Youth Voices: State of Play Harlem

Rule number one to get kids active through sports: Ask Kids What They Want. Who better to know their experiences than kids themselves? To mobilize around growing the quality and quantity of youth sports in East Harlem, youth must have a platform for their voices to be heard as a part of the decision-making process.

Every kid has a story to tell, and that story can help to inspire positive change for leaders (young and old) to come together and develop key solutions for youth sports.

In the forthcoming State of Play: Harlem report, the Aspen Institute interviewed five charismatic kids, each with a different experience of sports in the community and a passion for play.



Photo by Ben Strack

Ibrahim Cisse is a vibrant, confident sixth-grader. But when he moved to East Harlem from the Ivory Coast four years ago and enrolled in P.S. 72 Lexington Academy, he was a wide-eyed 8-year-old boy who knew no one and spoke little English. It was Ibrahim’s passion for soccer that pushed him to play at his local park and join the afterschool sports program. Although his new friends spoke different languages, Ibrahim saw cultural and linguistic differences as opportunities, not barriers. “I like to talk to people and learn from them,” he said. “You can learn a lot from people who are different from you. When I went to the park, I took a ball. We made friendly games versus each other.” As he played with park playmates and school teammates, they bonded, and his social confidence grew. Soccer opened multiple doors. In 2016, Ibrahim regularly joined the New York District Attorney’s Office’s Saturday Night Lights initiative — run in partnership with New York City Football Club’s City in the Community program. The city program, which meets three times a week, provides him and hundreds of other kids with a safe place to meet and play and offers academic tutoring and mentoring opportunities as well.

Ibrahim plays in the Saturday Night Lights league and in City in the Community’s wider programming. He has also participated in community activities like the UNICEF Kid Power program and the City’s School Cup tournament, in which his team were crowned champions. Ibrahim’s transformation from isolated outsider to child athlete, peer mentor and community ambassador has made him wise beyond his years. “People need to start realizing that there is no difference between us — white or any other color,” he said. “We are all the same. We need to listen to each other and respect each other. And don’t let what people say stop you. Face the challenge. Show them your positive side. Because you can be whatever you want to be.”



Photo by Luis Fernando Llosa

By her own admission, 10-year-old Weng Rui Tong is an accidental athlete. Until recently, the fourth-grader focused her creative energy on drawing and ballet. Her mom shuttles her to classes on Saturdays. “When I grow up,” she proclaimed, “I want to be an artist.” But an introduction to soccer in P.E. last year, at P.S. 83 Luis Munoz Rivera, has expanded Weng Rui’s horizons. “It takes a lot of practice, but it’s fun to play, and I’m learning how to dribble and pass,” she said. Weng Rui approaches sports with a healthy mix of competition and compassion. “In games, I find out who the best player is and figure out how to stop him,” she said. “I didn’t play with boys before. But I like to now because some of them are really good. They teach me.” But it’s a two-way process.

“When they win and yell at the losers, I teach them how to be calm and kind. I tell them they wouldn’t feel good if other kids shouted at them when they lost.” Weng Rui, who lives in a small two-bedroom apartment in East Harlem, said she loves all outdoor activities. She’s a member of the Concrete Safaris after-school program at P.S. 83. They do homework and take field trips, like group bike rides to Randall’s Island. As with all kids her age, Weng Rui also craves family connection. Ever since she started learning soccer, she goes on Sundays with her dad and little brother to Central Park, where they can practice on a grass field. “It’s great fun because I get to have time with my family and teach moves to my little brother,” she said. It’s clear that art and sport have merged for Weng Rui, who is working on Supergirl sketches with a group of female classmates in art class. Weng Rui’s favorite hero is, of course, Wonder Woman. “I like that she has the braveness to do what she wants to do,” she said. Which stands to reason, since little Weng Rui is, herself, a role model of courage, curiosity and determination.




Ishan Burra is the quintessential multisport kid: a fun-loving second-grader who plays soccer, cricket, basketball, baseball, tennis and volleyball whenever and wherever he can. He’s had some exposure to organized baseball and tennis, but the one structured sport he enjoys most these days is soccer. His New York Soccer Stars team practices on Fridays and plays games on Saturdays. Like most kids his age, Ishan’s number one priority is to have fun. “I like to practice and learn,” he said.

Photo by Ranya Bautista

“But I like playing better. I just love running around and playing games.” The loosely structured play he and his schoolmates engage in at recess and after school — they play soccer and basketball — on River East  Elementary School’s turf field and in the school’s concrete yard, is what he relishes most. Space issues in East Harlem have tempered Ishan’s athletic explorations. “Space is the biggest problem,” he said. But he has found ways to adapt to his constricted surroundings. In fact, Ishan — whose favorite school subjects are science and math (which he works on with his mathematician/engineer dad) — has a knack for problem-solving. “We don’t have a volleyball court near where I live. So we use the monkey bars in the exercise space at Thomas Jefferson Park playground as our net. There’s no wicket to play cricket either. But I practice with the ball and bat in my apartment and play for real when we go to India to visit family. With my friends, we play rugby with a football next to the benches in our community garden.” Ishan hopes more play space can be created in his neighborhood for sports activities. “Maybe a construction worker could build another soccer field,” he said. “And they could take out part of the exercise space and use it to make a volleyball court.” Until then, he’ll adapt and have fun wherever the next game breaks out.




Photo by DREAM

Early exposure to baseball ignited a lifelong passion and focus for Darlene De La Cruz, who started playing at age 7 in Central Park in DREAM (formerly Harlem RBI). “I loved it,” she said. “Then I switched to softball because it’s what girls do.” Softball has become central to Darlene’s life. “I want to be a serious athlete,” she said. In the spring, the high school sophomore plays on the varsity squad at Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics. She lifts weights religiously in the winter offseason and plays on club league teams in the fall. “This sport just keeps me motivated with everything,” she added. “And it makes me a better student.”

Her biggest challenge? Finding coaches and teammates in the offseason who are as dedicated as she is. “I haven’t really found any coaches who would really put the time in to help us to get better,” she said. “And a lot of girls call themselves athletes but then they don’t perform as serious as they say.” Space to train is another major hurdle. “There aren’t many places that we can go,” said Darlene. “But you’ve got to take advantage of what you can find. Like gyms. We practice in gyms. But there is only so much you can do inside. Sometimes we just go to the batting cages in the Bronx.” Still, no obstacle is likely to derail Darlene, who knows exactly what she wants to do in life. “I want to be an obstetrician,” she said. “The way they help women bring new life onto the planet? It’s just amazing.” And she believes softball is her ticket. “This sport can take me so many places,” she said. “And even though I am kind of restricted in New York because I’m not really exposed to really good softball, I want to go places.”


Photo by Angela Wyche

Sports don’t have much allure for Amber Bros, who is a self-proclaimed homebody. That makes sense, given the fifth-grader’s past experience with games. “Every time we play in gym, everybody ends up yelling, ‘You’re a cheater!’ They argue and the game is over.” During recess at PS/MS7 in East Harlem, Amber navigates the pickup soccer and basketball games that break out around her warily. “I don’t like playing much,” she proclaimed. “I’m scared I’ll get hit by a ball. Even when I’m not playing I get hit. Me and my friend, we walk on the track instead. We call it our ‘walk and talk.’” Amber’s exposure to sports has been minimal. She’s played a little kickball.

“I’m not that good at kicking,” she confessed. “People said I do baby kicks. But I had these boots with heels on, and when I kicked it wouldn’t work.” She is happiest at home, where she plays with her 3-year-old brother, draws and plays video games. “I’m a really good drawer,” she said. “My friend taught me how to draw the Powerpuff Girls. Bubbles is my favorite.” Amber also likes to watch television. If she’s with her dad, she may watch a little sports. “Baseball with my dad,” she said. But drawing and crafts are her favorite activities. The one form of physical activity Amber loves is dance. At home she plays Nintendo Wii’s Just Dance game with her sister. And at school she participates in the National Dance Institute’s weekly dance program. “That’s my kind of exercise!” she exclaimed. Asked what she would do if she could choose any activity at all for gym, Amber smiles mischievously. “I’d have a little dome to be inside where I could draw and not get hit.” That makes perfect sense, since Amber wants to be a designer when she grows up.




This entry was originally published in the Aspen Institute’s State of Play: Harlem report. For more information on Project Play: Harlem, visit:  


See more New York Sports Connection articles

Be the first to leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Tired of Being Late for Programs?

Stay ahead of the deadlines. Sign up for the Weekly Sports Alert

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.