Youth voice to partnerships to organizational structure: A participatory approach in practice
One of the gifts of being a 20+ year-old organization in the sport for development field is we’ve not only grown with the field, our learnings over the years have been critical to sustained impact and scaling of our work. One of those learnings is that local ownership and program sustainability have to go hand-in-hand. PeacePlayers International uses the power of sport to bridge divides, develop youth leaders towards building more peaceful and thriving communities in some of the most divided and disinvested societies in our world today. We operate year-round programs in South Africa, Middle East, Northern Ireland, and the United States.
The examples of participatory approaches shared here have been foundational to our impact in the communities where we work. Designing programs with intentional collaboration, leveraging local assets and talents while holding space for our stakeholders to advise and inform our work is part of the sauce that makes up the PeacePlayers model. PeacePlayers has been particularly successful in weaving in participatory approaches to how we work that it has become inherent in our program design, organizational leadership, and how we build partnerships. I’d like to preface that we are constantly testing, learning, and iterating and many of these examples have been informed by failures as much as they have been informed by successes.
Our program model is designed as a leadership pipeline engaging young people from childhood to early adulthood. A critical point in our pipeline is the Leadership Development Program (LDP). Designed for high school aged youth, the program combines on the court skills development with a rigorous leadership curriculum that aims to develop “citizens young people” - young people who have the empathy and agency to enact positive change in their communities. These young people also play a critical role in informing the PeacePlayers program. In Brooklyn, New York, for example, young people plan and execute a community event every summer to kick off summer programming. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, a youth-led evaluation equipped young people with impact measurement skills while creating a forum for them to co-design program outcomes. In South Africa, over 60% of their leadership were once participants in the program. In Detroit, we are in the process of building a youth board. Nationally, in the US, one of our inaugural PeacePlayers US board members is a PeacePlayers Baltimore LDP alumni. The presence of youth voices at various levels of our organization has helped ensure that we stay close to the needs of our young people.
PeacePlayers United States was established in 2017 through seed funding from Nike. From the onset, we centered local voices in informing the direction of our programming. We undertook a context analysis that included focus groups and interviews with community members in the cities we identified as our launch point. Having been a global organization, the results from the context analysis were paramount in understanding the nuances in urban America and how we adapt our vision and our program model. Research analysis is awesome but relationships show you the clearer picture. While starting up our site in Brownsville, Brooklyn, we met with community leaders, sat with young people, sat in a number of resident meetings as a spectator and much of that time was spent listening and asking questions. I came to understand the resilience in this community notwithstanding the challenges it faced. Most importantly, we wanted to collaborate with the people who were already doing the work in their communities as comrades and not competitors.
We introduced our partner summit, an annual convening that brings together our larger institutional partners and funders to discuss progress made, challenges, and how to maximize our collective impact. Recognizing that the people who are most impacted by the work are those who have the closest proximity to it. Unfortunately, they are also the farthest away from the resources. We wanted to be intentional about not recreating power structures but using our partner summit as a convener. The partner summit is held annually and involves corporate partners such as Nike and also our hyper grassroots community partners such as Universe City and The Athlete Project. The Partner Summit has served as a connector and opportunity for our community partners to share their work across the PeacePlayers network..
With a large geographic footprint, we’ve made efforts to flatten our leadership structure. We want our teammates to feel a sense of ownership in the success (and failures) of our collective work. Here are some of the measures we’ve taken.
● Co-Executive Director Leadership model - We introduced power-sharing structure this year as a way to lean into core strengths and to uplift different perspectives in decision making. Leadership can be a lonely journey especially in times of crisis or just exhaustion and it has been incredibly rewarding to walk that journey alongside my co-executive, David Cassel.
● A national leadership team where city directors are part of a decision-making body that informs vision, and key decisions relevant to our work in the United States. This leadership team is modeled after our global leadership team where country Managing Directors sit on a team that informs the vision, strategy, and key decisions in the organization.
● An inaugural PeacePlayers US Board of Directors who have expertise and/or deep lived experience in the cities where we work, bringing crucial insights about how best to work with local communities.
We want to be a connector of people, of institutions -- hyper local and global who are working towards our vision of using sport as a tool to build peaceful and thriving communities. We want to be a platform for emerging youth leaders who share a desire to make a difference in their communities through sport. With this ambitious goal in mind, there’s little room for rigid hierarchy, rather for ecosystems of learning, deep collaboration within local communities and across various stakeholders. In our experience, we’ve learned that participatory design is most effective when it is modeled internally first and externally to our young people, partners, and other stakeholders.
About the author
Sally Nnamani is a coach, community builder, social intrapreneur, and the Co-Executive Director of PeacePlayers United States. She has worked at the intersection of sport, social impact, and peacebuilding for much of her career. She is driven by using sport as a tool for economic empowerment and the power of sport to strengthen communities and build agency in young people. You can learn more about Sally at sally-nnamani.com and peaceplayers.org/unitedstates.