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PeacePlayers Los Angeles Helping to Heal the Community from the Inside Out

Markham Middle School in Watts County of South Los Angeles.

“At Markham, we are trying to heal the community from the inside out”

Long before a global pandemic hit, South Los Angeles was a fragile place to be.

Marci Williams, Assistant Principal at Edwin Markham Middle School in Watts of South Los Angeles, likened the area to divisions that exist in the Middle East, even before she had heard of PeacePlayers.  Whereas in the Middle East, the community is split by national divides, here it is gang affiliation. “It’s a fragile place to be,” she told us, and the environment that exists in Markham is no exception. 

Gang activity and deep-rooted cultural identity has wreaked havoc upon the student body over the years. Children attended school with a constant threat of violence breaking out. The school did their best to keep the peace. At the time, that meant keeping different groups of students separated as the administration kept a close watch. As a result, a lack of trust existed between students and the administration. Students were acting out, frequently resulting in dozens cutting class and hopping fences during the school day. The best that teachers could do was usher these students into the gymnasium where they could continue their day under moderate supervision.

Steps outside of Markham Middle School

In recent years however, a drastic shift has occurred. “We call ourselves ‘New Markham,’” Ms. Williams explained, as teachers and support staff focused on how they could best address community divides and make a conscious effort to support students who are inspired to lead change in the world.  The school decided that they would no longer keep students separated at all. That they would embrace the oneness of the student body. Said Ms. Williams, “We will all go in and out of the same gate, we won’t separate our students.” 

This is where PeacePlayers Los Angeles came into the picture.  Leaning on nearly two decades of expertise in conflict resolution through sports in some of the most historically divided communities around the world, the team at PeacePlayers L.A. has been collaborating with Markham since 2019 to bring their award-winning approach of using sport to unite divided communities to support the students there. 

It was not long before the PeacePlayers coaches began bonding with the students. “They came in with a good reputation in the community,” said 7th grade P.E. teacher Mr. Castillo. Some of the Markham students were participating in PeacePlayers even before they came to the school. 

“The kids here are very loyal. If they see you as sincere and that you care about them, they will run through a wall for you.” 

PeacePlayers entered Markham with a very strong presence as they began supporting P.E. classes. As Mr. Castillo described, “They were very organized and engaging. They would quickly move from one activity to the next, helping to keep the kids focused on the drills. They were able to keep one hundred percent of the students engaged one hundred percent of the time.” 

For many of the students, that strong structure provided a sense of security. “These students are forced to live beyond their age.” Mr. Castillo described how an average Markham student is often responsible for buying groceries for their family and taking care of their home while their parents are at work. PeacePlayers provided a change for the students, knowing that they did not have to be as in control as they were at home. 

The team at PeacePlayers L.A. has worked to build that trust over time. For many, it was the way they got kids who had never played basketball before involved with the drills and improving their game without even realizing. Said Ms. Williams of the PeacePlayers team, “I call it the Mr. Miagi approach to teaching basketball. The kids are playing fun games and by the end they realize they’re now able to dribble, they didn’t realize what they were learning!”

Mr. Castillo, a longtime teacher at the school, explained the change that he has seen at the school as a result of the culture shift, including partnering with organizations like PeacePlayers, “Kids are no longer cutting class and sneaking off. They’re coming to school to learn now.”