Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Spring Speaker Series: Eli Wolff and Sport for Development

In the constant search for funding and support, it’s easy for social entrepreneurs to look at an audience and autopilot into “pitch mode.”

During his presentation on Friday, March 15, Eli Wolff was not pitching his idea. Instead, Wolff’s presentation, “Uncovering the Power of Sport: Navigating the Field of Sport for Development and Peace,” asked audience members to simply listen and reflect.

Perhaps due to his humility and respect for others, Wolff carries an impressive resume. He’s a Brown grad who now directs the Sport and Development Project at Brown University. Wolff is also Director of the Inclusive Sports Initiative at the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston, and manages the SportsCorps program for the Fitzgerald Youth Sports Institute. He is a former member of the U.S. Paralympic soccer team.

Wolff’s presentation began with two questions: What is at the root of the power of sport? What is at the core of sport for development and peace?

Wolff grounded his exploration of these questions in his own experiences. As a child, Wolff explained, his family emphasized “3 pillars” for life: academics, sports, and service/community engagement. Wolff has clearly used this framework to map out his life’s work.

To explain the injustices he has experienced, Wolff displayed a photograph of two separate drinking fountains from the pre-Civil Rights era.

“As an athlete with disability, there were often times where you would feel like you were drinking from the ‘colored’ fountain,” explained Wolff. “You’d see the resources and opportunity for able-bodied athletes, and then you’d see the resources for athletes with disabilities.”

“I had a sense that there was something wrong when other groups did not have access to sports, but I didn’t necessarily have the framework to think about that sports is part of the human rights promise,” he continued.

Wolff’s presentation featured several quotes and excerpts from literature that examined social justice, disability, and sport. These works — including the Olympic charter and Karen DePauw’s writings on the “(In)visibility of (Dis)ability,” among others — sparked Wolff’s passion for this line of work and continue to inspire him today.

Wolff discussed the philosophy of Olympism, which, according to the 2011 Olympic Charter, “seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the education value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

It was this concept that allowed Wolff to link development and sport: “In some cases, the power of development and the power of sport is rooted in this notion of having to resist,” he said. Earlier in the presentation, he showed a video of the movie “Rollaball,” a sport for individuals with disabilities in Ghana.

“I don’t know, from my perspective, if I would be doing this kind of work if it didn’t come out of this place of injustice, a place of struggle,” continued Wolff.

Wolff displayed a slide with the word “Femalympian,” and asked the audience to consider why we accept the term “Paralympian” yet would not stand for a separate classification of games for women.

These comments introduced a discussion of activism — a concept Wolff admitted he initially tried to avoid.

“I thought activism meant marching in the street, doing political protests. I hadn’t thought about activism as a way of life — a perspective — and not necessarily a tactic. … It’s not about the tactics — it’s about the spirit, the heart and the way you’re living your life.”

Wolff closed with a discussion about about social media initiatives he’s working on — including #solidarityinsport, a Solidarity in Sport pledge — in order to involve more athletes and create a safe space for athlete activists.

At several points, Wolff expressed a genuine interest in hearing the audience’s reaction to his beliefs and inspirations. The talk was well-attended and there was not adequate time to hear everyone’s thoughts during the lecture. This conversation hopefully will continue long into the future as Wolff’s movement continues to grow.

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