RISE helps Harlem tennis players talk candidly about race

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Soyini Ma’at facilitates a RISE module on racial ideologies at the Harlem Jumior Tennis & Education Program summer camp Tuesday, July 25. (Photo by Ian Cutler/RISE)

Aug. 29, 2017

By Ian Cutler

BRONX, N.Y. – The RISE Leadership Program challenged student-athletes to step out of their comfort zones and engage in important conversations about race, said Soyini Ma’at, education director at the Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program.

About 30 middle and high school student-athletes at HJTEP’s annual summer camp at Fordham University participated in the RISE program, which concluded Tuesday, Aug. 15. Over six weeks as part of their regular training with HJTEP, the student-athletes participated in weekly one-hour RISE activities. They learned about the value of diversity and inclusion and built socio-emotional skills that will allow them to become leaders within their communities.

“We talked a lot more about real-world problems,” said Cheryn Roo, 14, of Manhattan. “I was exposed to a lot of things I didn’t realize or hadn’t talked about as much. We went deep into issues I wasn’t really exposed to before, so it was new to me.”

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Cheryn Roo, right, participates in a RISE module at the Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program summer camp. (Photo courtesy of Soyini Ma’at/Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program)

Ma’at said she could see the RISE program was resonating with students throughout the summer and the curriculum design and activities allowed her to engage students in more meaningful conversations about issues that often can be difficult to address.

“The students were definitely receptive to the RISE program because of how it’s delivered and because it’s engaging. The activities the kids are involved in about these subjects segued into deeper dialogue,” Ma’at said. “All of the activities focus on the tough conversations that you need to have and should have. But sometimes with students they fall to the wayside because it’s not something that schools or some parents would necessarily talk to them about. So, the RISE curriculum was good because it’s activity-centered and creates a safe space. Our program is centered on creating a safe space for you to be who you are and be receptive and conducive to learning, and you have to have fun to do that.”

RISE used a train-the-trainer model to implement the program to HJTEP. Before the start of the summer session, Ma’at and her staff were provided materials and trained on how to facilitate the curriculum.

The subjects of the six RISE modules included:

  • Leadership and empowerment
  • Empathy
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Conflict resolution
  • Critical thinking

Ma’at also credited the students for embracing the program.

“The modules gave me an opportunity to probe deeper, and I was able to get introspective perspectives from students,” Ma’at said. “And in truth, I really just have a great group of kids.”

One of the modules focused on respect. Student-athletes learned how their actions can sometimes be perceived as disrespectful and were taught strategies to adjust their behavior.

Alexis Gadsden, 13, of Brooklyn said what stood out most to her was learning about micro- aggressions and discussing the dangers of racial stereotypes.

“With micro-aggressions, you can say things dealing with race, even just (with friends), and it can still be offensive,” Gadsden said. “I never realized that, and I want to take account of that now.”

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Alexis Gadsden, second from left, stands during a group activity as part of a RISE module at the Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program summer camp. (Photo courtesy of Soyini Ma’at/Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program)

During another session about racial ideologies, other students stressed how important it was to dismiss prejudices to promote diversity, inclusivity and equal opportunity. Gadsden said because of the RISE program she will be able to help educate others who, like her, may not have realized when they said or heard something that could be considered offensive.

“If (someone) does something that’s not appropriate or wrong, I can teach them that that’s not OK to do,” she said. “I can do that now because I know more.”

HJTEP is part of the National Junior Tennis and Learning Network of the U.S Tennis Association. HJTEP brings tennis to youth from high-risk, low-income, inner-city neighborhoods throughout New York City and creates opportunities for personal growth both inside and outside the classroom.

Ma’at said the organization’s goal is to “develop a growth mindset and to provide kids with a platform so they can have access to opportunities. I believe it’s what Arthur Ashe had in mind when he created NJTL.”

She said the RISE Leadership Program was in line with their mission.

“The mission for the HJTEP education program in particular is to focus on developing the whole child,” Ma’at said. “RISE fits in because the life skills portion of our child development is based off social emotional learning, and what RISE is doing for the community is creating these change agents, and providing them the exposure to these issues that will give them the 21st-century life skills that our students need to become problem-solvers in the future.”

Ian Cutler is director of media relations for RISE.