In this inaugural episode of the Strong Women. Better World podcast series, Dr. Sarah Hillyer of the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society (University of Tennessee-Knoxville) steps into the ring to discuss her inspiration, the Center’s mission and work empowering women and girls around the world through sport, honoring the legacy of legendary Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt, the importance of celebrating Title IX and its global impact, and how to build a better world through sport and education.
Carole (00:04): Welcome to the Strong Woman, Better World podcast series, a global storytelling project, created by strong women using the power of sport, education and social innovation to create a better world. The sisterhood stands on the shoulder of pioneers who fought for the passage of Title IX and educational amendment that gave rise to the female athletes in the United States. And a significant ripple effect around the globe. Hello, Hello. I am your host and ref. Carole Ponchon from Lyon, France. Join me each week as I travel to different corners of the earth, inviting fearless women into the ring. We exchange ideas while exploring Title IX inspiring ripple effects around the world. For this debut episode we begin in Knoxville, Tennessee in the South Eastern United States. And invite Dr. Sarah Hillyer into the ring. Dr. Sarah is the founding director of the Center for Sport Peace and Society at the University of Tennessee. She is an athlete and educator and a tireless advocate for women and girls around the world. I would need a full episode to pay Dr. Sarah, the tribute she deserves, but for the sake of time, I will humbly say that she's an unmatched driving force for good. Someone with energy. Inspires those around her to make the most of life's rebounds. Her secret, if I may dare share it, she genuinely cares about every single person she meets and use her passion for sport and education to build bridges between people always with a huge dose of love. Welcome, Dr. Sarah.
Dr. Sarah (01:42): Thank you, Carol. And I am incredibly humbled by that introduction. Thank you.
Carole (01:47): Dr. Sarah, we are lucky because today we're also joined by three amazing sisters. Who have been instrumental in bringing this podcast to life. Let me introduce them to our audience. Joining us from Egypt is Abeer Essawy.
Abeer (02:02): Hi, hello everyone.
Carole (02:03): And Pina Pozo from Bolivia.
Pina (02:06): Hi. I'm so happy to be here today.
Carole (02:09): And last but not least Ilina Arsova from Macedonia.
Ilina (02:14): Hello, I'm so happy to be here with all of you today.
Carole (02:18): Dr. Sarah. I hope you are ready. Buckle up because today you're on the hot seat. We're going to ask you a question about the origin of the Strong Women Better World movement, Title IX, and much more. Are you ready?
Dr. Sarah (02:32): I'm ready. Let's do it.
Carole (02:35): Okay. Pina. You're the professional journalist in the ring. So please throw the first punch.
Pina (02:44): Yes, I am ready to do it. I am already making my angle movements. So Dr. Sarah be prepared and that said, let's jump in and tell me about the Center for Sport Peace and Society at the University of Tennessee, where was it created? What is your mission?
Dr. Sarah (03:05): Pina, thank you for the question. Simply the Center for Sport Peace and Society started in 2012. That's when we became official, the mission of the Center is to leverage the power of sport education and social entrepreneurship. To create a more equitable, peaceful, and inclusive world. So I know that sounds so academic-y and all the polished language I would love, love, love to share actually what that means. Maybe if we have time to tell a quick story.
Pina (03:39): Oh, we would love to hear that story, you have such amazing stories. Today we're launching the Strong Women, Better World Podcast Series. What is the inspiration behind it? What can the audience expect and what do you hope it achieves?
Dr. Sarah (03:56): Okay, I'm going to do my best to answer all three. Each of you are a big part of that inspiration as well as our hundred and 30 sisters around the world, but then all of the other women and girls that I've had the privilege of working alongside. So I would say that the women around the world that are fighting for gender equality, just to give that other little girl a chance to play sports. So that's one source of inspiration for the podcast. The second source of inspiration for the podcast are American girls and women, because I'm so afraid that after almost 50 years, Title IX is just normal for us. And so we forget that men and women 50 years ago had to fight so hard. So I'm inspired to make sure that we keep that cultural knowledge and the fact that things don't come easy and that it's actually a privilege, not a, not necessarily a right, so that would be my second. The third inspiration, I think it comes from a really deep place of gratitude. So I was born in 1971, Title IX passed in 1972. So I always say I was on the heels. I grew up on the heels of Title IX, always chasing the opportunities that it provided for me as a young girl and the older I got, and the more I realized that it just provided so much, all I could think about was I would do anything to say thank you to those that fought so hard so that I could receive a great education, travel the world to, to walk alongside other women. And so in some ways I'm inspired to do this podcast to say, thank you for those who struggled so that I could benefit, but also to bring my gratitude to life. To breathe into the gratitude. So those would be the three sources of inspiration. So I have an acronym for what we hope to gain from the podcast, what we want people to take away. And the acronym is ACT A C T. And the first one would mean take action, do something for, to advance girls and women and opportunities. And maybe that's a service project in your local community where you're donating sports equipment or making sure that, that the girls around you, not assuming that they have a chance. The second one is to care. And the reason I was thinking about care is in each of our lives and our little bubbles in our own countries, we get so obsessed with what is immediately facing us. And I think this podcast gives us an opportunity to gain perspective. And to develop some empathy and care, realizing that not everyone shares the same privileges that we do. And then the third, which I know won't surprise you, sisters is to thank someone. If there was someone in your life that provided an opportunity for you to play sports, say thank you, be intentional about showing your gratitude. So that's what I would say about what I hope comes out of the podcast.
Carole (07:19): Wow, I'm afraid that’s end of round one, but I'm currently thinking of renaming the whole podcast. Thanks a lot, Dr. Sarah, and yes, I'm building on what you've just mentioned. So let me on behalf of all of the sisters on the ring, but also all of them that will be listening to us around the world say thank you to you and the whole team. We will now move to round two. Ilina, you're up. And as the first Macedonian woman in history to climb all seven of the world’s highest summits. You're the perfect one to scale our conversation to what greater heights.
Ilina (07:59): First of all, big thank you from my side too. And it was amazing listening to Dr. Sarah's answer cause I was part of 2012 program. And I remember it as it was yesterday. So it's really, really amazing how it grows and everything. I want to ask Dr. Sarah, since you were a tough player too, originally, I want to ask you, what is your relationship to sport and to Title IX? And what does it mean to you? But since Pina asked you something similar, then I want to expand and ask you more about the slogans. Strong Women Better World. How did you come up with that?
Dr. Sarah (08:39): I think when, when I say that the center started in 2012, certainly our story didn't start, then it started actually much, much sooner. So I'm going to kind of answer both of your questions at once if that's okay. I grew up in a small rural community in Kentucky, maybe 800 people. And sports was the only thing my family did. And I was so lucky to have a father, even in the seventies that wanted his girl to be so strong. And he gave me the opportunity to play every sport, whether it was a girls sport, air quotes, or a boys sport in air quotes. I can distinctly remember when I was eight years old, my dad asked me, there's this new thing, this new law called Title IX. And it would provide an opportunity for you to get a really good education. If you become good enough in one sport, would you be interested in doing that? It would almost become like your job to earn, you know, to earn a, a good education. So of course I said, yes, and I picked basketball and it was my obsession. But I felt so strong and like I could conquer the world, but that is until I went to university. And if I may be so honest, I had a coach that was very destructive in my life and she would call me to the training room every morning at 5:00 AM to get on the scales and to weigh in. And that in and of itself is, is okay. But the strange thing was she changed the number. That I needed to reach every single day. And I never knew until I arrived, which number that would be. So for me, this basketball scholarship was, it was my tuition. It was paying for my education. So I couldn't. Not live up to what her expectations were. So I would put. When I didn't make weight, I would put on garbage bags. I would go to the student recreation center. I would bike all day long to lose water weight. Then at two or three in the afternoon, I could go weigh in again, before practice or the game. And if I made weight, I could do it. So all of that to say, after two years of garbage bags and biking, and then not eating all day so I could make weight. Then I would eat everything I could at night, but I knew I couldn't keep it because the cycle would start over and I lost control and was in a really dangerous situation because I had an, an unhealthy relationship with food. So I transferred universities to try to get help and to realize that my identity is not a basketball player. Basketball is what I do. It's not who I am. And so when I transferred, I ended up graduating with a degree in sports administration, but I always say more importantly, I graduated with an undiagnosed eating disorder and I promised the day that I graduated, I would never have anything to do with sports again, the rest of my life. Because I saw it as such a destructive force. So the next year I lived with my parents, they were so helpful. And during that year I had this epiphany, you know, like when the clouds open up and clarity comes in your life and the clarity was Sarah sport, didn't do this to you, it's what someone in a position of power did. And if she has the power to take those things away, you have the agency and the power to give those things. And I thought, gosh, if we can just use sport to create strong women, this world will be a better place. And so that, that is where Strong Women Better World came from.
Ilina (12:48): Wow. That is so inspiring. Uh, thank you for sharing this story with us Dr. Sarah as we approach the 50th anniversary of Title IX. I'm curious, what is the link between Title IX and the global efforts of the Center for Sport Peace and Society? Sure. The GSMP initiative you co-created 10 years ago.
Dr. Sarah (13:07): Thank you. So maybe I should describe what the GSMP is quickly. The Global Sports Mentoring Program is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State and their sports diplomacy division. And it's a brilliant initiative because they are leveraging the implications and the benefits of what Americans have reaped during Title IX. I will say as an American, there's a lot of things we export that I am not proud of. Title IX and the Global Sports Mentoring Program, I'm very proud of. Because I see it as this desire to share what we've learned and our journey to say, okay, here, were our pitfalls. Here's what we would have done differently. Here are the benefits that make it worth the struggle. If we can share that with women fighting their own gender equality, battle in sports, perhaps we can expedite your journey. Perhaps we can help you avoid some of the things that we wished we had done better. So I do think that's the connection. And when I look at each of you, actually, what I see are the pioneers 50 years ago that I referenced earlier. That I have always wanted to thank. And so not only am I getting to thank you for fighting that fight in France or Macedonia or Egypt or Bolivia or wherever our GSMP family is. It, it allows me to thank the people in my own history by taking action.
Carole (14:41): Ladies, we are now reaching the end of round two and moving to round three. Thanks a lot for this pioneering discussion you have been having Ilina and Dr. Sarah, and thanks a lot for all the work you have been carrying out till now at the Center. Abeer, you are a world champion athlete from Egypt, a role model for girls in your own country, as well as North Africa and throughout the Middle East, would you step into the ring and discuss the importance of role models?
Abeer (15:13): Sure Carole, thank you. Dr. Sarah, since we met, there is a code you shared with us that still sticks in my mind today. Right foot. Left foot. Breathe. I remember watching the documentary you co-produced about Pat Summit and learning so much about her life and her philosophies. For listeners who don't know about coach Summit's contribution to women's basketball in America. What can you tell our audience about her efforts on and off the court?
Dr. Sarah (15:44): I don't know if I can do this part without crying. The rest of it has been emotional enough. But when I think of coach Summit, she was at least in women's basketball, the ultimate pioneer, she fought so hard for the opportunity for girls and women to play basketball at a really high level and really defined what women's sports in our country looks like today. She was so instrumental in getting women's sports televised. And so on. What I remember about coach Summit is not only at one point, uh, during her life was she the winningest basketball coach ever on the men's side or women's side in the university system in the U.S. I think more importantly is that she always had time for everyone and she genuinely cared. And when you had a conversation with her and she's managing huge things. Uh, lots of responsibility, lots of pressure. But if you had a question with her, she was so locked in and you felt like you were the only person living on the face of the earth. And so on and off the court, she was so congruent with her values. She was so selfless and kind, but she was fierce and she was not going to take no for an answer when it came to girls and women access to sport and to education. So those would be my memories of coach Summit.
Abeer (17:21): All of us cried that night, I remember. Dr. Sarah, if there is one thing you want us to always remember about coach Summit, what would it be?
Dr. Sarah (17:30): She had so many maxims and philosophies that were profound. But, every day, I am, am blessed to be able to put on a pair of shoes. And I do count that as a blessing. And when I'm putting on my shoes, it reminds me that no matter what the challenge is for the day, no matter how difficult or frustrating or how much fear I have about the day, I can make it so simple and simply put one foot in front of the other. Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. And then you do it again and again and again, and you keep moving towards your goal. And so I would say I would love everyone to do that because, uh, we're, we're moving every day and it's a simple trigger and reminder.
Carole (18:26): That's end of round three. We're going to definitely get a breath in, but we can't leave you yet. So let's have a lightning round before final buzzer sounds Dr. Sarah, I can't help but ask you what's your own definition of empowerment?
Dr. Sarah (18:43): I love it. Okay, so my own definition of empowerment, I think the formula for empowerment requires agency or the ability to choose the ability to see that you have options and the autonomy to make those choices for yourself. I think the process of empowerment takes a lot of intentionality from the people around you to create a safe enough space for you to try something. And to know that it's okay to fail, to get up, to try again. And so I think. Intentionality, agency, autonomy. And for each of us to realize that deep inside there is absolutely nothing we can't achieve. And I don't mean that to sound cliche. It very much does, but I truly believe what we can achieve is so much greater than the limitations we place on ourselves. So that would be my definition. If it is a definition of empowerment.
Carole (19:54): Oh, that definitely is. Thank you for stepping into the ring and helping us learn more about your work to advance gender equity in sports in the U.S. and around the globe. And thanks to our audience for tuning into this week's episode. We hope you leave feeling inspired and empowered to make a difference in your own community. Dr. Sarah, do you have one final word of wisdom?
Dr. Sarah (20:18): Don't forget to “ACT” take action, care about somebody and say, thank you to somebody. So that would be my summary. It takes a village to raise a child. In other words, social change is a team sport, and we're counting on you to join us as we celebrate the global impact of Title IX, here are some really easy ways to get in on the action.
Abeer (20:45): Click the like button, subscribe to our channel and share this podcast with your family, friends and colleagues.
Ilina (20:51): Leave your questions and comments on social media.
Pina (20:54): And remember you can listen to more episodes of the Strong Women Better World Podcast Series on your favorite podcasting platform.