Soccer Field Wars: Latino Neighbors Win a Fight to Play


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Omar Gonzalez and many of his neighbors love playing nightly pick-up soccer games on the fields at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Gonzalez never expected to get kicked off the field.

But that’s what happened one night when a local sports league, which had mostly white players in uniforms, showed a permit they had paid to use the fields. They asked the neighbors to stop their game and leave.

Gonzalez and his neighbors were confused. No one had ever used a permit to play there on weeknights.

So they started a battle to allow open and fair usage of the fields.

Sports and field use across the country

After-school sports are great for building youth leaders and boosting health.

However, Latino kids are less likely than than white peers to participate in organized sports and after-school sports. Cost and access are often barriers, according to Salud America! research.

The pay-to-play system for organized and after-school sports often works against low-income and Latino families. This robs them of use of the limited green spaces they do have.

Turns out, that was the case for Gonzalez and his neighbors.

The soccer fields at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C.
The soccer fields at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Gonzalez and His Neighbors Start a Petition

The pickup soccer games at Harriet Tubman Elementary School have been a staple for years in this increasingly Latino neighborhood, according to Rachel Sadon of the DCist.

Sadon wrote about several neighbors who play on the field.

“This is our way of life. After work, everyone is here on the field,” Nico Mondesir told Sadon. “This field is our community.”

“The only time we don’t come out to play is when there’s a lot of snow,” Wilbur Rosales told Sadon. “We’ve always come here.”

But, due to a 1982 law, the city can lease out school property to organizations.

Many organizations were paying for permits to use the field at Tubman Elementary on weekends.

ZogSports DC paid thousands of dollars for a permit to use the field three weeknights during the summer. The league didn’t do anything wrong—but the neighbors didn’t have the $1,200 to join the league.

Gonzalez and other neighbors got together to write letters and make phone calls to the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission. They organized a petition asking for the field to not be rented or dedicated to groups for organized sports.

“It’s a 35-year-old law that no longer benefits the community,” said a commissioner with the neighborhood commission, according to the Rachel Chason of the Washington Post.

Soccer players and city officials posed for a photo after the meeting. (Photo by Rachel Sadon)
Players and city officials posed for a photo after the meeting. (Photo by Rachel Sadon/DCist)

Pushing for a Big Change

Gonzalez and neighbors met with city leaders on the fields to give them the petition, which had more than 1,000 signatures.

See what Gonzales had to say, via WUSA9.

The neighbors’ efforts had a big impact.

ZogSports pulled back their efforts to use the field, Sadon reported in a follow-up article.

“When we applied for the permit, we didn’t know it would come at the expense of residents’ opportunity to play,” ZogSport’s general manager Kendra Hansen told DCist via email. “We believe strongly in the idea that everyone deserves a space to play and we’re sorry for the disruption caused by our league.”

Gonzalez doesn’t want to be exclusionary, either.

He told Sadon: “If every member from ZogSports wanted to come play soccer, we would say welcome. We’re more than happy to play with you. It’s not about winning and losing. It’s always been about being fair and loving to everyone.”

Hurdle Still Remains: The Permit Law

Gonzalez and many others now want to change the law.

They expect to continue meeting with city leaders in coming weeks to change the permit law. They don’t want neighbors to be displaced from their local fields again.

Read more about the field wars here and tell others how this neighborhood stood up for their green space.

Learn other ways to create healthy spaces for Latino and all kids:

Ideas for Active Spaces!

By The Numbers By The Numbers



of Latinos live within walking distance (<1 mile) of a park

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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