PORTLAND, Ore. – Most of the idea was in place last year, long before the two organizations met in 2018’s MLS Cup final. So when Atlanta United FC visited the Portland Timbers this weekend, it representing, on the clubs’ community engagement sides, over a year’s worth of plans coming to fruition. What started as brainstorming in an Atlanta United Foundation committee meeting ended with 40 high-school aged youth from opposite coasts learning about each other at Providence Park.
“We were just trying to think about high school youth and some of the different challenges that they’re facing and what that looks like,” Marissa Ahrens, Atlanta’s manager of Community Relations, says. “This crazy concept came up to do something coast to coast, and we have a great relationship with the Portland team. We started brainstorming it out.”
The idea was to bring young adults, at ages when they can start having an impact on their communities, together to share their experiences. In itinerary form, their new experiences involved engaging in a workshop on diversity and inclusion, listening to a guest speaker discuss their potential impact, and participating in a question-and-answer session with two of the weekend’s featured players: Thorns’ forward Simone Charley and Timbers’ forward Jeremy Ebobisse. Mix in a photoshoot, a trip to the adidas employee store, an excursion to Powell’s, hiking Multnomah Falls and, of course, two games at Providence Park (one Thorns, one Timbers), and Portland’s guests left a strong introduction to Rose City soccer.
“It was a really fun time,” Ebobisse said, after spending over an hour with the group on Saturday morning. “They asked me a lot of challenging questions about what I thought about the country, what I thought about my career, to this point – if I had any regrets; as well, my social life, and how that’s been affected by certain events throughout the last 10 years."
While names like Charley and Ebobisse may have been highlights for the students, the initiative’s bigger goals revolved around the kids, themselves; specifically, the interactions they had with each other.
“The most important thing were the connections and the experiences of the youth, and being able to help tell their story, a little bit,” Portland Vice President of Community Impact Kristel Wissel explains. “Whether it’s kids from Portland or Hillsboro or Atlanta, they’re all going to have a different perspective. Sport, being that great unifier, is able to bring kids from different backgrounds, different socioeconomic means, to come together all to work on becoming leaders and agents of change in their own neighborhoods.”
From the Portland perspective – thanks to one of the club’s community partners, the Boys and Girls Club of Portland Metropolitan Area – that meant young adults from areas as varied as Hillsboro, Northeast Portland and Southeast Portland coming together to learn about each others’ experiences, in addition to those visiting from Atlanta.
“(Becoming a leader) is going to look different for one kid in Hillsboro, just as it’s going to look different for youth in Southeast Portland, versus Atlanta,” Wissel says.
For Atlanta, the 20 students who arrived in Portland on Friday are from an area the team’s owner, Arthur Blank, has prioritized. Just as Mercedes-Benz Stadium was built in the Westside of Atlanta, and other Blank Family Foundation initiatives seek to transform the area, so too did “Portlanta,” as the project was called internally.
“The Westside of Atlanta has been a big passion project for Arthur,” Ahrens explains. “He’s been committed to making a positive, meaningful difference there for quite some time, even before he built the stadium.”
“It’s important to Arthur that his businesses are a catalyst for change on the Westside, especially in a way that benefits both long-term residents who have historically been in the neighborhood for decades and decades, and the kids growing up there. He believes in investing in people, and the kids who participated this past weekend are one great example of that.”
The initial reaction was a positive one. Though the students knew little about each other before the event, they were able to spend a day learning something, even if it was small, about life in another part of the world. According to Ahrens, the hope is the initiative can build on this “pilot program,” possibly with the same students, trying to build on the weekend’s lessons next year in Atlanta.
“(I learned) anything is possible,” Elisua Bravo, one of the Portland-based students, said when asked for her takeaways from the initiative. “No matter where you came from, or the people that hate you and say that you can’t, anything is possible, and you can move onward.”
Important, too, was the idea that lesson like those came face to face. The impact our new world has on young adults can only be speculated, as of now, with the current generation serving as a test bed for the effects of the digital world. But no matter how influential life online may become, skills in the physical world will always be important. Particularly when hoping to develop two communities’ next leaders, building confidence in their ability to, face to face, interact with each other was a targeted goal.
“With social media and the digital age, it provides a barrier,” Ahrens concedes. “Even me growing up – I’m in my 30s – I didn’t have that. You have to deal with the positive and negative of things, face on.
“We wanted to get face to face to grow and learn together and do something really cool, and utilizing our platform as Major League Soccer teams to bring kids from different parts of the country to places they’ve never been to, and do something that will stick with them.”
For Wissel, understanding that challenge, and being able to hear how young adults grow into the new world, will allow the foundations to learn along with the students.
“Hearing them and being able to empathize – just to hear the kids’ stories and be able to help support local youth as they rise up and become their own leaders – is going to be so important,” she says.
“But the two clubs really showed an initiative and a desire to be able to be on the forefront, to be able to have innovative and thoughtful conversations with local youth, and to find ways to be able to support youth. We want to find ways to empower them to go back into their communities and do good.”