PeacePlayers built on vision of 2 brothers
Brendan Tuohey couldn’t sit still. The co-founder of the nonprofit PeacePlayers International was restless to make the best use of his time. “What we do is so gratifying, but I worry because there are so many people who rely on us. We have got to figure out a way to do more, and to give more.”
Tuohey was fidgeting in a chair in a New York conference room, where he and I were talking about the vision and growth of PeacePlayers International, a conflict resolution nonprofit he co-founded with his brother, Sean, in 2001. What started out as an idea of two young, ambitious brothers has grown into a global effort bringing young people together through basketball. It operates year-round programs in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, the Middle East and South Africa, and in 2017 launched a partnership with Nike in U.S. cities to improve relationships between youth and police.
The work and the mission of PPI will be honored this week, as Tuohey will lead his team in accepting the second annual Celebration of Service award at the Sports Business Awards in New York City. For the 43-year-old Tuohey, the nearly two-decade effort has been personally gratifying, challenging and far from finished.
The Tuohey boys grew up in Washington, D.C., in the diverse neighborhood of Shepherd Park. They spent hours on the playground playing basketball and attended Gonzaga High School, a Jesuit school in D.C. Both experiences were valuable influences. “Getting a Jesuit education built on what we learned from our parents about the importance of helping others and improving the community,” Brendan said. The high school basketball was also some of the best in the country, and the Tuohey brothers fit right in. “It was a very diverse group, and for white, upper-middle-class young people, that doesn’t always happen. I don’t want to say I didn’t see race, but when you grow up like that, it’s not a big deal. Basketball enabled us to have those types of experiences.”
Brendan went to Colgate, where he played on the same team as Adonal Foyle, and studied philosophy and religion. He thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps and go to law school, but the urge to travel and continue to play ball took him to Ireland at 22, where he played on a club team and coached. While in Ireland, he got involved in basketball clinics that brought together Protestant and Catholic students. When his brother Sean, who played basketball at Catholic University, joined him for a week in Dublin and Belfast, they worked on a similar project. “We both loved it and wanted to do more,” Brendan said.
Brendan returned to the States and got a job at Gonzaga, and Sean pitched the idea of Playing For Peace. “I was 25 and just married. He was 23. We were naïve, young and overconfident. But we did have this vision of bringing people together through basketball.”
They wrote letters to everyone they knew looking for contributions, raising about $7,000, which Sean used to start an effort in South Africa. “I don’t know that anybody could have done what he did in terms of his ability to go to a country and build this — knock on doors, hire coaches, build trust. He didn’t fear much. He lived there for three years. Sean was great being the face and inspiration, while I helped build the organization.”
Our goal is not to create the best basketball players; it’s to create the best people and create a foundation for them to see each other as human beings.
Sean began integrating white and black kids in games, while adding elements like HIV education, leadership and community building. Brendan worked on the operation in the U.S. while balancing other demands and starting a family. Three years later, the organization faced a tipping point. “It was struggling,” Brendan said. “If I believed in this, I needed to focus full time on it. I told my wife that we were going to live off her teacher’s salary for a couple years.”
The constant stress was around resources. In the early years, the organization was funded by friends and family, and buoyed by three $10,000 foundation contributions. But the financial pressures mounted. “We were always running out of money,” Brendan said. “There would be many times when I had these headaches where I couldn’t envision a scenario where we would still be existing in a month. But we just always battled it out.”
In 2004, a key infusion of funding came when the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation approved a $100,000 grant, which funded the South Africa program for years, and led to programs in Northern Ireland, Israel and Cyprus, and a name change to PeacePlayers International.
A key awakening came while building the first four-day camp in Israel in 2005. “We were all beginning to doubt ourselves. It was so intense. There was very little interaction between the Israelis and Palestinians. People were angry about having to play with each other. It wasn’t good, and I began wondering if this would work. But by the end of the four days, things changed. In our championship game, it came down to the wire, and a Palestinian boy passed it to an Israeli kid who buried a three at the buzzer. The whole camp went nuts. You couldn’t have written it any better.”
The organization has now been in Israel for 13 years and many of the players who were at that first camp remain with the program as instructors, leaders and coaches. It’s where Tuohey beams with pride as he reflects on the progress among Israeli and Palestinian youth and adults.
Sport is so underutilized as a tool for development.
“When you mix kids up and give them opportunities to compete, the barriers disappear pretty quickly. It becomes about, ‘Can this person play? If so, I’m good with them.’ You see the progression from being OK with somebody on the court, to starting to be friends and having a relationship, to even parents being part of it and coming to each other’s houses for dinners or rooting together. We had one Israeli mom that shouted down a whole Israeli group for giving the Palestinian kids a hard time. Once you start seeing people say ‘I’m going to talk about this and why it’s important’ — that is incredible, especially in a place like Israel.”
But progress isn’t immediate or overnight. It takes time and a local commitment.
“The programs need to be locally led, sustained and continuous. Kids aren’t coming there for the peace building. The basketball builds the foundation. But how do you extend these experiences to bring in family, the community and others? It takes four or five years to get there. You need to work in communities daily and build trust. We had to hire the right local people that knew the environment. If you’re not from these places, you’re not going to have the credibility in talking with children and parents.”
PPI launched its deepest engagement in the U.S. through a partnership with Nike that started in 2017 in Baltimore, Brooklyn and Detroit around youth and police. Efforts in Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis and Oklahoma City will follow later this year. “There are issues with crime and safety and there are divides, whether it be gang, ethnic, drug related, and the police-community divide. So having the police be part of these programs not just helps build trust between them and the communities, but you also want them involved. These programs are about unifying and helping build safer neighborhoods, while developing sport programs for kids in tough areas.”
PeacePlayers plans to grow the overseas programs and stabilize the U.S. efforts with local partners. It is also working on a new effort around refugees and basketball in Europe. Revenue and resources remain the biggest challenge. “There is so much more we can do, but we’re limited by financing. The stress of constant fundraising is difficult.” Currently a $5 million operation, the organization and its board have designs to be a $10 million to $15 million group in the next few years. They are holding a fundraiser with The Players’ Tribune in September in New York City, and continue to rely on a board of directors that includes Ron Shapiro, Arn Tellem, Steve Kerr and R.C. Buford, among others.
The constant pull and pressure is what drives Tuohey’s restlessness.
“I don’t think people appreciate enough the power of sport on the grassroots level to change lives,” he said. “We feel good about what we do, but there’s so much more that needs to get done and that we should be doing. We’re good, but it’s not like we’re there.”
It all circles back to the vision he and his brother Sean had years ago. Sean, who lived in South Africa for three years and then Israel for a year, left the organization in 2007 and just opened a restaurant in Buffalo. “He wanted to do a bunch of different other things.” But both feel their efforts have created change.
“We’re building a network of kids, coaches and parents that have this common experience of seeing the humanity in one another and developing friendships. Our goal is not to create the best basketball players; it’s to create the best people and create a foundation for them to see each other as human beings and build relationships around that.”
That’s service worth celebrating.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.