running a small business is my way of creating community within an industry that is mostly queer and transgender (I use these as umbrella terms) unfriendly and quite rigid around gender. Reinventing the way teams are built and spaces are configured also allows me to show people that yes, sport can be fun, challenging, healthy and focused on development not the Win – Lose thing, not the ego thing, not the aggressive, masculine thing.

Again, it’s a lot of work. There’s venue and insurance costs, the hustle of maintaining your core players and bringing in new players, competition from other groups for venue time, publicity and marketing considerations, branding, program design, coaching, rules and officiating, etc., etc.

There’s also interpersonal dynamics and how relationships come to influence when and where people sign up for programming. With so much choice out there, how does one carve out their unique place? How does one build community?

So far what I’ve learned is that people have an appetite for fun and inclusive sport, but there’s trepidation: “It’s a new thing, I don’t know anyone, will I be comfortable and safe?”, “I’m still learning about said sport, will it be acceptable if I make mistakes?”, “I don’t know what transgender means, what’s futsal? This is unfamiliar to me and a little confusing, different, scary”.

These are valid questions and ones that I keep in mind every time I host an event or a program. Expectations around sport are skewed and geared towards competition and seriousness. It doesn’t have to be that way and I feel great satisfaction in upending mainstream attitudes. While I’m not sure how Lace Up Your Cleats (LUYC) has impacted everyone whose participated or heard about it, I draw inspiration and energy from those who respond to what I’m doing with curiosity, appreciation, respect and love. I do this for them and for myself because it’s important that all people, particularly marginalized people have an opportunity to play, grow and develop as physical beings. We are all capable of sport creativity and solid play. It is with this in mind that I march forward.