PeacePlayers International is an organization that offers sports programming, peace education and leadership development to those living in communities in conflict around the world.
Founded by brothers Brendan and Sean Tuohey, their international programs are based in South Africa, the Middle East, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and now the United States. Sean had the idea for PeacePlayers International while he was playing professional basketball in Northern Ireland. A new crop of PeacePlayers projects have recently sprung up in the United States- in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles.
PeacePlayers uses the power of sport (specifically basketball) to unite, educate and inspire young people to create a more peaceful world. We spoke with Shawn Brown, Project Coordinator of the PeacePlayers Baltimore Project, to learn more about their Baltimore based initiative.
How PeacePlayers Came to Be in Baltimore
“PeacePlayers International has been operating around the world since 2001,” explained Brown. In 2017, the organization partnered with Nike to promote equality in the US. “The partnership launched around MLK Day with programs in Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Detroit,” Brown adds. There are now additional programs in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Brown had been working in Baltimore as a basketball coach for almost 8 years when a friend introduced him to PeacePlayers. “I got familiar with their mission and the work that they do,” he explained. “I then joined as a Project Coordinator in June 2017.”
The Baltimore Project focuses its efforts in the Park Heights neighborhood, where residents face higher rates of violence, crime and poverty. PeacePlayers Baltimore Project partners with MLK Elementary School and Middle School as well as KIPP Charter School to provide free youth development focused after school basketball programming. They have 150 youth participants enrolled over the calendar year through both their school and summer programming.
Community Partnerships Lead to Sustainable Programming
“As Project Coordinator, I work on creating partnerships with different organizations locally, like one we recently kicked off with Oasis,” says Brown. Oasis is an after school mentorship program that works with the students at MLK Middle School. “These partnerships help us impact more kids and also ensure the programming we are offering is worth their time.”
With local partners like the Boys & Girls Club of Park Heights, Baltimore City Public Schools, Family Tree of Baltimore, The Images of You Mentoring Program and more, Brown stays busy.
Brown and his team are always looking for beneficial partnerships, but they have a few qualifications to consider. “The most important thing we look at is the organization’s commitment to the youth,” says Brown. “That’s one thing lacking among the kids we work with – there is typically no one committed to helping them succeed. So, we look for partners that will do that.”
“Our partners should also be teaching kids how to create long term goals and develop healthy relationships,” Brown continues. “And finally, we are looking for partners to teach our youth life skills and leadership skills.”
Impacting Youth Beyond Basketball
One of the biggest challenges that PeacePlayers faces with their Baltimore Project is getting the kids they work with to understand that what they are learning goes beyond sports. “Basketball is a big part of what we do, but we want the kids to grow outside of just basketball,” explains Brown. “My biggest challenge every day is how do we let these kids know that they matter? How do we convince them they are important?”
It’s not just basketball coaches like Brown who are making an impact with PeacePlayers. The Baltimore Project works with local Baltimore City police officers to serve as mentors and coaches to the youth involved in the program. “They [the officers] sometimes don’t even play basketball with the kids, but help with homework in our after school programs, or play UNO with them,” says Brown.
In a city with a history of more than 50 years of conflict between police and the communities they serve, promoting equity and changing perceptions of both community members and police officers is an important part of the PeacePlayers Baltimore Project. “It’s about making the kids realize that these guys are people and they can count on them,” Brown adds.
The Importance of Metrics and Measuring Success
Given that stateside programs like the Baltimore Project are relatively new additions to the internationally based PeacePlayers, it’s important for Brown and his team to keep track of the successes and challenges occurring within the project.
“We look at consistency as a measure of success- how often kids are coming to the program,” explains Brown. “We give our kids questionnaires to fill out and tell us what they are getting out of it.” Brown and his team also look at grades for some of their youth participants, but don’t use it as a reliable measurement of success. They do pay attention to how the youth they work with perform as they move up in school or transition from middle school to high school.
Unique International Exchange Opportunities
The international resources from PeacePlayers bring a unique aspect to the organization’s US based programming. In September 2018, PeacePlayers sent a group of 10 girls and 3 staff members from their Middle East team to the US. The team visited project sites in NYC and Baltimore to connect with their female participants and experience not only the differences but the similarities of their respective cultures.
“The girls from the Middle East shared some of their culture with our girls, and our girls shared some of our Baltimore culture with them,” recounts Brown. “It was small things, like dancing, using Snapchat and different activities that brought them together.”
Brown hopes to be able to partner with other international chapters in the future to create more of these exchange opportunities for youth in the Baltimore Project.
“The Middle East trip in September was primarily funded by a board member, but we tap into grant applications domestically and internationally to assist with varying aspects of all our programming, one of which being exchanges,” explains Brown. “We are definitely looking to raise additional funds to continue to do this.”
The Future of PeacePlayers in Baltimore
Beyond cultural exchange opportunities, PeacePlayers Baltimore Project is looking to grow beyond just the Park Heights neighborhood. They hosted an MLK Day event in January this year that was open to youth city-wide.
“Right now, we are working on growing awareness,” explains Brown. PeacePlayers Baltimore Project currently offers summer camps every year that are open to youth in any Baltimore community. The organization is expanding to Southwest Baltimore to host a summer camp this June and will be in a Southwest Baltimore school for the 2019-2020 school year in addition to their schools in Park Heights.
To learn more or donate to the PeacePlayers Baltimore Project, visit PeacePlayers Baltimore Group on Facebook.