By Scott Boylston
photos: T. Lindeborn, S. Boylston, D. Sherwin, N. Sundberg
“All you have to do is be balanced…and understand your strength.”
Gator Rivers, of Harlem Globetrotters’ fame, tells this to an elementary school kid. He’s helping the child hold a rapidly spinning basketball on the tip of his finger, and his words of encouragement constitute a message, not only about the child’s ball handling skills, but about life in general.
“All you have to do is be balanced…and understand your strength.” As Gator’s hand firmly braces the child’s ball-controlling hand, they both watch the basketball spin miraculously on the tip of the boys flexibly steady fingertip.
Perhaps the most memorable part of this scene is that it isn’t being played out on a basketball court. It’s happening in a public school garden. Gator is teaching these students about basketball, and life skills; but he’s also teaching them about self-reliance and healthy eating through agriculture. “When kids grow vegetables,” Gator says, “they eat them, too.”
SKILL BUILDING THROUGH COLLABORATION (or…gator cat scad frog)
Gator was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters for 13 years, and he has coached and played on countless teams since and before, including the winning team in the first integrated Georgia State High School Championship. And now, he has a new set of collaborators.
For the next ten weeks, Gatorball Academy will partner with a SCAD Sustainable Design Practices class and with frog Principal Designer, David Sherwin, in piloting frog’s new and bracingly innovative Community Action Toolkit (CAT) in Savannah. The CAT was developed through intensive field study and iteration in places like Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa in conjunction with Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect, and officially released last month. This new collaboration between frog, SCAD’s Design for Sustainability, and Gatorball Academy is the CAT’s very first higher education pilot project, and a direct offshoot of Design Ethos 2012: Vision Reconsidered.
Gatorball Academy is committed to the holistic mentoring of at-risk populations, with an emphasis on basketball, and obesity and diabetes prevention through healthy eating, exercise, and self-empowerment. A core objective of the academy is to encourage constructive competition both on the court and in the garden, with a focus on sportsmanship, citizenship, and entrepreneurship. This combination of athletics and agriculture is an innovative display of triple bottom line problem solving.
The class will explore two main threads—as CAT facilitators and researchers with 3 groups of Gatorball Academy students, and as design strategists for Gatorball Academy. Above, David Sherwin, frog Principal Designer, Debra Hasan of Gatorball Academy, and the SCAD Sustainable Practices class.
WARMING UP TO THE TASK
In order to get better acquainted with the CAT, teams of SCAD students were asked to facilitate a CAT activity of their choice within the class. They were encouraged to lead the activity to better understand how the SCAD teams can successfully introduce themselves to the high school students in a few weeks.
The high school students they’ll be working with are primarily African American teenagers in low-income neighborhoods, and with the SCAD students hailing from Puerto Rico, Iran, Bulgaria, and across the US, the diversified graduate class is on unfamiliar cultural grounds. Developing trust at the outset of the quarter-long collaboration is an absolute necessity. So, only two days after the course started, students were immersed in CAT activities, with 2 individual groups taking turns facilitating their chosen activity.
After each activity, the students were debriefed by David Sherwin on their technique. It was a unique honor to host David for the first week of classes, and to have direct access to his intimate knowledge with the CAT, and with participatory design practice and social innovation at a highly-acclaimed professional level. David will return to SCAD and Savannah at the end of the quarter, and will be corresponding with the students weekly over the course of the quarter.
But hanging out in a classroom engaging in design-facilitation exercises was only the beginning. Students couldn’t be expected to fully understand what Gator and his students go through in the course of their basketball training until they had a chance to work some hoop magic themselves.
Gator espouses life and leadership development through engaging in team sport, and he preaches the essentials of collaboration, teamwork and civic engagement through basketball. As an example, Gator walked the class through a team-building exercise that the Harlem Globetrotters are known for: “Figure 8 Weave.” You can see part of the classroom exercise here. The exercise was a study in collaborative motion, and as Gator mentions at the end of the video, once a ball enters into the equation, things get really fun, as they did a day later, on the court.
Once on the court, the former Harlem Globetrotter ran the design team through a series of team-building exercises. The physical nature of the exercises required the attention of both the body and the mind, and no single individual could move around the court without being aware of the presence of others.
With very little basketball experience on the design team, there were many bobbles and laughs through the afternoon. The Figure 8 Weave was introduced after a few warm ups—now with a ball, and in full motion—and it forced the team into intricately weaving their bodies through a series of figure 8s, all the while flipping the ball to other players. After a predictable period of awkwardness, everyone settled into a comfortable, if tiring, rhythm.
In fact, after the initial mistakes, miscues, and confusion—and through concise facilitation from Coach Gator—the level of wordless interconnectedness was an impressive sight to see. Bodies flowed through a series of weaves, and the ball bounced from one player to the next, rarely touching the ground. More than anything, it was the wordless communication and interaction on the court that was so impressive—a full presence by all involved was evident in the sounds only of breathing, ball contact with human hands, and Gator’s intermittent and sternly playful exhortations.
The day ended with a short full-court game: gardening will come next.
By the end of the first week of class, students were much more in-tune to the way in which their partners managed their minds and their bodies. SCAD students were ‘schooled’ in a form of all-out collaboration that they’d had never been exposed to before, and provided a glimpse of the deeper meanings behind Gator’s mantra:
“All you have to do is be balanced…and understand your strength.”