NSC in the Community: A Conversation with Brandon Hill and Jalil Anibaba

If you get into a conversation with Brandon Hill and Jalil Anibaba about Nashville Soccer Club’s community engagement efforts, I guarantee you’ll walk away feeling enthused while simultaneously marveling at the holistic approach they take toward their mission.

Jalil Anibaba recently returned to Nashville, this time as NSC’s first “Brand Ambassador.” Brandon Hill continues to serve as the Head of Community Engagement. I spent an hour speaking with them recently about a wide variety of ways in which the team works with the community, particularly the youth community, in Nashville.

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Let me state at the outset that what they are doing, and the care with which they are acting, is impressive.

To begin, the team has been developing and executing a number of different programs, including a partnership with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools called the P.L.A.Y.S. (Promoting Lifetime Youth Activity Through Youth Soccer) and the IMPACT program, a pop up community program meant to bring youth soccer to different areas of the city. With these programs and others, the team reaches out to both communities in Nashville (often underserved communities who may not encounter soccer at this level of intent otherwise) and take an entirely holistic view of how to help young people engage with soccer, and with life more generally. 

And when Hill and Anibaba tell you they are thinking with a full form, 360 degree vision, it’s about soccer, yes, but also about life in general. It’s about the community, yes, but also about the players. It’s about a particular moment, yes, but also about the long haul. It’s everything.

Let’s rehearse a bit of what this means:

Recognizing that Nashville is a spread-out area, the team is helping build mini-pitches all over town in order to help young people play without the need for expensive travel. They currently have built three around the city, and are set to announce a fourth this summer.

The team has helped the City create youth leagues and hosts clinics and training for new coaches. 

They have delivered at least 20 goals to area schools and will continue to do so, hoping to build on the momentum of youth encountering soccer at one of their programs, and then wanting to continue playing the game.

They recently worked with the community group Helping Hands, in order to host a lengthy soccer clinic at Napier Homes in Nashville which had 50-60 young people participate. Youth who had never experienced soccer were craving to play more. Family members who were not previously soccer fans attended and watched the kids—most of whom are growing up on baseball and football—embracing soccer and developing skills. 

Notably, these guys don’t simply teach a clinic and then disappear. They understand that a start is just that: a start. As a result, they simultaneously make sure that they are working with their community partners to train staff and to find ways to help continue with these programs. 

And holistic does not simply mean soccer by itself.

As Anibaba says, “We have a full 360 degree take in terms of each and other kid we engage with. Soccer is not just the end goal; we are trying to help improve the community. We make sure that we are putting our intentions in the right place.”

And this can mean helping to kick start literacy programs through grants; this can mean helping out with nutrition education. Every aspect of what it means to be a responsible community member goes into their thinking.

“Football is why we are all here together, but building community and overall support is what we do.”

Jalil Anibaba

Hill observes that holistic can also refer to time; that is, this is not only about the now but also about the future. Some of these kids will develop skills that will make them candidates for NSC’s Academy or for other futures in soccer organizations. Or, it will simply help them understand, through the metaphor of soccer, the dynamism of community and how people need one and other in different capacities to succeed.

Hill points to the fact that you now see kids spontaneously playing soccer in opening fields as one sign of success.

Alibaba observes that another sign is that the club no longer has to ask to come present soccer; instead, they are being asked to come back, or being invited in before they get a chance to act. 

Before they began their outreach in Nashville, Hill notes, they met with 60 different community organizations to find out what was needed. Rather than a top down approach, that is, they started with the needs of different pockets of Nashville. And get this: they realize that Huntsville, home of Huntsville City FC, is also “our community,” and they are working on the same processes there.

While the holistic view is impressive enough for how Hill and Anibaba think of the metropolitan community, Anibaba went a step further and notes that the players are also helped by these programs.  And not simply in the “giving is gratifying way.”

As he notes (and he would know having played on several different teams), players often feel isolated when they move to new communities, so when the players get to get out and take part in these programs, they become part of the community and begin to understand their role in the community better. 

Ultimately, Anibaba notes, “We make sure that we are putting our intentions in the right place.  How we help take care of the kids is the priority.  We need to make sure the environment to support them is still there when we’re not.”

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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