A Minneapolis neighborhood improvement group has found an unconventional yet effective avenue to advance their work: soccer.
The University of Minnesota's Center for Neighborhood Organizing has sponsored a handful of youth soccer teams across the city.
Soccer is a much better way to approach people if you want to help them solve their problems, said Hannah Garcia, with the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing.
"Soccer is something that's non-threatening," Garcia said. "With some other campaigns, it can be kind of ... hard if you've got strangers talking to you to really want to open up."
Pedro Ochoa, a parent who helped organize the center's Latino team, said the organizers would not have gotten parents' attention without having their kids in soccer.
"No. Definitely no," he said.
"ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING TIMES OF MY LIFE"
On a cool, gray early fall evening in north Minneapolis' Logan Park, two teams from Farview Park on the soccer field move the ball expertly: the Hmong team is in red uniforms, and the Latino kids are in white.
The Hmong team is pretty confident. Last year they lost just one game, and they've won the Minneapolis parks championship in the past.
Jay Clark, Program Director of the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing, started putting soccer teams together six years ago. The first group was all new refugees, he said.
"That was one of the most exciting times of my life," he said. "They were about half the size of every team they played ... the kids would just run around them like gnats and they won every single game and took the regular season championship."
For six years, he's faithfully shuttled kids to and from games and shouted encouragement from the sidelines. Now he's working with five teams, all from Farview Park.
Clark gathers the kids after games, still in uniform and sticky with dirt and sweat, to talk about problems at home or in school. Any parents around are also pressed into the meeting.
In the past six years, Clark said the parents have successfully campaigned for a Hmong magnet school, a Hmong principal, double the number of bus stops at North high school, a Hmong language class at Patrick Henry high school, and the right to go to suburban school systems.
Now they're working on cleaning up an apartment tower in north Minneapolis where many of the Latino boys live, including defensive player Ismael Montiel, 11.
"Some hobos ... live close and one time they were smoking," Montiel said. "They bring bottles of beer and they break them around our hallway."
The players and their parents met with police and their City Council representative after practices earlier this month to talk about the problems.
"IT'S BEEN A VERY GOOD YEAR"
Back at the soccer field, the Hmong team beat the Latino team, 4-2.
Farview Park Director Paul Jaeger watches from the sidelines with a proud expression. Jaeger found the grant money for the uniforms the two teams wear and said the soccer games have eased tensions in the Hawthorne area.
"The neighborhood does face many challenges, but it's been a very good year," he said. "I think this is one aspect that's leading to the relative safety of the area."
On the other side of the field is Ismael Montiel, still red-faced and breathing hard from the game. He doesn't mind losing as long as he gets to play.
"When I was little I had this dream while I was sleeping of being a soccer player," he said. "When Jay came ... he said they're going to make a soccer team. In my head I said 'Yay, we have a soccer team finally.'"
Now Ismael believes he can also make his other dreams come true -- including a safe neighborhood and home for his family.