“The emotional support that PeacePlayers’ coaches provide to myself and other youth in the program is unquantifiable.” – Javonn Islar, PeacePlayers youth leader.
New York is at the center of a global crisis. As a safety measure, basketball hoops are being taken down all over the Brownsville neighborhood, and residents are encouraged to stay in their homes. While all of this is happening, PeacePlayers Brooklyn has not let the lack of on-court activity keep them from continuing to innovate programming and foster a sense of connection between their coaches and participants.
For youth leader Javonn Islar, PeacePlayers has meant the world to him. Living in Brownsville, an area with the largest concentration of housing developments in the Americas, Javonn has been no stranger to divides in his community. He talks about the experience of feeling unsafe walking through his neighborhood, due to high rates of gun and gang violence between gangs from different housing developments. When he first moved to Brownsville, Javonn’s parents didn’t want him to go outside as they were worried about gunfire.
For Javonn, he was able to find a safe space with PeacePlayers Brooklyn. After two of his friends convinced him to join the program, it did not take long for him to start to feel at home and comfortable amongst his new teammates. Javonn felt supported by his coach and Director of PeacePlayers Brooklyn, Sally Nnamani, who understood the importance of support as her team was breaking the norms of their community. Recently, Javonn’s team welcomed three new members to join from a neighboring housing development. Deeply rooted divides in the community would have made this practice previously unimaginable. However, Javonn led by example and embraced his new teammates. Javonn sees himself and his teammates as an example to the community that pre-existing divides do not have to stand, and that youth can lead the way in breaking them down.
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread through New York, causing devastating effects in Brooklyn specifically, Javonn and his teammates face a new form of divide in the community. As they continue to cope with social isolation, they realize the importance of the connection that PeacePlayers fosters. And, through the difficulty of dealing with the crisis, Javonn has leaned on his PeacePlayers coaches and staff to provide the necessary support. For many of our youth, that support comes in the form of regular check-ins. For others, it is having access to virtually gather with their teammates while they are confined to their homes.
PeacePlayers has even used this as an opportunity to bring together new groups of youth that had never before been connected. Over the past few weeks, the PeacePlayers group in Baltimore has joined the PeacePlayers Brooklyn team on their team calls. For many of the teammates, this provided a rare opportunity for them to interact with youth from outside of their neighborhood, let alone their state. They were at first thrown off by hearing different accents, but soon realized that they have more similarities than differences as they bonded primarily over their love for the game of basketball.
As the program has innovated and embraced technology, it has expanded what is possible for the youth of a given city. By meeting the Baltimore team, Brooklyn participants are realizing that not only are they supported by members of their own team, but by a community of leaders for peace around the world. While Coach Sally continues to navigate the future of PeacePlayers Brooklyn with her team she remembers that PeacePlayers has always been bigger than basketball, it has been about finding connections, “I am challenging myself to practice kindness and to use this as a time to look out for our peers as much as we would for ourselves.”
Staying strong through this pandemic will require a team effort. At PeacePlayers, youth and staff from around the world are connecting more than ever before. At a time when our community is feeling more isolated, we are working to foster a new sense of community, one that connects PeacePlayers from around the world and finds connection through a shared humanity.