Project Update: Goodnow Good Neighbors Initiative

During October, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) alumna Stephanie Wolfe completed the first of her community events with the “Goodnow Good Neighbors Initiative” in Baltimore, Maryland. Her project builds upon the voiced concerns for greater safety in the largely immigrant Goodnow community of Baltimore and allows for relationship-building opportunities between law enforcement officers and their communities.

See more about Stephanie and other U.S. Alumni TIES Small Grant recipients from the seminar “Building Resilient Communities: Religious and Ethnic Diversity” here.

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“Kiii-lo!” Clap. Clap. Clap. “Woooo!” The sound of many hands clapping in unison signals the end of a typical soccer practice at Soccer Without Borders (SWB), an organization that works with newcomer refugee, immigrant, and asylee youth in Baltimore, Maryland. SWB uses soccer as a vehicle for positive change in the community, and a kilo is a shout-out typically given by a player or coach to a participant who has demonstrated positive behavior during the session, such as exhibiting good sportsmanship or putting their best effort forward. In this case, the kilo being given by a coach is for everyone in the local community center, a mix of 35 youth (predominantly high school students) from over 10 countries and seven Baltimore City Police officers.

With facilitation led by SWB staff members, these groups have just spent the last two hours of this crisp, sunny October day playing soccer together and engaging in team-building activities before ending with a discussion around neighborhood safety. This is the first time that these groups have come together for an event, and other partners, such as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher and community liaison (who is also a Tigrinya/Amharic interpreter) have come out for support. Within minutes of welcoming participants with an opening circle, youth and police are sweating, laughing, and communicating on and off the field as they work together to pass the ball or try to score goals.

For the majority of police officers in attendance, this is also their first time hearing about Soccer Without Borders and the diverse group of youth that live in northeast Baltimore. For both the students and police, there are certain preconceived notions of what the other group is like, which comes out during the post-soccer discussion. As one high school student admits, she is sometimes afraid of the police because she doesn’t know how they will treat her due to the color of her skin. Another student indicates that he feels like the police do not respond to incidents of crimes in his neighborhood as quickly as they do in other parts of the city. The police officers on the other hand, discuss how difficult their job can be and how tough it can be sometimes to build trust with the communities they are sworn to protect.

Following the event, participants are asked about one step they could take to make their neighborhood safer going forward. Responses include learning more about laws, building a partnership with the police, and talking to police or sharing concerns when they feel unsafe. As participants are dismissed, many officers even distribute business cards and give out their cell phone information for students to text or call if they ever need to communicate with them or feel unsafe.

The police-youth soccer game is the first phase of an initiative designed to bring newcomer residents of a local neighborhood in Baltimore together to build capacity and increase dialogue around neighborhood safety. While this particular event has targeted youth, the next phase will address the concerns and issues immigrant and refugee parents and adults face in their neighborhood, including how residents and police can better work together to reduce crime, and how residents can work with each other to be a support system and take action when their safety is being jeopardized.

I recognize that there are still many areas of concern that newcomer families face in their neighborhood, and that one conversation with police is not going to immediately solve the problem of unsafe neighborhoods or change the lived experiences that people are encountering every day, especially if these lived experiences include ongoing harassment, assaults, or bullying. What organizing this event has taught me is that one-off events do not create change by themselves. However, they can become the catalyst for building relationships and establishing ongoing dialogue and trust between different groups of people, even groups that may hold very different perspectives and world views from each other. I believe it is precisely through these relationships that support systems can start to develop and social change can finally occur.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.