An ultimate disc has the power to shape a community. 175 grams of plastic brings together people from different countries, regions, religions, genders and socioeconomic statuses, and gets them to play and communicate together in the same space. Bridging the Gaps, a mission based non-profit in India, uses the sport of Ultimate Frisbee and performance art to fulfill their namesake, bridging the gaps between various groups to confront social inequalities in Indian society. All this by using the power of a disc, creative thinking, and an inclusive community.
Bridging the Gaps takes its curriculum from a wide range of sport and performance art, including ultimate, theatre, dance, rhythm, and circus. Co-founders and directors Sangeeta Isvaran and Liz Haynes concede that this unique blend of activities is purposefully overwhelming for youth, because this feeling of being lost is “the best place to start a process of transformation.” Initially the activities focus on bonding to facilitate trust and open up a safe space for discussion. “Within a day, the teens feel such strong sense of positivity and safety that they begin to open up, sharing highly intimate stories of their realities -- some incredibly difficult and painful situations.”
These difficult and painful stories blossom into empowering discussions that bring together youth and college-aged coaches from all over India’s incredibly diverse social landscape, many of whom could not ordinarily afford summer camp. Bridging the Gaps provides scholarships to offset costs to participants, giving a diverse group of youth the opportunity to be a part of a growing community committed to building an equitable future. One week of camp involves over 120 teenage participants and more than 40 college-aged coaches, ranging in socio-economic and cultural background, resulting in wonderfully rich learning opportunities. Sangeeta reflects, “We encourage every participant to share their unique culture, all of which makes up the kaleidoscopic mosaic that is India.”
The newest addition to Bridging the Gaps curriculum attempts to unpack the issue of gender-based violence. For young people in India, the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women, overcoming this issue is challenged further because boys and girls are separated from a young age. “Teens want to talk about it, but talking between genders is paralyzed because there is separation between boys and girls as early as first or second grade,” shares Sangeeta. The camp gives its participants the opportunity to unpack these challenging issues in an environment of openness and positivity where girls and boys from different castes and regions of India can open up a dialogue, relate to one another, and carry their experiences back to their home communities.
In this way, Bridging the Gaps’ impact extends beyond the participants’ week of activities and discussion, to cities around India that the freshly empowered youth call home. Co-founder and director Liz Haynes shares, “Teens go back home with more understanding of gender, gender equality, sex & sexuality, and de-stigmatizing natural body processes like menstruation.” At the end of camp, coaches and youth leaders pledge to run a BTG ultimate gender module with 50 teens in their home communities. The impact on the issue of gender equity might seem hard to quantify, but if you spend some time number crunching, the impressive reach of the project quickly becomes apparent. 20 youth leaders and 40 coaches per camp spread their experiences to over 3,000 teens in their home cities. The remaining 100 participants that do not host gender modules still share their experiences with family and friends. Each year the organization reaches new youth There is no question that the organization is making progress in building a more equitable future in India.
So, why include Ultimate Frisbee? For one, the nature of the sport is well suited to work of this kind. Ultimate, founded on the spirit of sportsmanship, is self-refereed. Players have to contest and discuss calls on the field, allowing them first-hand experience resolving conflicts and communicating with their competitors. Using ultimate in their camps also helps Bridging the Gaps access a hard to reach group that are critical to their work–teenage boys. By marrying sport and art, the camps are both intrinsically exciting, and collaboratively constructive opportunities for participants to open up the field of discussion and respond creatively to gender inequality in India.
Another appealing quality of ultimate is its novelty relative to other sports, especially in India. This freshness aids Bridging the Gaps in its social mission. There is an excitement in growing a sport from the bottom up and an opportunity to undermine established gender expectations that plague more popular sports like cricket and soccer. “Kids have never seen a disc before, so unlike soccer or cricket, there is no difference in skillset between boys and girls, or expectations of the sport. When we introduce it as a co-ed sport based on spirit, kids really take to the idea,” says Liz.
The excitement of learning a new sport, the comfort of an accepting community, the impact that one person’s empowering experience can have on a community: this is what Bridging the Gaps is doing for equity in India. This is the power of an ultimate disc.