How Brave Spaces Are Bringing Girls Back to Sports In One Town

Lauren Fuller is the kind of person who doesn’t waste time on problems when she could be creating solutions. As Executive Director of Sheriff Police Athletic League (PAL), a service organization focused on youth academics and athletics, Fuller was kind enough to speak with Girls Leadership about how attending our training was a part of her game plan. She shared how utilizing our brave spaces model and focusing on challenges that girls and gender-expansive youth specifically were experiencing made an impact on her whole organization and community.

The town of Pontiac, MI sits about 20 miles north of Detroit. It has a long history, having just celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2018, but just three years earlier, it was experiencing serious financial woes. In 2015, the town went into receivership, and could no longer provide services like youth recreation, academic and school programs, and more. Fuller saw the need in her community, and stepped up to help.

Working with a team of just three members for a town of over 60,000 residents, Fuller focused her efforts on creating safe and healthy outcomes for youth. As part of Sheriff PAL, she helped build partnerships with volunteers and other organizations to provide academic and athletic support to children and teens. Since it began in 2015, Sheriff PAL has reached 6,000 youth—but there was a gap. Where were all the girls?

 “Following national trends, there is a huge drop off in our community for girls and gender-expansive youth participation, particularly in middle school,” Fuller noticed. The trends she’s referring to are a stark reminder of persistent inequity: The Women’s Sports Foundation found that by age 14, girls start dropping out of sports at twice the rate of their male peers.[1]

“When I realized that girls dropping out meant they lose out not just on sports, but on all the intangible benefits – group activities, friendships, and learning leadership – I looked for ways to create environments where girls and gender-expansive youth can thrive.”

Girls Leadership’s Belonging in Sports one-day training was part of how Fuller created a local solution to this national issue. The curriculum is centered on the needs of coaches, athletic directors, and community leaders, and Fuller was able to bring back both the content and her experience implementing it.

“My biggest takeaway was brave spaces,” says Fuller, discussing how a focus on bravery and conflict management helped build girls’ confidence with hard topics. Distinct from safe spaces, which are also important, brave spaces are environments in which youth feel supported as they explore challenging issues that even adults might find hard to confront.

“There are so many little, flippant remarks that are gendered in sports spaces. When discussing opening up a competition to girls, an experienced basketball coach said, ‘I don’t know that we want to open this up to girls, because it is going to be competitive.’ The Girls Leadership training helped our entire team have a meaningful conversation about this. We won’t evolve if we tip-toe around it or avoid working with this person. Empathy and accountability don’t have to exist in their own silos, they can exist together.”

Fuller has overseen other changes that emphasize co-creating projects and solutions with youth as well as for them, expanding the impact. She has worked to avoid applying gender expectations to sports, whether cheer, basketball, or any others, and instead made sure to understand community needs. “We’re doing some simple surveys with participants and their caregivers and seeing if those match [expectations]. We’re finding a common ground.”

[1] Women’s Sports Foundation. “The Healing Power of Sport: Covid-19 and Girls’ Participation, Health, and Achievement.” 2023.

Images courtesy of Sheriff PAL on Instagram.

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