What is your Olympic Sport? A reflection on the Olympic Refugee Team by Yabome Gilpin-Jackson

I love the Olympics and so does my family. It’s hard to believe the games were on barely a month ago. I seriously miss my nightly dose of catching up on the results of the day, especially for my favorites, gymnastics, swimming and track and field. During the games, our family was gathered around relishing in our nightly commentary as we watched the re-runs of the day. We traded our favorite past and present Olympic stories and highlights. We wondered how 16-year old Penny Oleksiak will fare coming back home to Canada to reintegrate into Grade 10 after breaking into the Olympics scene and claiming 4 medals. This reminded me of my university days and I shared the story of having an Olympian and several world champions on our campus. “They were stars” I said giggling. “They’d spend all semester strutting around, being jocks.” “But then…” I disintegrated into peels of laughter… “at exams, they’d run around looking frantic! Looking for notes and asking what to focus on for exam prep.” Still laughing, I said: “that was my turn to strut when the world champion in my class came to ask me for notes. I took my leisurely time to sort through books with him, gloating all the while!” By now, we were all laughing as my sister said: “I guess academics were your Olympics!!”

You see, I was a straight A student. I loved reading, studying and being on top of my school work. I was committed to academic excellence. I’d get my paper written and submitted on time and still make it to whatever party was going on. In general, I was always super prepared for tests, assignments and exams. My sister was right – academics were my Olympics – the thing I was committed enough to, to practice every day and put the proverbial 10,000 hours into. In many ways, it is still the sport I am committed to now, expressed in my ongoing writing, facilitating, publishing and conference presenting.

So my question today is: What is your Olympic sport?

I believe we all have a sport we are playing in this game called life. Ideally, it is the sport that brings you joy, in which you experience flow when you are in practice. It is the one thing you desire to practice until you achieve some level of mastery and make a contribution to the world through it. It is the thing that drives your purpose. And purpose, in our humanity, anchors our identities and the reason for our existence such that unless/until you are running your own race, there is a profound sense of emptiness, like you are missing something.

My inquiry into: “what is your Olympics?” is a call to each of us to find our own sport and as Saint Peter put it so long ago “let us run with endurance the race set out for us.” As in the Olympics, there is a competitive side to the game of life in which we play to win medals. However, far more important than that is the sportsmanship award. This is the award that goes to those who show-up, participate fully, endure to the end and inspire others as a result of their sportsmanship. This year, my Olympic inspiration came from the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. They win my sportsmanship award. This team of 10 chose to show-up and participate fully. They did not win a single medal, but right from being welcomed with the loudest cheer at the opening ceremony, they had already won. Their race was to remind the world, at this time of global refugee crisis, of the humanity of refugees. That refugees are people, like you and I, who have hopes and aspirations and who dare to dream of changing the world, and to live on purpose. They reminded us that “no one is ever just a refugee” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi said in her World Humanitarian Day Speech on August 22, just a day after the Olympics ended. They showed us loud and clear, that refugees can and do achieve many other things once they are welcomed into new home countries and communities who dare to see the possibility of a shared future with those seeking refuge. Countries and communities that choose to show-up, endure the initial complexities of integrating others and then become an inspiration to the world when they show that it can be done. I have a feeling we have only just began to see the impact of this historic Refugee Olympic Team.

I share a piece of this Olympic Refugee Team’s story. I ran my academic race because I too had been a refugee and arrived in Canada determined to make-up for the years I had lost in translation. I won a kind of gold medal in return, graduating at the top of my class with the Dean’s medal. An award published in the university news online post and then released to the press under the title: “Refugee earns top business medal.” I was ruffled by the latter chose of title, resentful to have been pegged solely with my refugee experience for publicity of the story. And in many ways, that is a classic example of why part of my Olympic sport now is telling those stories less told, such as stories of African leadership and identities.

So how about you? What is your Olympic sport? How are you leading the African narrative?

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Reflections on the alchemy of everyday peacebuilders by Sarah Owusu (Peace Day, 21 September 2016)

The 21st of September is The International day of Peace – what grand and idealistic words. Some might even say naïve. What good is one day of Peace in the face of global conflict, war and crime? Can people ever be truly peaceful? And what does it even mean to live peacefully?

I have been reflecting on these questions for a long time, and in 2013 I had the honour of working with Peace One Day – the organisation that ensured that Peace Day became a UN recognised day of global unity and intercultural cooperation, and whose objective is to institutionalise the day as one of taking action around the question: who will you make peace with?

Personally, this question has come up for me again recently as I was faced with my own visceral anger. It was a few months back when a close friend spoke to me about how the relationship she was in, one that had been escalating for some time, had reached a point where she could no longer stay. I sat up with her late, listening to her talk about the latest and most vicious interaction that they had and welling up at the sight of the bruises on her chest and arms.

Listening to her story, I was frustrated and angry at how little I felt able to do – and the anger stayed with me. I see anger as a great tool to help you identify your boundaries, your hard lines, your convictions – and for me, here I was faced with my own anger, a clear pointer towards something that I did not want to see in the world. Experiencing anger in this way, allowed me to activate the transformative power behind the anger – so I was left with another question: what alchemy can I make with this feeling?

It is with this energy, that I am convening a dialogue on Peace Day this year for a group of women to discuss gender based violence, it’s impacts and the healing and action that we can take to counteract it. And crucially, we will be using the space to come up with a simple tool for spotting the indicators of manipulative and abusive relationships.

I do not think that the idea of one day of Peace is naive, and I do not question the impact of this day. Behavioural change and change of mind starts with awareness, conversations and insight. Peace One Day are supported by McKinsey who measure the impact of Peace Day – they estimate that of the 709 million people aware of Peace Day in 2015, 13 million of those act more peacefully on the day (Peace One Day 2015 Report).

Social movements theory also outlines the power of distributed action and the concept of “Big Task, Small Ask” (Wilde, 2016) as the way to most impact. The latter points to the fact that when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, as many social changes appear, it needs to be broken down into smaller manageable tasks that individuals can own and implement.

I believe that these examples of everyday peacebuilding and leadership can make a real difference. Globally, one in three women have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime (World Health Organisation); a key way to prevent this is through awareness and catching potentially violent behaviours before they begin. In the We Will Lead Africa volume of everyday African leadership that I am editing (with my co-editors, Yabome and Judith), we include a powerful story by Fatou Wurie who implores us to support, listen to and take seriously the many survivor stories of women and girls who have faced sexual and violent abuse.

There are many people doing extraordinary things every day to counteract violence and build peace – I will be shining a spotlight on that on Peace Day. Peace Day is about doing something, taking action – big or small – from exactly where you are standing. So, Peace to you, and who will you make peace with?

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– Peace One Day 2015 Report can be found here.

– World Health Organisation Fact Sheet on Violence against women reviewed in 2016 can be found here.

– Joanna Wilde (2016), The Social Psychology of Organizations: Diagnosing Toxicity and Intervening in the Workplace. London: Routledge.

– Fatou Wurie (2013), Not Just Another Gender-based Violence Statistic. Online for Huffington Post here.