Diana Romo, Nike Watts Athlete Services Specialist and PeacePlayers Los Angeles partner, had never heard her resident community of Watts “being referenced on a more humane level of being a legitimate community.”
Watts, home of PeacePlayers programming in Los Angeles, sits right off highway 101 between coastal Manhattan Beach and the inland cities. It is a lively neighborhood, and a playground for all walks of life. Walking down its streets, California sun warm on your skin, you may hear the sound of a stereo system perched atop of a bicycle, feeling the pulses of base from Tupac, Nipsey, or Ice Cube beneath your feet. You may hear the voices of young children chasing each other outside of the community center; laughs, screams, and shouts of joy echoing off of concrete. You may smell the sizzling steaks of a makeshift barbecue lining the projects, where people are making the most of what they have.
Though the neighborhood is within a slice of paradise, Watts is not all fun and games. Being an underserved area, the city remains one of the most
impoverished neighborhoods in LA, leading to decades of stigma, stereotypes, and marginalization.
Many of the youth living there have never ventured even 30 minutes west to the beach. PeacePlayers, along with the Watts Nike Community Store, are working together to build, what is yearned for by long-time residents, a thriving and more equitable community from the inside out. And it’s all starting with the youth.
Since 2018, The Nike Community Ambassador (NCA) program has partnered with PeacePlayers, allowing Nike employees to make a positive impact in their own communities through sport-based volunteering with kids. Nike Community Stores exist in underserved areas with the intention of hiring within a 5-mile radius, creating employment opportunities that benefit the immediate area. Over the years, PeacePlayers has had the privilege of partnering closely with over 35 ambassadors from Nike Community Stores across our five cities. These ambassadors have become role models, mentors, and people our young leaders can turn to. And in Watts, specifically, the partnership has created what both PeacePlayers and many of the ambassadors refer to as a family.
Diana has found a great sense of purpose through her leadership role with the local Nike Community Store. Around 80% of the store’s employees are from Watts, which means “they know their backyard and by that [I mean] they know how people are, what they need, what they want, what they like.” Since Nike is an established brand and has a recognizable presence, this has contributed to cultivating a culture in the store that the community is willing to buy into and be a part of. She explains that her job “just feels different.” For Diana and her team, it’s about more than folding shirts or organizing shoes. They’ve found purpose in leveraging their position to be involved with local organizations. They’re building bridges, and establishing connections that feel safe and lead to long-lasting and impactful relationships, both inside and outside of the store.
PeacePlayers LA has worked with over 10 ambassadors since starting to partner with the local Watts Community Store in 2021. It all started with ambassadors joining PeacePlayers’ virtual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Event in 2021, and has since evolved into NCAs becoming crucial volunteer coaches for weekly in-person programming in locations around Watts. Evan Unrau,
PeacePlayers Los Angeles Director, explains, “Coming out of the pandemic we really saw a staffing shortage everywhere. It was hard to find coaches who fit our work and were available for the number of programming sessions we had going on. Our full-time team was being stretched thin; I was coaching at every session. So they really have come in and saved the day. We typically get 3-4 NCAs at all of our programs so that has really helped us to have a stronger programming presence with the kids and has allowed us to increase the number of youth we work with … We support them and they support us, it’s a beautiful community of beautiful people aligned in mission.”
Not only has PeacePlayers benefited greatly from the partnership, but Diana and several of her team members have also described their experiences with PeacePlayers as having had a profound impact on them. Through the organization’s core values, Diana has been inspired in her leadership to see people as people, and “implement as much emotional depth as I want into things [without being] scared to do it.”
Diana recalls her first time volunteering at the PeacePlayers gym rec sessions that inspired her to take learnings back to her leadership role at the Nike Community Store. She witnessed “There’s so much more than just bouncing a ball. And that can happen in all kinds of depths, right? With a five year old who just learned teamwork. Or it could be you’re 25 on a new team at work and really asking like, ‘What does teamwork mean to you? [PeacePlayers demonstrated] listening to what they have to say. It’s really having that ambience of being like, ‘Hey, really say what it means and we’re listening to you.’ Now whenever I onboard somebody new to work, I’ll ask them ‘What do you want to be known for?’ And really listen.”
Diana (who oversees the volunteer program at Watts with the support of the community store’s Head Coach Paola De La Cruz), along with Arnold Coston and Giselle Flores – each of these ambassadors have a history of playing sports, understand the impact it can have on individuals and communities, and have found great joy in getting to know and coach the youth of PeacePlayers.
For Giselle, volunteering with PeacePlayers as an NCA means connecting with her neighborhood, with her community. “Being able to work with kids that I see when I go to, like, the grocery store or going to a different school. The kids will recognize me from the Jordan Downs Rec Center. It’s amazing because we have these connections that we’re forming within our own community, you know. Like yesterday we went to Jordan High School, and we have only had one session prior to that with them. We had all the girls running up to us, having them greet us by name, you know, and they were all asking us to stay longer, so it was just amazing. Seeing these girls develop.”
For Arnold, it’s all about being a role model – not just any role model, but someone who understands where the kids are coming from, who’s been where they’ve been. “I’m hoping that by me being able to work in the area of Watts, I don’t want to say that the kids don’t really have a role model, but they just really don’t have anybody that will teach them in the right way, put them in the right direction. For me to be able to be there and say, ‘Hey, I understand this happened. I understand, that happened. I’ve been where you’ve been. Let me try to give you some kind of direction that may help you.’”
Paola describes the “magic sauce” that allows PeacePlayers and the Nike Community Ambassadors to have such a profound impact on the youth and community of Watts: “I love the fact that you guys are just super authentic, super available, and just super coachable, and I think that’s super important in any collaboration or any partnership that you may have. At the end of the day, it’s about the kids and it’s about us having a common goal and just making it happen. I just really appreciate how PeacePlayers has been super inviting and being able to hold everybody, all of my people, as family as well.”
When asked what the hope of the partnership is moving forward, Evan shares, “When we think about ‘growth’ in Los Angeles, the NCAs are a huge part of the formula and vision. We are big on culture with our programs, our staff, youth and coaches and the NCAs are a big part of the culture of PeacePlayers Los Angeles. We are excited for the NCAs we work with to take the PeacePlayers’ mission back with them to their work, communities and families, and as we grow, they grow with us.”