The Launch of the Football For All Alumni Network

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Over the last few months I have been working to create an Alumni Network as part of the Football For All Programme. At our graduation yesterday I launched this network. A transcript of my remarks outlining the nature and purpose of the Alumni Network follows.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.  It is a privilege to get the opportunity to speak with you today, and to use the time I have to officially launch the Football For All Alumni Network.  This is a moment of great practical and symbolic importance in many ways.  

 

I begin by saying this in deliberate fashion.  A graduation marks the conclusion of a course of study. This in itself is a great achievement, and the culmination of many months of hard work, detailed planning and collaboration.  To have a vision is one thing, to carry it out is something altogether different, as I’m sure we will all tell you from our experiences over the last few months.  

 

However, today also marks the beginning of a new chapter in our lives and professional aspirations.  We have amongst the Football for All Alumni a group of talented, tenacious and ambitious people who want to make a difference in the world of sport.  We also have a lot of work to do as a result!  The Alumni Network will be fuelled by the commitment of the members in the group and exists to provide a supportive space to engage with our peers and learn with each other as we develop together.   

 

In the time I have with you, I want to trace the journey of the alumni network, from its origins, to the work carried out over the past few months and its future.  I’ll also throw a couple of other things in along the way.  Come with me on this ride, there is a method in what I am about to say to you, and a fluency in its many tangents.  My fellow class mates will I am sure have told you about my love for those by now!  

 

Beginnings – a story

 

So how do you feel about two weeks in Portugal? My boss said to me one day. Two weeks in Portugal?  That sounds good, but I am really busy!  I haven’t got time.  I’m giving you the time he said, go and do it, it will be good to you.  I have to admit that I was a bit sceptical, but I’m glad that I did!

 

I want to tell you the story of my initial encounter with a fellow classmate, with his permission.  It is a story that has stayed with me as I have worked with others to develop the alumni network, both causing me to smile and a source of genuine inspiration.

 

Chances are that if you ask most disabled people, they will say that travelling anywhere can be difficult. Such difficulty can be multiplied when travelling internationally.  With this in mind, you will understand the relief when I found Jose in the arrivals hall at Lisbon airport, who greeted me with his characteristic enthusiasm and warmth.  Such warmth was in stark contrast to the torrential rain which we had that day.

 

There was a problem though.  I was introduced to one of my classmates, with whom I could not communicate.  This felt like a really bad way to begin to get to know someone, but what was I to do?

 

I looked at my phone, and the answer looked back at me!  I found a translator, and this was to be our means of communication for the time being.  In some relationships, there comes a definitive moment, and I believe holger and I’s came in that first car journey from the airport.  For some reason, there was a convoy of police cars that went flying past us as we travelled through Lisbon. Ceasing a chance to see if my humour would withstand international translation, I joked that they had come for me.  Thankfully, Holger got my humour and we shared the first of what was to be many laughs over the course of our fortnight.  

 

For me, the story of this encounter is a powerful one for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it reflects how we all came together as part of the programme to solve problems, to communicate and share knowledge.  Many of our experiences as people with impairments transcended national barriers, and to be able to reflect on how we had faced and resolved issues both personally and professionally was priceless.  Secondly, this story highlights for me the importance and value of continued collaboration, and the capacity that we all have to support each other.

 

 

Though we did not know it at the time, even arriving in Portugal was an achievement.  One member of our class had never boarded a plane themselves before and had the courage to overcome a serious fear of flying to reach us.  We were breaking new barriers before the course had even started.

 

As the course went on, the special nature of the collective energy and spirit within the group was striking.  We arrived from all over Europe and beyond as individuals, and left two weeks later as a tightly bonded collective who had so much in common. As one member of the group said, reflecting this sentiment “The best part of the course was meeting people from all over the world, and the friendship this creates.  This was easily the best part for me.”  The energy and the bonds between that group were amazing.  If we could bottle it, I think we’d never have to worry about working ever again, such was its value.

 

The breadth, depth and diversity of experiences in the group was also its strength – we had such a range of experiences to draw on that we could use to help each other develop.  

If only there was a way to harness the energy over the longer term and maintain that communication!  The determination to do exactly that was at the heart of the vision to develop the alumni network.  

 

 

Next Steps

 

So how is the vibrant energy of two weeks together translated into a longer term project?  This was now the task in hand.  

 

One of the questions I had at this point was how brightly would the sparks of inspiration we had all felt during our time together fare now we were apart?  

 

There was one way to find out!  A key learning for me over the ten years I have worked in various professional disability roles is that consultation is key.  I’m still surprised at how in some instances, the suggestion to undertake consultative work is not considered as a matter of course.

 

Consultation was undertaken with the group and the response to the idea of creation of an Alumni group was very positive.  People expressed their communication preferences and gave some useful feedback.  I asked a couple of my class mates if they wanted to form a working group with me, and I was very happy when they said yes.  The support of both Elena and Jason has been important to date and I our regular discussions have always been appreciated and productive.  We have also continued communication as a whole group using flexible means of electronic communication via social media channels such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

 

One of the most interesting things about developing the group has been exploring how to work across different times, spaces and cultures.  It is here I note our American friend and colleague Kate Ward, who I have woken up at least once as I have got the time difference wrong.  I suppose she has had the last laugh at this point given the recent world cup victory!

 

Negotiating these challenges also brings opportunities as we find out how to work together in mutually beneficial ways which suit our wide ranging mix of commitments and perspectives.  It won’t always be easy, but we approach these matters with enthusiasm and a desire to continuously improve things for everyone.  A key factor here will be the buy in of not just the current graduates but those in future programmes.

 

To this end, there will be a consultation on a set of collective values and principles that will bind us together as a group. It is at this point I will look to Joyce and her experience from working in FIFA.  Consider this fair warning that I will be on the phone in the near future!  The formulation of these values will not only be a mechanism to maintain our togetherness, but also a marker to trace the evolution of the group. 

 

Throughout this time, it has been interesting to reflect on how the group has evolved itself in undertaking  project work.  One of the stand out observations I have is that how despite the hundreds and thousands of miles that separates us, how much bonds us together.  It is also at this point that I should emphasise the paradoxical nature of confidence.  Over recent months having the privilege of working as a senior disability manager at SE that I have thought about this a lot.

 

In terms of the solutions here, the distinguished figure of Professor Steve Peters gives us an authoritative place to start.  For those unfamiliar with his work, after working as a physiatrist within the health service, Professor Peters went on to work with elite athletes in various sports including cycling and athletics.  He also has written a number of best sellingbooks. In the opening to one of those titles called The Chimp Paradox he sets about deconstructing our inner thinking habits to pave a path to success.  

 

One of the important things the Alumni Network can do is to provide its members with a safe space to develop.  Having had employment positions in organisational transformation and positions in disability sport that have focussed on continuous improvement, development is something which I am really passionate about.

 

Here we return to the confidence paradox and chimps.  As professor Peters tells us, we need to talk to our inner chimp.  In 10 years working around disability I have observed the confidence paradox many times.  It is so as confidence is both the most important thing, and that which is most often lacking.  

 

To my fellow graduates, I say this.  Don’t let a lack of confidence hold you back.  Believe in yourself. I consider you, having chosen to invest two weeks in Portugal, and months carefully and diligently developing your respective projects as committed to self development too.  I believe I have the privilege of standing amongst leaders of the future, and want the Alumni Network to be a place that gives you a supportive community of individuals who you can turn to for advice, guidance and support.  

 

As we have grown, so we will continue to grow.  

 

Further, As others have helped us to grow, so too we can help others to grow. We can help others in future editions by sharing the benefit of our own knowledge and experiences from our own pioneering endeavours in Portugal and beyond.  

Speaking of the future, in the final section of my remarks, I want to spend some time outlining the future plans for the group.  Over the last few months we have been carefully thinking about what the structure of the group needs to look like in order to support its functioning and to help realise the benefits of international co-operation, collaboration and support.  We have had a consultation on the nature and roles of an executive structure, which is nearing completion.  

 

There will be an initial executive team made up of 5 people, each of whom will be appointed to set roles and elected for a three year term. This team will be announced shortly.  A President and Vice president will function as the external representatives for the group and will be responsible for the overall direction of the group as a whole.  Internally, the general secretary will be the co-ordination point for the network, and a specialist communications role will keep information flowing.  Additionally, year group representatives from each Football For All edition will be the voice of their class. Devised in this way, the structure of the executive helps to ensure an exciting diversity of voices and talents is around the table.  It is also designed to ensure that many hands can make light work, as we all have busy day jobs!

 

We have also been sharing plans for an Alumni Network Conference to take place around future editions of the Football for all programme.  The Conference will provide a mechanism for Alumni members to network, share ideas and give presentations.  Subject to being compliant with data protection legislation, we will also have a database of alumni contacts, biographies and a dedicated web site. It is here you see why we need a communications executive post, as the only thing I seem to be proficient at with technology is causing it to malfunction! There is a reason I printed out my remarks today and am not using any powerpoint slides! 

 

A recent visit to Portugal outlined plans for the Alumni Group to be formally set up as its own separate organisation, based in Portugal to give the group means to undertake fundraising, sponsorship and a clear governance structure and constitution.  The executive structure outlined has also been devised to meet and exceed the requirements of relevant legislation in Portugal, about which I am learning at pace!  We are also in the process of learning from other Alumni and sports groups about ways in which they function to benefit their members.  

 

In the longer term future, I see the alumni network growing.  To have an international network of disabled people working in sport that is led by disabled people marks this out as a special and distinctive group of people. Too often in my personal view, disabled people are talked about rather than with.  Too often are they subject to decisions, as opposed to the ones who are making and leading them.  Not so with this group.  

 

It is a future aspiration to generate income so that the executive roles are paid so as to give those people in them dedicated time and space to devote to their responsibilities.  I also expect there to be the potential for other groups within the Alumni Network structure to make the co-ordination and sharing of views more straightforward.

 

As I draw my remarks to a close, I want to make a couple of sincerely felt thank yous.  The first is to my wife.  That I am standing here today what is our fifth wedding anniversary tells as great story on two counts.  The first, and yes, I know what you are thinking is that it is amazing that we have got to five years.  The second count is to the unstinting and unconditional support, belief and dedication she has shown, coupled with selflessness in letting me forge the path I have to date.  

 

When I told her that I wanted to be a part of making the alumni network happen, she saw ‘that look’ in my eye and the passion with which I speak where this is concerned.  She simply said to me ‘if you believe it is that important, then it is, go and do it.’  There is a saying in sport that behind every team, there is a team.  On behalf of all the graduates here, I’d like to thank the team each one of us have behind us.

 

No set of remarks would be complete without a thank you to the two people whose own vision has made today possible.  Jose and Joanna.  It is your continued (and continuing!) hard work that has made all this come about.  On behalf of everyone here today, and particularly on behalf of all the class, I say a huge thank you.

Finally, I close with a rallying call to my fellow class mates.  We live in challenging times.  As we go forward from today, we will face many challenges and have opportunities that are out there.  By overcoming those challenges, and maximising those opportunities, the capacity that we have to make life changing differences with the people and in the places in which we work is almost limitless.

 

To continue to push forward, we have one vital resource.  

 

Each other.  

 

By supporting each other, we will support each other to new heights.  We can’t do this alone, but together we are stronger.  This is why the alumni network is key, and why I know it will go from strength to strength.  I look forward to sharing what will be an exciting and rewarding journey with you, andcelebrating our successes.

 

Thank you. 

 


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About the Author

Chris Whitaker was born and grew up in Cheshire, arriving in the world with cerebral palsy after a complex childbirth. Apparently, he was lucky to be here at all and has tried to make the most of life ever since! Chris has worked in the third sector for a few years now and is also a charity trustee. Making a positive difference every day is what drives him and he gets to see the impact the third sector makes. Chris has also been able to use his own lived experience as a disabled person to make an input into his working life.

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