Harnessing Sports to Build Healthier, More Equitable Communities

Mar 25, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award is removing barriers to health equity through sports.

A smiling student holds a basketball while standing in a school hallway.

In Harlem, girls as young as age 6 are figure skating while receiving academic, social and emotional support. In Cambridge, people who were once incarcerated are now on a career path to become fitness trainers. In Atlanta, youth are playing soccer on previously unused land near train stations, repurposed as soccer fields. On both sides of the United States/Mexico border, youth are building friendships and getting professional tennis instruction coupled with academic enrichment.

All four of the unique programs doing this work have received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Sports Award for catalyzing and sustaining change and addressing social determinants of health. They and similar programs that have received this honor are made possible by professional teams, athletes, coaches, and community-based organizations that are using sports to make communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play. In doing so, they are reaching people who might not otherwise have the chance to engage in organized sports, with the physical and mental health benefits that come with it.

Launched in 2015, the RWJF program now gives up to five awards each year to organizations that bring a deep understanding of community needs, provide safe places to play, and help youth reach their potential by building meaningful relationships, life skills, resilience and more. Acknowledging that sports has a history of oppression and racism, the program also recognizes that it has the power to provide healing, prevent violence, and galvanize communities. We have seen evidence of that over the last year, as athletes and teams have used their platforms and megaphones to advance racial justice, oppose police violence, and more, and teams have turned their stadiums into voter registration sites, polling places and, in recent weeks, vaccination hubs.

RWJF Sports Award Winners Change Lives

Community-level work is taking place, too, as institutions are using sports to empower people who have faced discrimination, create new opportunities, build bridges, transform young lives, and advance health equity—with many stepping up to support youth and families during the pandemic. RWJF Sports Award winners include the philanthropies of well-known athletes, such as the Tony Hawk Foundation, now called The Skatepark Project, and the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation, and professional sports franchises like the San Francisco Giants. Winners include innovative community initiatives, too:

Figure Skating in Harlem, a 2019 RWJF Sports Award winner, seeks to empower every young girl with foundational academic, social and leadership skills to achieve her dreams.
  • Figure Skating in Harlem is a pioneering youth development organization that combines the power of education with access to the artistic and athletic discipline of figure skating to help girls of color thrive. Its mission is to help girls transform their lives and grow in confidence, leadership, and academic achievement. Its vision is for every student, regardless of socioeconomic background, to develop the foundational academic, social and leadership skills to achieve her dreams, become an effective leader, live a healthy lifestyle, and be a global citizen. With 23 years of experience in New York City, Figure Skating in Harlem won an RWJF Sports Award in 2019.
  • InnerCity Weightlifting reduces youth violence by connecting at-risk young people with new networks and opportunities, including meaningful career tracks in and beyond personal fitness. A nonprofit with a unique business plan, the organization takes a skill that many develop while incarcerated—pumping iron—and turns it into a professional asset. With training, and lots of personal support, InnerCity Weightlifting helps people who were once incarcerated restore their standing in society while they earn a livable income and learn the ropes of the fitness industry. It won an RWJF Sports Award in 2016.
  • Soccer in the Streets has reframed health equity around transit hubs in the inner city by repurposing unused land in the heart of Atlanta to be more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. With a mission to create young leaders who live rich lives and cultivate healthy communities, the organization is a city-wide community project built around a vision to create a network of mini soccer fields, anchored by MARTA transit stations. This innovative place-making project aims to connect communities and help cultivate healthy lifestyles through sport and transit. It offers soccer training, small group classroom sessions, hands-on experiences, and youth leadership councils. It won an RWJF Sports Award in 2020.
  • A binational youth development organization, Border Youth Tennis Exchange (BYTE) offers professional tennis instruction and academic enrichment to kids ages 8–12 on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico). The program uses tech-based enrichment curricula, facilitated by bilingual local educators working in non-traditional teaching spaces, such as gymnasiums and public parks. A chapter of the United States Tennis Association’s National Junior Tennis & Learning network, BYTE strives to be a leader in sports-based diplomacy, earning it an RWJF Sports Award in 2020.

Other recent RWJF Sports Award winners include Running Medicine and the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). Running Medicine is a family-oriented walking and running program for Native Americans in Albuquerque that is creating a Culture of Health available to all people regardless of ability, age, fitness level, or ability to pay. USABA uses adaptive sports to assist and support individuals who are blind and visually impaired, proving that ability should not dictate one’s health and well-being.

A Vibrant, Collaborative Community

The impact of the RWJF Sports Award goes far beyond the monetary prize the winners receive. The Foundation runs a “learning day” each year for current and past winners and finalists, with approximately 40 organizations represented. The community that has been created is vibrant and active, with participants often seeking advice from and sharing challenges and successes with each other.

In a survey of finalists and winners taken in 2019, 94% said connecting with other national and community leaders was a very or somewhat important factor in their decision to apply for the award. When asked how the process of applying for the RWJF Sports Award influenced their thinking, one respondent wrote: “We recognize the power of sport to keep youth engaged and transform a community. When thinking about health equity, we thought about changing systems to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Sport is a great tool to engineer play back into the lives of children, making an active lifestyle a default option.”

RWJF’s engagement with sports has helped other major national and state foundations recognize the power of sports and helped advance the field of sports philanthropy, which now includes sports team owners and leagues, media companies, local funders, foundations led by individual athletes, corporate supporters, and others.

“The RWJF Sports Award has, quite simply, raised the bar in the field of sports philanthropy,” said Sue Petersen, Executive Director of the San Francisco Giants Community Fund. “We were tremendously proud to receive this honor in 2017 and we recognized that it wasn’t something you get at the end of doing a good job; it was meant to be a launching pad and an expectation to do more. We’ve taken that responsibility seriously. Like the role that a pro sports foundation plays in its community, RWJF in an influencer in communities throughout our country. The foundation’s statements, partnerships, programs, grants and campaigns deliver solid information and help society change for the better.”

See more stories about how sports organizations are creating healthier communities.



Alisha Greenberg is an expert on sports philanthropy and director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award.