By Sage Ramadge
When was the last time you had a chance to play squash with a governor and a senator in the same week? For twenty-two college and high school students on the Urban Squash Citizenship Tour, that opportunity came this past July. Not only did they play squash with Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, but they also met with senators, members of Congress, and other leaders in public service to learn more about public policy and to share experiences from their communities and urban squash programs across the country.
The Urban Squash Citizenship Tour is a new initiative for the National Urban Squash and Education Association, which traditionally hosts a number of squash-based events for urban squash participants from fifteen cities across the country throughout the year. Primarily focused on academics, the Citizenship Tour was led by Rachel Hallowell, an Academic Director from SquashSmarts in Philadelphia, and Monete Johnson, a SquashBusters graduate with a freshly minted Master’s in Public Policy from Rutgers to add to her BA from Trinity College. Along with five NUSEA college student counselors, the tour staff guided the students through an intensive curriculum of readings, discussions and, in some cases, even a squash game or two.
The Citizenship Tour kicked off at SquashBusters in Boston, where the students met with Greg Zaff, whose vision has guided the urban squash and education movement for the past twenty years. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and former Governor Michael Dukakis, joined in to share their wealth of experience and words of inspiration. Before speaking with the students, Governor Patrick jumped on the squash courts for a spirited three-quarter court session. At some point during his journey from South Side Chicago, Governor Patrick learned the game of squash and showed the students how to have fun and work hard at the same time.
From Boston, the students traveled to Walden Pond and Connecticut for lessons on environmental awareness and policy. They spent an evening with Fred Krupp, CEO of the Environmental Defense Fund, who led a discussion with the students during a vegan dinner at the home of Sue and Steve Mandel in Greenwich, CT.
In New York City the students spent a whirlwind day visiting The New York Times headquarters with Harvard squash alumnus and journalist David Segal, dodging tourists in Times Square, meeting members of the U.S. Foreign Service, and touring the United Nations.
Between New York and Washington, DC, Valkyrie Squash Club in Sea Bright, NJ, provided a welcome respite on the tour. Club owner Chad Sullivan and pro Francis Odeh hosted the students for a weekend on the Jersey Shore, with ample time both on the beach and the squash courts.
In Washington, DC, the students got a chance to walk the halls of power and meet with inspiring, as well as some of the best squash playing, members of Congress. Senator Gillibrand, a Dartmouth squash alumna, got in a workout and met with the students at Results Fitness. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, another regular player, met with the students and cracked a joke or two before attending a meeting.
In a discussion with congressional staff members, led by Abbie McDonough, Communications Director for Senator Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota, a Yale Squash alumna and longtime CitySquash mentor, the students learned about careers in government. For many of the students, it was the first time they realized that such careers were within their reach, and many of them took down the information for summer internships on the Hill.
“Reflecting on the experience led me to become more conscious about the issues affecting the nation and the world and ultimately made me a more worldly, politically-engaged citizen,” said Chelsie Deng, one of the Citizenship Tour students from Access Youth Academy in San Diego, and a 12th grader at Preuss School. Deng added that, “meeting Senator Gillibrand was especially exciting because I’m very passionate about the issues that her administration focuses on. She was incredibly kind (although not as forgiving on the court) and is a great role model.”
Interspersed between meetings with politicians and public officials were squash sessions at George Washington University, movie night in the shadow of the Washington Monument at “Screen on the Green,” and a warm reception from the DC squash community at the Metropolitan Club, hosted by NUSEA Board Member Will Gaynor. Ohio Congressman Steve Chabot, Julian Hackney, a graduate of StreetSquash and Bates College student, and Cris Margaret Frias, a CitySquash alumna and student at Franklin and Marshall College, shared their urban squash experiences with those in attendance. Hackney said, on meeting the Governor, “Listening to him [Governor Patrick] share his experiences reminded me that my own potential is limitless, and with determination and vision I can accomplish far more than the prescribed expectations set out against me and other young black men.”
Benny Sanquintin, a freshman at UMass-Boston and Squashbusters graduate, also shared his impressions of Governor Patrick. “Governor Patrick was definitely a highlight of the Tour. It is truly inspiring for me and the rest of my community to see a man become a governor from growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood, who has dealt with adversity throughout his life.”
The evening was capped off with a squash exhibition, pitting Brandy Williamson from StreetSquash and Benny Sanquintin from SquashBusters in two-vs-one matches against local pros Omar Sobhy, Brian O’Hora, and Ahmad Alzabidi. After the matches, O’Hora shared his impressions of the Tour, “The kids I spoke to at the Met Club event were amazing. They were confident, articulate, and very smart. They were great ambassadors for urban squash.”
The Tour ended in the office of Georgia Representative John Lewis, whose experience in the civil rights movement played a direct role in the lives and opportunities of the students on the tour. For over an hour, the students sat rapt in the Representative’s office while he told stories of his days working alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Squash was the furthest thing from their minds in that moment, but there was little doubt that their urban squash experience had expanded far beyond what they could ever have imagined the first time they picked up a racquet.
Tim Wyant, NUSEA Executive Director, summed up the experience: “At its essence, urban squash is about changing lives and making the world a better place. Our programs give young people the chance to overcome obstacles and contribute positively to society. The Citizenship Tour brought together the core components of urban squash—education, athletics, travel, mentoring, service, and of course fun—in a very special way. We’re grateful to the remarkable people that took the time to meet with our students and share their personal stories, from Capitol Hill staffers to governors and senators. It was an inspiring nine days.”