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RISE Critical Conversation helps empower youth golfers at First Tee Game Changers Academy

By Natalia Chino
July 29, 2022

PHILADELPHIA - “It is important to talk about diversity in every space.”

Leashia Lewis, Director of UNITAS at Villanova University, shared these words with 125 teen golfers and coaches to help kick off the annual five-day First Tee Game Changers Academy at Villanova's Connelly Center, July 19.

Lewis, along with the Golf Channel's Damon Hack, PGA Vice President of Community and Inclusion Marsha Oliver and First Tee Coach Rebecca Kelly, addressed the First Tee participants as part of a RISE Critical Conversation moderated by RISE Sr. Director of Curriculum & Programs, Corey Posey.

Following an interactive RISE workshop in which youth, coaches and panelists discussed labels they use to identify themselves and how those labels can impact their perspective on issues of social justice, the critical conversation dove deeper into the concept of 'Identity' and addressed how to have productive conversations about race. The opening-night panel and workshop prepared First Tee youth and coaches for a week of golf and socioemotional development, including multiple RISE workshops that would cover topics such as privilege, diversity, allyship and community building.

"The best part of our Critical Conversation with The First Tee Game Changers Academy was the authenticity of responses from panelists,” Posey said. “The youth and coaches were able to witness the joy and frustrations of influential leaders that work hard every day to promote anti-racism and social justice across their organizations and in communities. I hope that helped inspire and empower them to have these conversations themselves and examine how they can address these issues through the programming we did throughout the week."

During the opening night conversation, panelists described how identifiers such as, “parents” or “Black” have deeply affected how they navigate the world around them and the ways they face challenges in the workplace. Throughout the discussion, they stressed the importance of engaging in conversations on issues of identity, racism, diversity, equity and inclusion, and reiterated the significance of the Game Changers Academy, which unites teens of various backgrounds from across the country.

Oliver shared it was imperative for youth to be authentically themselves in a society that often can pressure them to conform, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, “to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something different is your most amazing accomplishment.”

Her fellow panelists agreed that First Tee provides youth with the knowledge of what it means to persevere and work together in order to have the courage and conviction to be genuine to their beliefs. Growing with the help of their nationally trained coaches, teens in First Tee have become active listeners, advocates who speak up when it feels appropriate for them and risk takers that strive for opportunities outside of their comfort zone, according to the panel, saying this is what it means to be a leader.

“If we share those important hard lessons with young people leading the way,” Hack said. “We will be in a better place.”

Panelists later shared about their lived experiences as marginalized people in sports, and how they have frequently used their platforms to raise awareness around issues of racial injustice. That empowered participants, and helped motivate them to be leaders for equity and inclusion in their own communities.

“This discussion was inspiring and heartwarming,” said Natalia M., a First Tee participant from Washington. “It feels good to be seen and feel like there are others out there who feel my struggle.”

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