by Erin Blankenship CdeP 2000
Given the story behind this article, it is probably fitting that the moment I knew I wanted to go to Thacher was the moment I sat down to watch soccer practice at sunset over the Ojai Valley. That perfect red-gold glow against green mountains and a view of a soccer pitch almost all the way to the Pacific Ocean. I took one deep breath of that California oak and eucalyptus air, and watching the scrimmage below I made my choice. No doubt the horses, cut-offs and flip-flops were also strong supporting factors.
The way I would describe myself at Thacher is about the same as my Facebook page describes me now: nerd, athlete, adrenaline junkie and travel bum. The proportion and full range of those characteristics have evolved with time, but the basics are the same. I grew up overseas and it’s where I am most at home – I’ve been to about 80 countries so far and make a point to take at least 3-8 months off every 4 years to go be a nomad for awhile. I remain a sucker for history, languages and political science, and my bedside has 2-3 piles of literature or conflict research at any given time. I regularly disappear to camp, climb, surf, snowboard and jump out of aircraft; and ultimately I trained with the US Olympic Modern Pentathlon team and have played professional soccer in a few different countries. It is this last life-long passion of mine that forms the core focus today.
This June I will be summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro with 29 other women ranging from elite World Cup players and sports charity graduates, to social leaders and activists to play the world record highest elevation soccer game in history – at 18,799 ft in the Kibo Crater of Kilimanjaro, we will be playing a full 11-a-side 90-min match complete with FIFA referees and an altitude specialist medical team. Following the world record game we will run soccer training clinics around the world for girls and women through existing local teams and charities that focus on sports development, education, health and empowerment programs for women to promote sustainability. Our initiative is called Equal Playing Field, and this project Altitude Football. We are going to break this world record to challenge gender inequality in sport and in life, and further the development of the game we love for girls and women around the world.
It’s been a challenge to organize. Not only do we so far represent 25 countries from 6 continents, all of us already have full-time jobs or are full-time students. In my case, my job in the Middle East monitoring and advising on conflict and security dynamics for humanitarian organizations working in Syria, Iraq, and Gaza is not exactly a typical 9 to 5. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to borrow telecoms capacity from security teams near difficult borders to try to skype with our core leadership team in Melbourne, London, and LA at ridiculous hours. But every woman I’ve met and every story I’ve heard of what they have overcome already to play and help others do so, makes all of us forget about the 4 hours of sleep a night the past 10 months and dig deeper to make sure this project succeeds the way it should.
The ‘why’ is pretty simple. To advance opportunity, equality, and respect for girls and women everywhere as athletes and as human beings, and to promote sports development for women especially in globally marginalized countries. Our initiative underscores what sports provide everyone: self-respect, leadership, discipline, teamwork, community and merit-based advancement, not to mention improved long-term health. But it also flags the systematic, structured inequality that girls and women face in most aspects of their lives in order to take direct aim at the social norms that limit their opportunities, acceptance, and value as athletes and individuals. Exactly two years ahead of the next FIFA Women’s World Cup and one month ahead of the women’s European Championships, we will be doing our part to advance the game, these values, and tangibly support organizations around the world that already provide opportunities for girls and women to play.
For me, Thacher is a community that values positive social change and has a knack for developing leaders who care about the world around them. And through its sports program ensures that every student benefits from being part of a team and an active lifestyle, whether they are thrilled about it at the time or not. It is for these reasons that I want to share this initiative with the friends and residents of Casa de Piedra – because of the Equal Playing Field and everything it is trying to achieve needs support to succeed.
Part of this is financial – because women who make $1000 a year in Afghanistan and are responsible for supporting their families do not have the capacity to fundraise to fly to Africa, no matter how important the cause or deep their desire to be a part of a life-changing initiative. Part of this is gear – even if we have players who can get to Kilimanjaro from a Zambian jungle and an urban slum in Mexico to represent their club and country, they don’t necessarily have a sub-zero sleeping bag to keep them alive on the mountain. And finally, the rest of it is in outreach – getting our message out to ever-wider audiences be it through the press, social media or personal communication, because it is the human connection that makes the difference. The greater the number of people who know about EPF the greater its chance to drive real change.
Over the summer Equal Playing Field would like to invite some Thacher students to support our LA-based training clinic in July led by US professional players and attended by a cross-spectrum of powerhouse female leaders. Then in October, I will return with some of our players and the filmmakers to tell the story from the mountain itself, talk about our clinic partner organizations in 15* countries, and screen part of the feature documentary and social impact films developed by our award-winning film and media team. It is going to be a busy few months.
It is hard to believe that five weeks from today we will be starting our summit. Despite what old roommates may say, getting up at dawn to run desert hills in an altitude mask is not exactly my favorite kind of morning. But I will keep dragging myself out of bed to train for this game on top of the world and finding the hours to ensure it happens no matter what. This initiative is about all the things that go along with women’s equality in sport and in life, and yet more than anything it is about the love of the game – having the opportunity to play at the highest level you are capable of, no matter who or where you are. Opportunity, equality, respect. Nothing more, nothing less. Whatever it takes, that is something worth climbing for.
Erin Blankenship CdeP 2000
Co-Founder of the Equal Playing Field Initiative / Altitude Football Project
To support us please visit http://startsomegood.com/equalplayingfield — we have one week left to hit our crowdfunding target. And to find out more about Equal Playing Field please visit our website at www.equalplayingfield.com. You can also follow us on Facebook (equalplayingfield) / Twitter (EPFinitiative) / and Instagram (equalplayingfieldinitiative).