TEDxBerlin – Heather Cameron – 11/30/09

How do we create strong communities? How do we create the critical, participatory democracies that we all dream of?

This was my question to come and do as a PhD-project about eight years ago, no ten years ago. I finished my PhD only three years ago. So you can see I took a long time with this question. And I took a long time with this question because I wanted to understand how it practically worked. How do you  create, here in Berlin, strong communities? And I thought the answer is, you need to create strong girls, strong boys, too, but especially strong girls.

So like anyone else would do in this situation as a political scientist, I thought, “I will start a boxing club to reach these goals, of course, a girls boxing club.” And so that is what we did back, back in the day, when I was living in a student residence where we did not actually have any gym or anything. We did not really have much equipment, and we pushed the tables out of the way, and we would be on carpet and we would box. And girls from the neighbourhood there, around Theodor-Heuss-Platz, would come to us. And then that got a little better and that we managed to get partners in Kreuzberg and in Neukölln who said, “Oh you can use the schools, you know, work with us in a Verein and you can use the school spaces,” which was fine, but we had four different places. So the way that looked is that we had a hockey bag, about this big, filled with like 20 pairs of gloves and the pads and the ropes and everything you need, strapped on the bag of my motor cycle, driving through the winter and yeah. Well, any of you who thinks boxing is dangerous, well, driving a motor cycle with this much on the bag is much more dangerous.But in any case it worked and then out of that experience, of having the schools be involved and the kids be involved, then someone said, actually the Bezirksamt said, “Well, we will let you use the space.” Then we had a fixed place in Marheinekeplatz im Bergmannkiez, where we could do our programmes.

And it was around this time that the German parliament in its infinite wisdom said, “We want some projects that we can put forward in the 2005 UN year of sport and physical education.” And so there was lot of really big projects. And then there was our like little, teeny weenie, volunteered driven girls’ and women’s boxing project in Kreuzberg. But they actually voted for us, and so we were one on these model projects in the UN year of sport and physical education because we were like promoting peace in the community.

And so I thought, “Okay, what does that actually mean? In our communities we actually have a lot of peace. What is it if we try and take it somewhere else, where there is not necessarily a lot of peace?” So, okay strong girls, red girls, ready to lead. So then the point was, how do we do it somewhere else? And then I got the chance actually to try and do that pretty quickly, because people had heard about how well it was working getting the girls involved in sports, not obvious when they are teenagers. It was also working getting German kids and Turkish kids and Arab kids and Canadian kids and everybody basically together in a group. That was also working. That is also something we all try find new
ways to do. But then I was invited to Nairobi to start to be one of the grounding members of this sport for social change network. Because people know that sport can create a lot of change in young people, well in old people, too. Okay, who here like went running this morning or did some yoga? Okay, alright, give yourself a hand! Creating some positive change in your life! In any case, we know that it works.

The question is again, “How do you take this stuff to scale?” whatever, sorry with the jargon. But how do we do that in a way, where more people can benefit and especially those, who are not sort of living our sort of life style. So we are in Nairobi. I am excited about boxing. They are excited about girls. I am like, “Okay, let us get this thing done!” So I had the chance at the dinner to meet this rather reserved, aber extremely muscular young woman, whose name was Conjestina. And I am like, “Okay, hi Conjestina, what do you do?” And she is like, “well, I am like the African middleweight champion in professional boxing.” I should have known that with that quiet confidence she was exuding. In any case, I understood even more the next day, when we where walking through the streets of Nairobi, and seriously everybody we met knew her. Okay? She is going to the supermarket; the cashier is giving her the hand. She is like going up; the security guard guy is like giving her the fist bump. All the kids are like, “Conje, Conje!” I am like, “Oh, so you are pretty popular here?”

And I just realized again what a role that sports personality could do, and also if you are a leader, if you have achieved something through sport and you are active in your neighbourhood, you could do a lot. So she took me to her gym. First, it was a little bit scary going through Nairobi; they do not call it “Nairobbery” for nothing. It is one of the most dangerous places on earth, let alone most dangerous places in Africa. I had gone from a sort of a lush hotel-like environment like here, got in a car, driving through Nairobi, realizing just like the total, well the total poverty and the total like lack of opportunity, lack of infrastructure, feeling also quite alienated and like, “What am I doing here?” and everything. Car stops, we get out, cannot see any sort of sport infrastructure, no big gym, no big lighted pitch or anything. Anyway, we walk in, beautiful blue building with like a peaked roof, kind of like a church or something, anyway it probably used to be a church, but that turned out to be the boxing gym. And I could hear the sounds; I could hear the skipping ropes; I could hear the people working out. And I felt really comfortable. And that is what is so beautiful about these exchange programs, is that even though you do not speak the language necessarily, I did not speak Suaheli, or you do not necessarily connect with the people right away in another way. But through the sport you can connect with them.

And then I met her trainer Priest, and he was already training six women there, who where interested in using boxing basically for themselves, to like become professional athletes. And I am like, “Well, what if our projects work together? Would it be possible, you know, if you have your girls work in their neighbourhoods, you know we could like take this, take it viral, anyway, take it bigger, get these six women working.” And they are like, “Yeah, this is exciting. This is what we would like to do.” And so anyway that is what happened. We take these six girls, help them develop there coaching skills, build in some other stuff which I will talk about in a minute. But now we have got over 300 girls who are training in these six zones like three times a week, which is great. And I would like you to meet some of them!


They have a lot of fun, as hoped we could kind of see in the video, but it is also really serious what we are trying to do, right. And as we have seen before, it can also be fun and serious, which is obviously the best way for things to work. So let us just talk about, why girls. It should be obvious but I will break it down. Why boxing and what are the other pieces that are then kind of need to be attached to a program like this.

So it is not just like other people, who maybe throw a ball on the field, and that was that. Girls. Well the other thing I should also remember, what is true for Africa and Nairobi, is also unfortunately true for Berlin Neukölln or Berlin Kreuzberg or for that matter Berlin Dahlem that girls do not get the same opportunities. They do not necessarily feel safe. They do not necessarily get the same sense of freedom to develop themselves as the boys do. Because what was very, very clear though in Nairobi is that the girls just simply were not valued as much as the boys and that they did not get the same opportunities. And that even though they have free primary education in Kenya, which is not completely free because you still have to buy books and clothes and things, which is not obvious that how these families can afford it, that when they start to go to secondary school that they often get excluded, right, that their families cannot pay or will not pay. And instead of going to school, they end up sort of pushed out of the house to seriously sell mangos or food at the side of the road, so that they make even a small amount of money to bring back to the home.
But there are lots of problems with selling mangos at the side of the road. The least of which is that you are like totally vulnerable and everybody knows, okay you are the girl who is not going to school, you are a girl who is kind of being excluded, you are a girl whose parents care more about the maybe 23 Cents you bring home then your education, then your future. And you can imagine how that story sort of develops. I do not need to talk about rape or incest or anything else about how hard it is to be a young woman in these societies. So, then why boxing? I could give 18 minutes on boxing, so I will not freak Stefan out and start talking about that right now. But okay, how many of you actually have done any boxing or kickboxing? Oh, is there a lady from Ted here? Are you noticing? Ted people like to box. Okay, how about any other sort of fighting sports, judo, karate all of that? Oh, okay. I am also a professor, there is going to be a questionnaire later about how that sort of correlates. Okay, in any case, those of you know it teaches you to seize the initiative. It teaches you to also know you get things by actually fighting for them, not necessarily violently but that you actually have to get up and do something. And then something will happen. And also perhaps most importantly is that women need to know that, in the worst case, not that they can hit somebody, but that they can get out of the way. And our boxing programs are built in such a way that you have kind of got four or almost five layers of protection. First, you are in a group of strong girls and women who sort of talk you out of the stupid things you might do as a teenager, because you are coming there, you are training regularly, and if you have got a bad boyfriend or of you have got a bad job or if have got problems with your parents, you have got people there who help you and make you not make a bad decision. Second, you are a self-confident young woman because you have tested yourself. You are out there training. You are disciplining yourself. You are making promises to yourself and you are keeping them.

And that sort of confidence gives you a little Schützwand there, you know. People do not want to mess with you because you are clear, “I know what I am doing. I know karate,” or, “I know boxing.” Anyway finally, you know how to get out of the way and you are not impressed by aggression, right. A lot of women, I think a lot of men, too, sometimes you are just impressed by somebody screaming at you face, and you will just try and get out of the situation regardless, and you will just give up. If you are used to dealing with people coming at you, you are not impressed by that and you can also just get out of the way. The point is not to hit the person. The point is just to not to avoid being hurt or the people you were there with and worst case, if you have to, you can stun somebody and get the hell out of the situation. So that is part of why boxing the other 16 minutes well, good. And then finally, what is it in the community that we are trying to do, because obviously we can create amazing boxers; we can create people who are active in their neighbourhoods, who are keeping the kids off the street, the girls of the street. I mean sometimes that is enough, just keep them somewhere safe until the hormones die down, until the stupidness and the drugs go away, and then they are able to take care of themselves. But we actually try and are a little more active than that. We have scholarship programs and here in Berlin we kind of have body programs, where we tell people, “You have got a prüfung, that means you prepare and I am going to test you,” and also that it is cool to be good at school. I do not think there are that many professors, who are probably boxing coaches, but I try and explain to them, “As well as having a really wicked jab I want you to get good grates.” So we have the scholarship for the girls in Nairobi so that if their parents are having trouble, there is a little bit more of a push, you know, “You cannot make the financial argument, we will cover that.” Second, we have a web café which in addition to sort of teaching the basic computer skills that they are going to need, if they are going to have any chance at being part of all of this sexiness that we are talking about, that they can learn those skills, and more importantly that the project earns money. And also we do a lot of outreach. Because it is not just about, you know, girls for girls, right. We need, you know, all the men to help. I need this to say. And there are a lot of men who want to help and who are helping. And so it is about making those arguments and creating those networks. And so we are doing all of that which then means that we can, you know, be sustainable and help them get on. And what we are starting to do now, and which I would like to talk to any of you about later, is entrepreneurship education. Because you do not could have applied for jobs if you are coming out of the poorest parts of Nairobi Eastlands, right. ([14:33] not understandable),…with Ted Cabera. That is actually in the West side of the city but similar conditions. You do not apply for jobs; you make your own jobs. And I just do not want them, selling mangos, right. I want them doing something else, which they can actually then support themselves. So let us look at one of the young women, who is in our program. Her name is Faith.


So I meet kids like that. I meet girls like that, and I am also just kind of blown away by them about how articulate they can be, about how they understand, what they need to fight. And then I think, “Oh my God, I helped start this? How do I make sure that we are where we need to be, in order to sort of do our part of the deal?” Right, we were like, “We will help you make your society safe. We will help you jab out rape.

We will help you jab out crime and give people more options.” So let me take the last minute and a half here and just explain a little bit what the future looks like for us. So we basically have to do three things if we are going to be able to deliver for her. We need to be able to continue to make the argument for sport for social change and for fighting sports for girls, and to explain how they work, because people can be sceptical. People are like, “What, Boxing girls? Cannot imagine it, to violent,” whatever. We need to make that argument, and we need to make sure that other people, who are trying to reach the same goals, trying to see more economically independent communities, trying to see more girls online, trying to see just that all of this development stuff that we are investing millions in, actually gets carried to completion, that we make that argument and we get those people. Second, I need to make sure, we need to make sure that our organisation has the right processes in place and documented, so that when lots of people come up to me and say, “We would like to do that where we are,” that we actually have a scaleable model, right.

So that our model is sort of stet up and thought out and able to be applied in other places, which sounds like totally logical but is actually really hard to do, to think through, “ What is it about us that is actually special? How can we deliver that in other places? How do we adapt that? How do we find the right partners?” Because obviously none of this would work without having amazing partners, and Nairobi is totally independent now. It has spun off, it just does its thing, and I am really proud of that, but it takes a while to create those structures. Then finally, how do we create and diversify our income streams? So that not just that the organisations are independent, because I take my colleagues point, you want to be independent, you do not want to be spending all your time writing Anträge, and we actually are quite diversified. But how do we make sure that our organisations are fit and more importantly, how can you also create opportunities for economic independence with the girls themselves, and that is again where we are looking at how we can do even more work with entrepreneurship very small enterprises. And if we can do that, we can do that, then we will be able do deliver for Faith and other courageous girls like her, who want to transform themselves and then transform their communities. Thank you!