I believe I have a choice to make to determine the direction of the rest of my project here in Dominica. I've realized that the Dominica Olympic Committee (DOC), as a political body, conducts community-based projects when they will ultimately improve its own public appearance. I am reminded of the question that is often asked when individuals participate in community service: can such behavior truly have selfless motivations? I do not mean to criticize the DOC too harshly. After all, its National Youth Role Model Program (NYRM) is well-intentioned and much needed action to promote the positive development of Dominica's youth. However, the DOC may be focusing more on the impact the program will have on itself than on the individuals participating from around the country. This concerns me because my interest in youth sports stems from a genuine desire to positively impact youth development; I am afraid the DOC's approach may prevent it from acting in the best interests of the YRM program participants.
Some of my new friends at the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture have suggested that change in youth behavior may not be achieved through working at the national level because it cannot effectively be reinforced at that scale. I came to terms with this reality some time ago. There is a similar conflict in the world of education reform regarding whether top-down or grassroots initiatives are more effective for student learning. No one can deny that the changes at the classroom level are what impact youth development and learning as opposed to government mandates. Therefore, I strongly believe that the coaches implementing youth programs are the ones who must be educated to create more positive experiences for Dominica's youth. The youth cannot be expected to carry out their own behavioral changes alone, yet that is the current approach taken by the DOC's NYRM Program. Instead, they need mentors, powerful role models, and a structured program in which they are consistently held accountable for their actions. A well-designed sports program can provide all of these experiences for youth
I did not and do not expect to "change the world" in my 9 short weeks here. I also realize that the most significant changes that take place during my stay will likely occur within myself. But, as I learn and adapt to the way of life, the culture, and the manner in which Dominicans interact with one another, I do hope that I may have a meaningful impact on a smaller scale. If I am able to empower even a few athletes to step up and break the status quo for youth on the island, I think I will have achieved something more sustainable than a national program plagued by organizational and communication issues. I may have already met the right group of young athletes last week.
The Aspirers Athletics Club is one of the most elite track and field clubs for youth on the island. The coaches have fostered a sense of commitment from the athletes that is very rare among youth in Dominica. Even Aspirers Coach Nabi Wallace described the biggest challenge as getting the youth to show up for practice on time. Despite his attempts to recruit athletes as early as primary school, their sense of commitment always seems to fade at the transition from primary to secondary school, about age 12 or 13. Sports lose against peer pressure to participate in other social activities, and it is uncommon in the local culture for anyone to dedicate so much of their time and energy to a single activity.
Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to join 6 athletes from the Aspirers for their gym session. Coach Nabi seemed pleasantly
surprised that I arrived with not only my notebook and camera, but also dressed to work out. We had a tough but fun practice together, and the experience reassured me of my conviction in the power of sports to unite people. There's nothing that can create bonds among strangers like undergoing a challenging experience together. Sport has the power to transcend cultural
barriers like nothing else I've experienced.
When Coach Nabi had me lead portions of the practice, the male athletes tried to test me, but they quickly learned that I was just as serious. They seemed a little surprised to find this in a female athlete, but they changed gears and started working as we got into practice. I was so encouraged by this experience. It reassured me that there truly are youth in Dominica who want greater opportunities for sports and are also willing to work for it. I felt as though we established a sense of respect and trust in one another in a matter of two hours. By the end of practice, most of the walls had come down as we discussed our lives outside of athletics. The group began teaching me some of the local Creole greetings like "Sakafete - How are you?" The team also made plans with me to visit many of the local attractions on our days off from practice. We will definitely be spending more time training together in the future. In this way, I hope to lead by example and be a positive role model, especially for the highly outnumbered female athletes. I also hope to gain insight into what makes these youth unique among the many who do not stick with sport.
At the DOC: the National Youth Role Model Orientation
It was a grueling week in the office leading up to the NYRM program's Orientation Day on Saturday, June 16. As usual, Mr. Dorsett was mostly absent from the DOC office, where most attempts at planning the event were being made. Granted, he does have another "real job," but the employees of the DOC office are dependent on his communication to do their work properly. Unfortunately, he leaves his work at the DOC until the very end of the work day, when he arrives in alarm over the fact that people in the office were not able to read his mind and fulfill his expectations all day. He kept me at the office until 6pm on both Monday and Tuesday, preventing me from getting home until after dark at 7:30pm. By Wednesday, I was exhausted and did not travel to Roseau. I called Mr. Dorsett to tell him I needed better communication from him regarding his vision and expectations for the NYRM Orientation on Saturday. He was reluctant to create plans over the phone, delaying our ability to plan until Thursday.
When I met with Mr. Dorsett and Avonelle (DOC secretary) on Thursday, it was the first time that I was informed of the precise topic on which I would be presenting two days later. I tried not to panic, but I had about 36 hours left before I would be giving a 45 minute workshop on the topic of Self-Discipline: Physical vs. Mental. Fortunately, my experiences as a student-athlete have prepared me extensively to speak on the subject. Still, I could not avoid worrying about my ability to engage the Youth Role Models when I was the last presentation of the 6-hour Orientation Day. I decided that, in the end, the best approach was to ensure that I was totally comfortable being myself in front of the foreign crowd, a task that took a great deal of mental discipline in itself.
On Saturday morning, Mr. Dorsett drove me over to the University of West Indies (UWI) satellite campus in Roseau, Dominica. The DOC had been so kind as to put me up in a hotel room in Roseau for the evening, since we had to be at the school so early to set up for Orientation. The busses from Portsmouth to Roseau would not have operated early enough on Saturday. Promptly at 9:30am, vans from all over the island began dropping off groups of youth role models and administrators from the 12 District Olympic Academies. Because we had run out of time to obtain RSVP's from all of the DOA's, the DOC employees and I were not sure how many people to expect. By 9:45, I could already tell that the 85 person auditorium would be packed. All but one of the 12 districts brought full representation, which put us at over 110 attendees. I was thrilled! The outlook had not looked half as good just 3 days earlier.
We were so fortunate to have a well air-conditioned auditorium, or it would have been a long and unpleasant day. The event was able to begin just a half hour after the planned start, which is quite timely by Dominican standards (we are on "island time" after all). The introduction was a little slow, but after a late morning snack break, the emcee, Darwin Telemaque, really got things moving. There were five presentations on each of the five pillars of the National Youth Role Model Program. These pillars are based on the Olympic Values and include Protocol, Pride, Appreciation, Ethics, and Discipline. Speakers included local female politician Judith Pestina, Director of the Sports Division Trevor Shillingford, former national Cricketer and Sportsman Darwin Telemaque, DOC President Felix Wilson, and yours truly. I was humbled to find myself among such distinguished peers.
As I presented to the packed and tired audience, I struggled to gauge their ability to relate to what I discussed. The audience ranged in age from 11 to 65 years old. I gave examples that could be relevant not only to athletes but also to any student working toward accomplishing a goal. I tried to give them an impression of what it means to be a youth role model, encouraging them to become more aware of the way their actions and attitudes impact those around them, positively and negatively. I also suggested they create goal sheets for themselves to keep track of their efforts toward being the best person they can be.
At the end of the day, I was so flattered when a few young girls approached me with questions about being an athlete. They were netball players who also hoped to someday compete in athletics (track and field). In their communities and schools, netball was the only structured sport they could play. This variation on basketball is also the most popular sport for women on the island. I also received some positive feedback from a van full of Youth Role Models from the North DOA, which includes Portsmouth. They were fortunate enough to provide me with a slice of pizza for dinner and a free ride from Roseau to Portsmouth. Overall, I consider the day a huge success. I am looking forward to rewarding the participation of the YRM's at the official Induction Ceremony on July 1st.
Despite the success of our first large event for the YRM program, I am still reevaluating the way I spend my limited time here in Dominica. I must now decide whether to continue working in the DOC office, where I am detached from the athletes, and more of my work goes into shaping the organization's public image than shaping the experiences of the youth. The alternative will be to step back and learn about youth development and athletics in a more personal way. I want to be on the ground where I can monitor the impact of my own efforts. I want to understand the experience of the youth athletes and coaches as they tell it, not as it is perceived by the governing bodies. My hypothesis is that a fundamental disconnect exists between the needs and experiences of the youth in their communities and the DOC's understanding of how to help.
I have a feeling I have already made my decision. I cannot attempt to influence a culture I do not yet fully understand. I know from growing up in a small rural town that one's personal reputation depends more on interpersonal relations than accolades, degrees, or titles. I plan to invest more of my time in getting to know people through personal experiences. Instead of talking to a large crowded room, I also need to discuss what is good and bad with the youth and community members one-on-one. The National Youth Role Model Program is still very important to me, and I will continue to help the DOC with the pilot class of YRM's. However, I plan to spend progressively less time confined to the office, which I might do anywhere in the world. Going out and experiencing life as a Dominican will help ensure that my efforts do not simply sound good but actually accomplish some good as well.