A BASN Interview With Jill Robbins, Soccer in the Streets

By Andrew Dixon, III
Updated: July 24, 2007

MIAMI — Jill Robbins is the Executive Director of Soccer in the Streets, an Atlanta based organization that is committed to building the life of kids and their families through soccer and improving the quality of life in the heart of the country’s urban communities. She recently spoke to BASN’s Andrew Dixon about the program and her hopes for the kids it serves.

BASN: Soccer in the Streets began in 1989. I understand this was before you were affiliated with it, but what were the sparks that really brought Soccer in the Streets into existence?

JILL ROBBINS: The main impetus was soccer fans who saw the benefits of being involved with the world’s most popular sport and seeing how in US there were people being excluded. That was mainly inner city, urban minorities particularly African-Americans. So there was a desire on the part of soccer fans who wanted to see that segment of the population reached.

When you also consider the social ills, where kids who didn’t have the opportunity for after school structured programs you’d see a myriad of problems that were plaguing these communities. Not that soccer is the panacea for that but it was certainly was a tool that could be used to reach kids before they were beyond help.

BASN: I understand that you began a similar program in Youngstown, OH around 1990. What eventually brought you to Soccer in the Streets?

J.R.: That’s correct, my husband (who’s from Youngstown) and I relocated there and brought our passion for the game there. We saw a tremendous need because it is one of the (economically) hardest hit areas in Rust Belt. There was soccer going on in all the suburban communities but nothing in the city. Kids had a better chance of going to jail or dying before they turned 18, than they did graduating high school. We started up our program and then not even a year later, heard about Soccer in the Streets in Soccer America magazine and said, “Oh my gosh, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.” That prompted a phone call to the National office in Atlanta to find out more. It’s a struggle, this is a new frontier on a lot of levels so we needed all the help we could get.

In 1998, after establishing our program proved to be successful and we were able to sustain our model for a number of years, we were recruited by the national office to come to Atlanta and work with the national program to help develop programs here in Atlanta and across the country.

BASN: The website speaks about the Urban Soccer Model. What is that and why is it so unique?

J.R.: We had a change of leadership in about 2001 and the chairman, who grew up playing the game in England stated that the reason why the game is so entrenched in places like Europe and S. America is that it’s part of the culture. It was his vision to crate that soccer culture here to not only to better the game here but also reach these kids and crate a sustainable effort to use soccer to improve their lives.

The elements we brought were some of the things we were already working on as well as some new ones that he brought. First of all we have a curriculum called Positive Choice soccer which ties life skills to soccer skills. Rhis is really the keystone to our soccer model. Kids also need a place to play we were finding a lot of abandoned tennis courts that could be converted in the soccer courts like you would see in all over the world. So we would take these tennis courts and convert them to soccer courts.

The thing was to create room to grow; where as the kids became more committed and their families took more of an interest. We created more opportunities for interaction, growth and education. We moved beyond the foundation of what and where and moved to why?

Why are we doing this? Well because it leads to life long opportunities, employment opportunities, better education and helps you acquire the skills to help you be successful in other aspects of your life.

BASN: You speak about using individual skills in the game to demonstrate a life lesson. Explain that.

J.R.: Sure. We identify 10 life skills and the very first of those is respect. The mantra we use is, “You need to respect yourself, respect one another and respect the ball.” If you don’t have respect for yourself, you can’t respect anyone else. You need to respect others because you need an opponent to be able to have a game. You need referees and leadership, structure and rules. You need to respect the ball and the game because it gives you so much. You respect it by following the rules, playing your hardest and being a disciplined person.

It’s just a great way to use soccer as an analogy, connecting something so intangible such as respect with something so tangible as soccer.

BASN: You spoke earlier about soccer being a part of the culture in places such as Europe and S. America. I’ve often said that basketball and to a lesser extent American football are engrained in the Black American culture. To that end, Black Americans have not traditionally participated in soccer. How has the response been with the parents of the kids in your program?

J.R.: That’s interesting because the most resistance we get is from the adults. Maybe at first, the kids will parrot those same opinions by saying “Oh, I hate soccer, oh I play football. Soccer’s a sissy sport.” We’ll ask, “Well have you ever tried it?” They say no. You throw a ball out there and, then it’s ON! Anytime a kid can be physical and run and have fun it doesn’t matter if it’s a round ball or a pointy ball. It’s adults who have it in their minds that soccer is exclusive, is elitist, only white folks play it. That just goes to their being sheltered and unexposed to the world wide nature of the game.

The media also has a lot to do with it. Kids tend to emulate what they see. What we try to do is find role models for the kids from a soccer standpoint like Eddie Johnson or Ricardo Clark. These are young kids that look like the kids we are working with that they can relate to and say, “Hey, this guy’s made it big, he’s playing all over the world, and I can too.” When parents start to get exposed to the game through their kids, they say, “Wow I didn’t know my kid could play soccer” or “I didn’t know this was so much fun.” Then you start to break down those pre-conceived notions that this is a sport for middle class white kids or whimps or…

***image9*** BASN: White people and Mexicans is what I hear a lot.

J.R.: Exactly! We have a parent vs. kids game at the end of the season and the parents get out there and say things like “Wow this is better than aerobics” or “I didn’t know it was this much work” It becomes a much more familial thing and that’s what separates it from little league football and baseball which are so cutthroat. Not to say Youth Soccer doesn’t have its share of extreme parents but I think we’ve managed to temper that a bit.

BASN: The USYSA comes to you asking how they can better reach minority youth. What do you tell them?

J.R.: I would tell them that they could learn from us. We’ve been doing this for over 15 years. I’d take them on a driving tour around Atlanta and show them what needs to be done. We can serve in a leadership role to help people improve their programs. I don’t want to take over Soccer Start or any other urban outreach program. However if I have information to share that will benefit their kids, I’m more than willing to share that.

I’ve sat down with folks from different organizations. There’s an urban soccer collaborative being formed among various programs, including ours to establish a clearing house for information. People can use that as a reference if they want to do the work themselves because there is NO shortage of kids that need to be reached. By working with these organizations, we can get the job done.

BASN: Soccer in the Streets has had several initiatives to increase the exposure and playing opportunities in the inner city such as the Street Box and the Soccer Bus. Can you explain what those are?

J.R.: Street Box, that’s the brand name for the tennis court conversion where we use small spaces into a football court. We’re looking at surfaces that hold up to weather and constant use, durable low maintenance and that are safe. Tennis courts lend themselves quite well to that and we’re looking at some other options with the US Soccer Foundation with a rubberized surface or something life a field turf.

The Soccer Bus, well, we took an old Penske truck and converted into a soccer clubhouse on wheels. We have televisions and cushy seats so that the kids can come and watch soccer games. It’s really all about bringing the soccer culture to the community so that kids can watch players they can emulate and inspiring them to follow after something besides whatever bling bling rapper is out there.

BASN: The Soccer in the Streets website cites many statistics regarding the kids in your program such as statistics 81% decline in peer conflict and a 75% decrease in child to adult defiance and a 55% increase in incidence of teamwork. Talk, if you would, about some of the successes the program has had in terms of educational achievement.

J.R.: We can’t take all of the credit for turning D students to A students. But when start stressing that we need to check their report cards, it brings awareness that school work DOES come first.

On one of our more advanced teams, during the fall semester, all but three kids were failing at least one class. By the spring, all of the kids, except for two, are passing ALL of their classes. There not all A,B students but there is progress being made. I don’t know if it’s motivation from being in the program but we find help for them if they need it, provide tutors.

But we do say that if you aren’t carrying a 2.0 or a C average, you can still play but you have to have at least two hours of tutoring a week. We’ve got kids who can’t come to games on Saturdays because they’re getting extra tutoring and that’s fine. You need to go to school and get your grades up.

BASN: You’ve taken some select teams to different tournaments. Where did some of those tournaments take place and more importantly what did the kids get out of it?

J.R.: My favorite tournament is the one we’ve created with the Golden Isles Soccer Assn. on Jekyll Island on Georgia. There’s a gentleman who’s very sympathetic to what we do and started off giving us special discounts to bring teams to playing in the Savannah area. So we wanted to do something on Jekyll Island and we called it “Street meets the Beach”.

We had a small round robin tournament. He doesn’t charge us anything for it and gets referees to donate their time. We do a little cookout for the kids on Saturday after we show up in the morning and start playing in the afternoon and into Sunday. They go to the beach, hang out at the hotel. The kids get a chance to get out of their neighborhood, see some different part of the world, meet kids from another place and have fun.

The parents come along and it’s a great bonding experience for the kids and the families. We’ve been to S. Carolina and other places but that’s our favorite.

BASN: You also recently took a team to Germany recently, correct?

J.R.: Yes, we’re part of the World Street Football World network based in Berlin. It’s a network of organizations that uses the social dimension of the game to improve people’s lives. Everything from conflict resolution to AIDS awareness to community improvement There’s a lot of organizations that have their twist on things but everyone is using the sport to better people’s lives.

As part of this event they had a street football world festival where 22 of these organizations were invited to bring a team of eight players to Berlin during the (2006 FIFA) World Cup for a tournament played under the Soccer For Peace model. The kids come up with their own rules, play without referees, manage and organize themselves. It was pretty amazing to see a tournament played without referees but for the most part it was pretty successful.

I think some of the other teams took advantage of our kids’ good nature because our kids wanted to prove they weren’t bullies or the “Ugly Americans”. But the other players generally liked our kids because they were so down to earth and unpretentious.

***image8*** BASN: They’re teenagers and have already have been to Europe? That’s not your average AAU trip!

J.R.: It’s not and for South Africa 2010…we’re really looking forward to that.

BASN: I want to thank you for speaking to us tonight. Any final words?

J.R.: If you really have a passion for the game, you need to share it. Find a community or neighborhood or cause that you can take this passion you have and benefit a kid or their family. Even if it’s just spending $20 on a soccer ball. It can change someone’s life. It changed MY life. Before I got into soccer, I was just an aimless young person, now look where I am. I’m hoping to affect a lot of people this way. If you really love your sport, use it to do some good in the world.