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Dania Cabello Q+A: On Futbolistas 4 Life, sports liberation education and allowing free-play among youth

(Courtesy Photo)

Dania Cabello is a sports liberation educator at St. Mary’s College in California, where she explores and teaches sports as a space for freedom.

She is also heavily involved community youth soccer in the Oakland, California, area, as documented in the recent film, “FUTBOLISTAS 4 LIFE.” The film follows a pair of high school students – one a DACA applicant, the other born in California to undocumented parents – as they navigate difficult living situations and seek higher education, all while finding a common bond through soccer.

Cabello is the coach of the youth group in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, where gang violence was prevalent at the start of filming in 2012. The film documents this group’s discovery of the game, its fight to transform a dangerous, bleak playground into a safe playing space, and how soccer helps improve the lives of the teens and their families.

Students Benjamin and April are the protagonists in this masterful and emotional documentary, but Cabello’s impact is clear throughout the film. A California native whose Chilean parents arrived as political exiles during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1970s, Cabello played collegiately at California-Berkley before stints with Santos in Brazil and the Bay Area Breeze in the WPSL.

Recently, Cabello spoke The Equalizer about the film, how her work has changed her relationship with soccer, and how the United States’ systems and structures – like pay-to-play – can prohibit youth from participating.

Below is the trailer for the film, which was directed and produced by Jun Stinson. Those in Northern California can watch it on PBS station KQED on Friday at 8 p.m. PT and Saturday at 2 a.m. PT. The full screening/broadcast schedule can be found here.

UPDATE: You can watch the entire film on YouTube throughout the month of August:

EQZ: his story is some six years in the making, and there has been some time since it stopped filming. What updates can you share? What has changed?

DANIA CABELLO: Nothing significantly drastic, in terms of the content and the story of immigration, deportations or anything like that. Everyone is still in Oakland, just in a different place. April is at Cal and Ben is now a father. That part wasn’t shown in the film, but he became a dad.

One thing was that even the field, which has a beautiful story – the beautiful part is that it highlights the resilience, but I think just because the field, anything that we do in sports, is still part of this kind of mainstream structure of sports … Even though the attention was to really center and prioritize increasing access for marginalized communities in Oakland, there was a brief moment in time when even that field – because anyone can rent it, even private entities can rent it – there was a situation in which private people were renting the field and a lot of the kids that were playing in these pay-to-play soccer programs were not at all from the community and Fruitvale. They were being kind of shuttled in, caravanned in by their families, and it just kind of highlighted that contradiction that is difficult to shake. Even though our intentions in building the field were to prioritize the center in our community, it was still the same problem, where the school did benefit from having some extra funding by the people that could pay. But then, at six o’clock or seven o’clock, when these paying people would turn their lights on – they pay for the generators and everything to light the field – the community members would get kicked off the field.

There’s something really fundamentally wrong about the fact that children are not free-playing. They are playing when there’s a system set up where they are paying money to participate when, in actuality, you don’t need anything to play. We don’t have that culture here.

So, I guess that does lead me into what’s different. Those little examples of what happens with the field were really eye-opening for me. Also, when you are a part of a group that does something as wonderful as that, it’s easy for people to really focus on – not to say that they shouldn’t focus on the positives – but there are other questions that complicate the issue of building the field, which is just the reality that it is not replicable in every city. Even coming across the private funds that we got to build the field, it’s still not – it’s just not easy. It kind of exacerbated that issue of, ‘OK, you still need money and capital to participate.’ It’s all essentially under that same framework of contemporary sports paradigms.

So, for me, I would say the biggest change from whatever is featured in the film is that my own concept of healthy sport and play has shifted because of it. Not dramatically, but it just kind of continues to evolve, looking less at traditional sporting spaces and really looking at the non-traditional spaces of play, and bringing that into the conversation of what’s happening in our country with sports and pay-to-play. Because what we see, besides the isolation and exclusivity of organized pay-to-play teams, there’s also a correlation with the decrease in free-play among children of all ages. That’s something that, to me is really – besides the pay-to-play – there’s something really fundamentally wrong about the fact that children are not free-playing, and that it is directly in conversation with, OK, when are they playing? They are playing when there’s a system set up where they are paying money to participate when, in actuality, you don’t need anything to play. But that’s not necessarily a philosophy that our country and this society has adopted in the same way that other countries play street soccer. We don’t have that culture here.

EQZ: So, you’re talking about ways that you can affect the community even if it’s to the extent that you say, ‘here’s a ball and here’s a parking lot,’ right?

CABELLO: Yeah. It’s brought me to a new relationship even with soccer, where I am part of a group in Oakland called Oakland Street Stylers. The members who are part of it are really like culture-keepers in the Bay Area who are musicians, dancers, DJs and soccer players. So, freestyle soccer, which is huge in other parts of the world and is just a really tiny niche activity that’s done here in the U.S. – most participants of freestyle are anywhere from 12 to 18. So, myself and Oakland Street Stylers are definitely like the older – the O.G.s – in our community. Our bodies can’t do these amazing, beautiful things that the younger folks can do.

Futbolistas (Courtesy Photo)

There is really a philosophy at its core, which is activating public spaces that weren’t intended for playing. We get to experience it, the type of joy and human connectivity of just what happens when you bring a ball into a space that – let’s say downtown Oakland – and just have that shift in culture immediately. So, I’ve been really curious about these alternative forms of creative expression through sport that still mimic [that]. I’m not saying skill doesn’t matter, because in many ways, what freestyle soccer players do is a different kind of mastery of playing than members on the U.S. national team. So, kind of trying to expose that some and introduce that concept to more people, to young people as a form of protestation to that pay-to-play model.

EQZ: What else are you working on in the community beyond what we see in the film? I am sure it has led you to see some of the positives and negatives out there, beyond what we are talking about with pay-to-play.

CABELLO: I do a lot of what I call rogue sports education. I worked in traditional schools for over 10 years, and it really showed me the beautiful possibility when you work in a school with direct access to kids. But, especially during sports education, there’s just so many limitations that I was like, OK, I’m sitting here talking about freedom through sports and play; I just as an adult have been trying to navigate how to do that as authentically as I feel I can. And so, it’s taken me out of the traditional classroom in some regards and into other spaces.

I think athletes are much hungrier for critical thoughts than traditional sport currently teaches… having athletes give themselves permission to critique things that are the more oppressive aspects of sports, the unjust or the unequal aspects of it.

One of the bigger moves I did recently is I started teaching as an adjunct faculty at St. Mary’s College, and I teach liberatory pedagogy for sports educators – people who are masters teachers, who are P.E. teachers, and incorporating and introducing theories of freedom and how those might play out in physical education classrooms. For me, that has been a really powerful move. One, because I get to actually work with like-minded professionals who are really curious about exploring the possibilities of sport as a space for freedom. But also, I work with a handful of educators. They, in turn, work with hundreds if not thousands of students. So, the impact feels really different and I really appreciate that, the relationship of sharing the idea that sports can be different, even if the structures are relatively the same.

There’s a lot to say about individual agency as an athlete, and I don’t think that is something that is really taught, celebrated or centered in sports – especially on team sports where there’s the whole, ‘there’s-no-I-in-team’ mentality, where you have to break from being an interesting, complex individual and become just one of the whole. That was something that I, as a player, really struggled with a lot in my young adult life, was, in order to play in this elite system, there are many accommodating parts of my identity that just took place, whether I was conscious of it at the time or not. That’s one part that doesn’t quite need to happen. There’s ways to celebrate the individual and the individual experience as part of the collective. …

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I think athletes are much hungrier for critical thoughts than traditional sport currently teaches. And I think that we see with these mainstream conversations with [Colin] Kaepernick or [Megan] Rapinoe taking the knee in support of Kaepernick – these political statements that athletes have been making – that there has been such a strong attempt to squash these conversations or to minimize them – or to criminalize them, even. I think in many ways, young people are really curious about that tension and wanting to talk about it. For me, I really believe that in the same way that our schools and our regular, core classes are encouraging educators to think about critical literacy and critical thinking, sports are just a couple decades behind where we are trying to get our education system even – which is already still behind.

There is something about allowing our athletes to be critical of the thing they love, and I think there’s a fear that being critical of something means that you are going to try to start a revolution within it, which, if they feel that a revolution is necessary than that is on them. But I think [it’s] even just having athletes give themselves permission to critique things that are the more oppressive aspects of sports, the unjust or the unequal aspects of it.

I think we – my profession of journalists included – can get caught up in how these conversations impact the top of that pyramid – the professionals and national-team players, the 1 percent of the 1 percent. Hearing you talk, it’s about how everybody, even knowing that 99 percent of them won’t be putting on a U.S. jersey, can be their best. It’s more personal than it is about developing talent, you’re saying?

Absolutely. I participated on all sides of the contradiction of sports. I was both the one Latina growing up playing soccer in my programs on scholarship, all the way up until I became a professional. At the same time as being a professional, I had part-time jobs where I was a private trainer to elite players that could pay so that I could actually afford to do the work that I was doing in Oakland with community-based soccer.

April (Courtesy Photo)

I think, too, because I got such a close glimpse into who actually makes it and how one even gets to the position of being on the U.S. national team. It’s just so unrealistic – it’s limiting. There’s only a handful. Watching and knowing the path to get there – the path to get there is not very glamorous. In many ways, it is very stressful. Not that I regret having participated in much of it, but I just think that there’s a way in which it takes over in a way that is not realistic, in a way that separates from mainstream reality.

People ask me, ‘When will the world be ready for the Women’s World Cup?’ Meaning, when will it be taken seriously? In my mind, I’m like, that’s great. I can’t wait for that moment. But there’s so much that needs to happen for women before the soccer field. The soccer field is kind of a metaphor, but it’s not necessarily going to be the starting place. The World Cup is not necessarily going to be the starting place of changing women’s issues around the world. I think that, when you look at issues for women in general around the world, their relationship to soccer and the privileges that they are fighting for or against are dramatically different. While the U.S. [players] are fighting for equal pay, in Iran the women are fighting to be allowed to be witnesses in a stadium. It’s different. In that way, the struggle for women is really different around the world, and I think that’s important to keep in mind, too, when we think about any women’s rights issues or the World Cup.

EQZ: You mentioned earlier how you were sometimes the one Latina player on a youth team. The U.S. women’s national team remains predominantly white, despite the country’s diversity. Is that reflective of these issues at the grassroots level and the pathway to the top?

CABELLO: There are so many factors at play; part of it is physical space and location that young girls in urban cities just don’t have the same access to soccer. But then it’s also adding another layer in cultural forces at play that have normalized soccer in the white culture in this country. And for communities of color, there is a disconnect, though I do feel there is a slight resurgence or reclamation of the game from brown communities, who when you lift your head up and look at the world, you see South America or Africa – black Americans see the prominence of Africans in the World Cup. There are ways which are these reminders that, oh yes, this is not really a white sport.

It just so happens that the men of immigrant dissent were of a similar socioeconomic class as these other white girls who make it just as far. That’s actually pretty telling.

But I would agree that it is still in this country, for young girls especially. Even if there is access – I can say this: I had access. I was in those spaces. I’m a pretty fair-skinned Latina, but culturally there was a lot that I was aware of that I didn’t understand or relate to because of my family values, or it wasn’t my norm. Me and my family were navigating all these spaces together, for the first time. It was completely new to us. And it was bizarre. Even though I was a talented player, there’s something about the subtleties of the way culture works, and the invisible nature of it, too, which makes it difficult to define. ‘Why did I feel uncomfortable? I don’t know.’

The way I see it, still, is young girls are both self-selecting out, and we just don’t have many pathways to get young people in the game. Part of that, too, when I look at the Bay Area, soccer with young girls is just booming. I think it still holds true that young girls vs. young boys are the majority playing in the U.S. But recently I became aware of the club team that I grew up playing in is having difficulty fielding young women’s teams, and it blew my mind, because that league that I grew up playing in, the girls were the powerhouse for 10, 20 years. Then to hear all of a sudden that they don’t have enough girls to play on the team, to me, is also an indicator of, who is still in positions of leadership in youth sports? And who as a result of that is being neglected by youth sports? When you have a bunch of men making decisions about field access for their teams and they are prioritizing boys, those little decisions are going to accumulate. The result was that you had fewer girls participating in, historically, a female-led program.

EQZ: The U.S. men’s national team’s failures have prompted these huge conversations about development issues in this country, but the default conversation is always about the men’s side. There still isn’t that scrutiny on the women’s side. Are the issues there the same, or just as prevalent?

CABELLO: I think there is some element of social acceptance with all boys to play anything. If you look at the makeup of the [U.S.] men’s national team at the last World Cup, it is actually way more diverse than the women, in terms of just who these players come from – their parents are from all sorts of countries. I think the underlying commonality that they have is there is something in common about their physical location – the types of communities that they grew up in, and the access that they had. In common between the men and the women. It just so happens that the men of immigrant dissent were of a similar socioeconomic class as these other white girls who make it just as far. That’s actually pretty telling. It often is stated in social justice circles, when we are talking about equity, that a lot of people who are last to receive or be considered are women of color.

EQZ: Going back to the film: Do you have a favorite part? Or a favorite part of the process?

CABELLO: Yes, my favorite part of the process is actually this part. Having conversations with young people who have seen it for whom it deeply resonates, that they see themselves in it. I guess I kind of knew that this would happen, but when I was sitting in the classroom in San Francisco at Mission High, the looks on the kids faces and the questions that these high schoolers had – or even just the comments and reflections that they had – about this film, was really eye-opening to me about, of course the power of seeing yourself or parts of your story told in this way were also … it’s not victimizing these folks, but rather laying out the facts and showing a creativity and resilience, I thought was a really beautiful message. Because a lot of times, when we talk about marginalized communities, we’re portrayed as victims or poor, or the conversation stops at the gang-ridden park – at the violence – not necessarily at these other incredible stories.

One of the things I really appreciate about the film was the part where April’s family opened their home and their hearts to the public, seeing their journey of healing. We’re living in really sick times – maybe we always have been, but right now feels exceptionally painful – and I think there’s a lot to be learned by a family that took ownership of their own healing and their own trauma. That’s something that we as a country don’t talk about – we don’t talk about healing. But even in the Latino community, the fact that April’s father was going to parenting and counseling classes, and he allowed – and the men allowed – for that to be filmed was a really beautiful, unexpected part of the story that I think is really powerful, too.

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