Grand Rising

Grand Rising

Photo: Bryant Sanders

by Kelsey Harper

Called to serve the needs of African-American, Latinx, and inner-city youth in the Greater Philadelphia area, Jazmine (Jaz) Smith created Eyekonz Field Hockey and Lacrosse. The program is a product of her life experiences, and its impact reaches well beyond the game.

“We have a mirror exercise before the girls get on to the field at games and practices; they have to do an ‘I am’ affirmation,” Jaz explains. “Me, nor any of my coaches can coach a child unless we know who they are.”

“If they can’t look at themselves in the mirror, then they’re really going to have trouble identifying and dominating in a sport that is not geared towards them.”

Field hockey and lacrosse are sports that reflect a world in which the young athletes of Eyekonz are not well represented. Jaz and her staff see it as their mission to ignite change and create access to opportunity by empowering them through the sports’ structure and development.

Their mantra is: 'we don’t just teach them the game; we prepare them for life.'

It all starts in that mirror, and the beginnings can be difficult.

“It’s troubling,” says Jaz. “The first couple times that newbies do [the affirmation] it’s rocky because our society has not asked our children who they are. So, for Eyekonz, we say: ‘let’s start from here,’ and some players will just shut down.”

“We [as a society] provide them with all the necessary details, but no one has said [to our children] ‘look in the mirror and tell me who you are.’ They know every song lyric, they know all the up-to-date stuff, but they don’t know themselves.”

Jaz, who played basketball at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, has a deep love for field hockey and lacrosse. However, not unlike many of her players, her introduction to the sport came reluctantly.

“I’ll never forget my grandma picking me up from elementary school, and she dropped me off at this field where all my white friends were playing field hockey,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m not going out there, I’m not doing this.’”

Her grandmother held firm and drove away knowing that Jaz was at a place in her childhood where she needed a different kind of outlet, one that exposure to a non-traditional sport and a new environment might provide.

“She came back about an hour and a half later, and I was still crying,” she says. “She did this for about a week and a half.”

Eventually, one of the coaches encouraged Jaz to give it a try – convincing her that if she would simply use her athletic ability, she would soar.

“I was reluctant, but I did it, and that practice changed everything.”

Photo: City of Philadelphia

Jaz grew up in Radnor Township, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, but was born in North Philly. As a young girl, she moved in with her grandparents when her mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and subsequently lost her eyesight. In taking them in, Jaz’s grandparents served as guardians and care-takers, and Jaz was immersed in their southern, Gullah Geechee Baptist family values that still shape her life today.

While necessitated by her mother’s illness, the move would also provide opportunity. Her grandfather, a Deacon in the community, made sure that Jaz held a deep appreciation for those opportunities and remained fully grounded.

He would say to her, ‘I don’t ever want you to be that girl who thinks she’s better than [anyone] because of where she lives and because of what she has. Your responsibility in this world is to help somebody along the way.’

“That always stayed with me,” Jaz shares. “My grandparents were servants, and I think from the seeds they planted by living that example, it became very natural for me [to follow in their footsteps.]”

“So, I wanted to do something for the community, and I wanted it to be with kids and sports.”

Jaz began her mission’s journey in 2002 by hosting clinics throughout Philadelphia. She remained committed for many years before taking a break to care for her ailing mother and grandmother.

Then, in 2013 a house fire left her mother in a coma. When she miraculously awoke, the near-death experience inspired Jaz to return to her calling and revamp the program.

Eyekonz Field Hockey and Lacrosse was born again.

“The whole curriculum is based upon how I was raised,” she explains. That influence started from the very beginning when flushing out names.

“I remember icon was a really big name around that time, and my grandma said, ‘why would you spell it that way knowing what your grandfather imparted?’” Jaz recalls.

"My grandpa used to always say: ‘you’ve got to know the laws of this world, both seen and unseen, for you to make it and live your greatest potential.’”

In this way, Eyekonz has operates with the mission to utilize field hockey and lacrosse as a vehicle for opportunity and to teach life lessons - ones that Jaz and her team of coaches work to 'translate into a wholesome, productive lifestyle on and off the field' according to their mission statement.

This, of course, is easier said than done, particularly when dealing with the challenges their players face in a predominately white sport – made more difficult by off-the-field copings that other individuals or teams typically don’t experience.

Challenges aside, Jaz has an empowering way of leading her tribe through the ignorant behavior that they will likely, and sadly, face on the playing field and in life’s arena.

“In the event that you get called a name, unfortunately, it's going to happen, let me prepare you for when it does," she tells her players. “Nothing they say should have an instant trigger – not that you won’t be uncomfortable or you won’t be upset – but you’ve got to know yourself.”

“Whatever they say has been fueled by someone else’s projection.”

Another lesson from Jaz’s childhood inspires this perspective. Her grandfather and uncles told her repeatedly: 'it's not what they call you, it's what you answer to.'

“If you know who you are, it doesn’t matter what someone says because your self-belief is on you,” she asserts.

Photo: Blavity News

There is metaphorical and physical power in the lacrosse and field hockey sticks the Eyekonz players carry on to the field, not as weapons, but as a manifestation of their inalienable right to dominate – and that is precisely what Jaz encourages them to do.

"I tell all my players, whether school or club, I'm not just going to root for you because you're Black or Latina – I mean I am – but you’ve got to dominate,” she explains. “You’ve got to play at your level; you've got to know how to advocate for yourself and do your best while you're on the field."

She sees this mentality as central to success in a sport that not only doesn’t cater to them but will often be out to prove them wrong.

“As long as you’re not trying to get validation from others about changing the trajectory of this world or this game, you’re going to make it,” Jaz points out. “The minute you’re trying to get validation from others is when you’re going to lose.”

“So, for me, it’s about implanting that responsibility and a mental game that they can utilize everywhere.”

Never has this been more relevant than the past year as Eyekonz’s players sought to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and speak out against police brutality and violence against women.

True to form, Jaz wanted to be sure that their efforts and intentions went beyond the surface.

“I wanted them to be a part of the solution rather than be a part of just rhetoric,” she explains.

Initially wanting to participate in the protests that were blanketing Philadelphia last summer, Jaz encouraged the most passionate players to think about having a greater and lasting impact. They responded by forming the Eyekonz Legal Coalition that would propose tangible policy reforms to government leaders.

The work is carried out entirely by players ranging from 4th grade to high school seniors, and they have presented their reform ideas to the District Attorney’s office and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, among other notables.

“It's been a beautiful experience to see girls that were only athletes become reform policy-makers," Jaz says pridefully. "They are now setting the stage for not only going in front of City Hall and Harrisburg but doing a march for Black women who have been silenced for racial injustice."

The peaceful, police-escorted protest, dubbed Silence Ends with Us, was organized by the Eyekonz Legal Coalition and ‘geared toward African-American women and girls who have been silenced due to systematic racism, police brutality, and dehumanization in their communities.’ The moving demonstration reverberated through the community and was covered by numerous local media outlets, including The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Photo: Heather Khalifa/Philadelphia Inquirer

The Eyekonz dynamic is interesting and inspiring; African-American and Latinx girls in predominately white sports wielding a power not granted but earned. It is an unlikely yet fitting medium to develop such strength, and it transcends the sport to serve a much bigger purpose.

With these stakes, Jaz will not accept anything short of progressively expanding field hockey and lacrosse’s reach, knowing that it will create more opportunity for her players and others like them.

“I [have been] relentless with regards to growing the game,” she explains. “For me, it had to be that way because I didn’t like being the only [Black] girl on the field, and I sure didn't like it for other girls that may not have been playing with Eyekonz.”

Her approach?

“It was very proactive, it was very assertive, which a lot of times – especially women of color and especially Black women – we get a bad name for,” she says bluntly.

“I’m not going to turn around, so let’s figure out how this is going to work.”

Established entities, school districts, and US Lacrosse have benefitted from Jaz's advocacy and Eyekonz’s impact, but it hasn’t come easy. In her words, these organizations are accustomed to 'tokens,' or people of color used to 'check off the diversity box,' but not take seriously when it comes to the game's direction and equal treatment for players of color, or teams that field predominately Black players.

Jaz is here to impact change and isn't going to accept anything less.

“They’re not used to it,” she explains. “They’re used to the mundane, but we’re creators – you create the life that you want. There will be tribulation, and there will be trials that only advance you to where your destiny is supposed to be.”

By reshaping what young athletes see as their destiny, Eyekonz is an oasis of hope for communities that might not otherwise dream beyond the barriers that our society puts in front of them. Thousands of lives are positively impacted, born out of one woman's sense of responsibility to help others and belief in the power of sports.

Standing on the other side of that mirror and asking the future of America to affirm who they are, Jaz, in her way, is asking them to rise – rise into being the person that they can be and want to be, not who they are told to be.

“My grandfather never said ‘good morning’ because morning sounds like mourning,” she explains. “Instead, he would say grand rising.”

“You rose, didn’t you?”

Indeed.

Photo: Eric Espino

ACTIIVST is proud to support EYEKONZ Field Hockey and Lacrosse and their mission to empower youth through sport. 100% of the proceeds from purchases using the code: EYEKONZ are donated to the organization.

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