Jason Steinberg of the ‘International Sports and Music Project’: “You can’t force it — you just need to let it happen”

There is no way to drive something into a community. The community needs to drive the bus. You can’t force it — you just need to let it happen. Show people that you care and ask questions with a genuine interest in learning. And check your ego at the door. Remember, the goal is to spread positivity, […]

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There is no way to drive something into a community. The community needs to drive the bus. You can’t force it — you just need to let it happen. Show people that you care and ask questions with a genuine interest in learning. And check your ego at the door. Remember, the goal is to spread positivity, not to achieve greatness. In the early days, I was rigid, proud and frustrated. Now I strive to be humble, flexible and open-minded.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Steinberg.

A native of Long Island, New York, Jason Steinberg is an educator and activist with a passion for sports, music and social justice. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014, he taught English and coached high school basketball at the Madolehnihwm High School in Micronesia. It was there that the seeds for the organization he would later start, the International Sports and Music Project, would be sown.

ISMP is now an international non-governmental (NGO) organization with sports and music programs both in the United States and abroad. ISMP has attracted a dedicated community of supporters, including basketball legend and member of the NBA’s Hall of Fame, Bill Walton.

When Jason isn’t spending time on the ground with his International Sports and Music Project partners, he lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he spends his free time playing guitar, shooting hoops and casting Harry Potter spells.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

First off, thank you for having me!!

So, after graduating from college, I honestly had a better sense of what I didn’t want to do rather than what I actually wanted to do. I just didn’t feel like I was ready to jump right into a career in the true sense of the word.

Instead, a month after I graduated, I found myself teaching high school English on a small island in the Federated States of Micronesia. In my first week of classes, I noticed a few of my students in the back of the classroom faking jump shots, calling out “LeBron” and “Steph,” and as a life-long basketball lover, I saw a lot of myself in these kids. After all, I was only a few years older than they were at the time.

Upon striking up a conversation with the kids one day, I learned that there was no basketball team at the school, so together, we decided we would start practicing. The next day after school, about 30 kids gathered at an outdoor basketball court covered in palm fronds, but that wasn’t the only problem. We didn’t have a ball.

Luckily, one student who lived in a neighboring village was able to run home and come back some time later with a ball for us to use. We began playing! It didn’t take long for me to spot the second challenge though. I was the only one wearing sneakers. Everyone else was playing in flip flops or barefoot, but the most incredible thing was that I didn’t hear a single complaint from any of the kids. We played as hard as I’ve seen kids play at any park in New York City and we had a blast.

Around two hours later, as we were wrapping up, I noticed that many of the students had cuts and bruises on their feet. Then, I learned that coming to basketball meant that many of those same students had passed up their bus ride home just so they could play basketball. All of those kids walked home that day, many with bruised feet, and some walking up to 10 miles back to their respective villages, where homework, cooking, cleaning, farming and caring for their parents awaited most of them.

I thought to myself that that was probably the end of basketball, until I got to school the next day. Some of the basketball guys were waiting for me at my classroom and almost in chorus, they asked “We’re playing again today, right?”

Even then, I didn’t fully realize the impact basketball could have on someone’s life but I quickly learned.

I could tell that, at the very least, it was important. Not long after, I decided to get back on Facebook (after years of evasion), so that I could make this post: “I’ve met these amazing kids and they’re in love with the game of basketball. If you would donate 30 dollars, you can give one of my students their first ever pair of basketball sneakers.”

Much to my surprise, particularly considering how long it had been since I’d been on Facebook, people were receptive, in fact more receptive than I could have even imagined.

In a short amount of time, enough money was donated to enroll any girl or boy at Madolehnihwm High School who wanted to be, onto a basketball team, where each student would get their own jersey, a pair of sneakers, and their own spot on a team that practiced and played regularly. Just like that, the seeds of ISMP were sown.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In response to COVID-19, we’ve been supporting our partners in different ways than ever before in order to address their unprecedented needs. For many of the communities where we work, COVID has led to a hunger crisis and we are doing everything we can to support our partners’ new urgent need for food. We’ve set up food banks and emergency food relief programs for our partners in Rwanda and Uganda accordingly.

One of the facilities we work with is a child rehabilitation center in Rwanda. The center serves as a shelter for children without families. Part of their mission is to help reintegrate children back into families. COVID has made this particularly challenging because families don’t want to take in children unless they know they can provide for them, and the food crisis is making this all but impossible. We are learning, however, that the food program we’ve created is expediting the process by which children can get reintegrated into families. When children arrive at a family’s home with a big bag of food, it makes it much easier for the family to take that child in, knowing that the child’s food security will not be an immediate concern.

And while we continue to be a sports and music organization, we plan to continue supporting our partners’ most urgent needs for as long as COVID persists.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first quit my full-time job at a publishing company in order to try my hand at diving full-force into ISMP, I moved to Greece for the summer with the goal of organizing soccer programs for Syrian refugees.

After getting some early lessons in NGO bureaucracy, refugee camp inefficiency and geopolitical pettiness, we were able to build a soccer field, organize teams and hold tournaments. I learned something important during our first tournament: the one guy who can’t win a soccer game is the referee. I tried to be the best referee that I could, but no matter what I did, everybody somehow thought I was favoring the other team.

In one particular incident, a Syrian friend of mine stormed off the field after going down 2–0, pointing at me as he yelled in Kurdish at his teammates. They all walked off the field, forfeiting. “We won’t play a rigged game,” they told me.

Of course, it wasn’t rigged, but apparently, I was doing such a bad job of refereeing that that’s how they felt. I’d never seen my friend yell so angrily, particularly at me! The English I could understand. Frankly, the Kurdish didn’t leave much room for interpretation.

Anyways, I waited a few hours before visiting my friend at his caravan, thinking he would still be very angry, and wondering if he would be able to forgive me and rejoin the tournament. I knocked and backed away from the door. I was nervous. The door opened. “Habibi!! Come. Argileh!” What he said was — “My love! Come in, and let’s smoke hookah together.”

I learned a few things that day, but one particular lesson was this: sports (and music) are vehicles for people to let out all of their emotions in a safe and constructive way. It’s not just for joy and inspiration, it’s also for frustration and pent up anger. It’s better to scream at the ref during a soccer match than to scream at a family member or do something rash. And at the end of the day, you leave it all behind on the pitch.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Around the world, there are children who have adequate food and water, but they lack opportunities to feel joy, or to express themselves and develop as humans. ISMP creates custom-made sports and music programs that are community-led and are completely based on the passions and interests of the children in that particular community.

Many of the children we serve at shelters and refugee camps have experienced severe trauma during their lifetimes. When a traumatized child is given an opportunity to engage in a meaningful activity, it does a tremendous amount of good for their psyche. It gives them a chance to feel joy, and even for a brief moment it offers a respite from life’s daily struggles. It helps children make friends more easily, and it improves their self-confidence and self-esteem. It also teaches them life-skills like teamwork and communication, and dealing with success and failure. The list goes on.

Life should be fun, especially for kids. That’s what we do — we find the kids who could really use some fun in their lives, and we create unique opportunities for them to have fun.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

So, we run music lessons at a homeless shelter for teenagers here in New York City where we are based. I have the privilege of being one of our volunteer music teachers for this program. The shelter has a steady stream of youth coming and going, but roughly 250 teens sleep there on any given night, and our programs are available to everyone.

Early on, in the music program was a very talented singer, who went by T. Different youth got different things out of the music class, but T, who had moved from a different state and didn’t have any family or friends in New York, loved to lead the group in a jam session to one of his original songs. At the beginning of each class, T would teach us the chords, and then someone would jump on piano, a few people would play guitar, some people would jump on drums, and then there would always be people jumping in for backup vocals, or for freestyling or dancing. And T would be in the middle of it all, conducting the room, controlling the tempo and keeping up the energy. He was a natural leader, and the music class gave him a chance to be that leader. It helped him prove to himself: “I’m a leader! And I’m talented! And I’m powerful!”

The energy during those jam sessions was always electric, as T had a knack for starting slow and building it up, like any great performer. T showed up every Tuesday to lead the group in one of his original songs, until one day he told me he was leaving the shelter and moving back to Florida, which was very good news. Before getting to Florida though, he had one last thing to do — he was going to audition for American Idol.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Prioritize funding for arts, education and sports teams
  2. Support organizations promoting services for children.
  3. Promote kindness everywhere — from schools to Congress

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is a lot of things. It’s a willingness to be honest about one’s thoughts, even if they are unpopular, and it’s an ability to inspire people to come together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also a commitment to serve others in a way that helps them find potential that they didn’t know they had.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You never know when you’re about to get a big YES. It could be after 5 Nos. It could be after 10 Nos or even after 12, 19, 24, 31, 36, or 37, and then, just when you’re about to give up, there it is…a YES. There isn’t just one story of this — there are many. It’s just the nature of the beast.
  2. There is no way to drive something into a community. The community needs to drive the bus. You can’t force it — you just need to let it happen. Show people that you care and ask questions with a genuine interest in learning. And check your ego at the door. Remember, the goal is to spread positivity, not to achieve greatness. In the early days, I was rigid, proud and frustrated. Now I strive to be humble, flexible and open-minded.
  3. The first step toward finding the potential of your impact is to paint a grand vision of what is possible. When you’re first starting out, you feel like an imposter. You feel like, “If I ask for any more than dollarsX, they’ll think I’m crazy! They’ll slam the door in my face!” The thing is — this type of thinking puts a very low ceiling on what is possible.
    Numbers and ideas sound crazy until someone says to you, “Hmm…that sounds interesting.”
    If you come up with a plan that costs 100 dollars, you likely won’t raise much more than that, and you’ll do what you can do with that amount. If you come up with a plan that costs 1,000 dollars, perhaps you’ll raise about that. If you come up with a plan that costs 1,000,000 dollars, you may or may not be able to secure all of those resources, but you do open up the door for whoever may want to come in and be a part of that. Many people find a 1,000,000 dollars project more exciting than a 100 dollars project. There are a lot less people trying to fundraise 1,000,000 dollars than 100 dollars, so on some level, there’s a lot less competition. And of course, it’s often (though not always) significantly more impactful as well.
    Don’t leave impact in the locker room. Leave it all out on the court! Paint a grand vision and dream up what’s possible if you had the right people on board. And then go out and paint that picture for people, and find out if they’re the ones who can help you make it happen.
  4. When you ask someone for something, and they give it to you, it doesn’t push the person away, instead bring them in. An early fundraising fear of mine was that I was bothering people, and that every time I invited someone to join me on a project or a vision of how to make the world a better place, that I was pushing them away, as if I were using up my favor in their eyes.
    I’ve come to learn that while it’s a balance, the opposite is true. Inviting someone to contribute to a meaningful project is giving them an opportunity that they didn’t have before. You’re asking someone to join your team, and when they do, you become teammates, collaborators, or perhaps even co-conspirators, depending on how revolutionary you want to get. And essentially, you’ve opened up a brand-new doorway for that person, likely one that is quite different from the others through which they are used to walking. You’ve given them a chance to add to their own story of themselves. They’re someone a little bit different now and I believe that both our lives and the world are better off because of it.
  5. Trust the process. It’s very rare for something to come into existence in a short amount of time without some level of challenge.
    How great can something be if there aren’t years of hard work put into it, or if there aren’t times when you simply wanted to quit and walk away?
    Early on, if something went bad, it would feel like the whole world had come crashing down and I would feel this cacophony of existential dread. The loneliness would creep in, the self-judgment and judgment of others would creep in, and all the while, this doubt and negativity was impeding my work and making me miserable. The older I get, the more I realize that the good business decision is often the good life decision. If the worker is happy, the work will be better.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement that I would inspire would be one of kindness, consciousness, and happiness, three things that were notably absent from my 16 years of formal education. The movement would be education-driven. From kindergarten through college, we would spend as much time talking about how to be a good person to yourself and to others as we would talk about esoteric math concepts.

We’d talk about the types of chain reactions you can set off with tiny droplets of kindness, as well as the ones you can set off with a tiny drop of judgment, as much as any talk of ancient history or Latin or the Iliad.

We wouldn’t shy away from exploring our own experience as humans. We’d acknowledge it all — how bizarre it is to exist; how death is a natural part of life; how we can practice being at peace and understanding our thoughts.

We’d put the end goal right up front. Why are we here? It seems we’re here to prepare us to live good lives. What are good lives? Ones filled with Latin and calculus, or ones filled with kindness and understanding?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Those who are not willing to risk going too far will never know how far they could go. You’ll never learn what you don’t want to know. There are no rewards for settling for something that you don’t want.” NBA Hall of Fame basketball center Bill Walton shared this quote with me during a recent conversation.

Half of the things Bill says are a hybrid of his own beautiful way of thinking combined with Grateful Dead lyrics — so perhaps some of the credit belongs to the Dead. Regardless, this is highly relevant to my life and to everyone’s life.

Firstly, it asks the question — are you digging into your potential or are you too afraid of what might happen when you try? Secondly, it calls out willful ignorance, or rather, it forces us to look inward and examine what biases we may hold that are preventing us from homing in on the truth of it all. And lastly, his quote encourages authenticity and prioritizes happiness.

It’s just as easy to fail at something you don’t like as something you do like. You might as well take a stab at the good stuff.

Thanks Bill!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Shaq! Shaq sits at the crossroads of sports, music, and people! He is uniquely charismatic and generous. He is hilarious and interesting. He’s a leader. He’s totally himself. Who doesn’t love Shaq?!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: @ISMP_Official

Twitter: @ISMP_Official



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