Redefining Long-Term Success for Young People Through Sport

Steffi Biester & Julia Sandmann on creating frameworks for young people to realize their changemaking power

8 min readOct 5, 2023


Photo courtesy of KICKFAIR

by Elijah Gampel-Bornstein

“The big vision is that every young person can perform as a changemaker and that they already are.”

Sport gives young people the opportunity to develop the skills and embrace the mindset needed to thrive in an ever-changing world: shared leadership, empathy, teamwork, and changemaking. In fact, sport allows many people around the world to take ownership of their talents and success stories. Young people are able to work with one another and learn that they can succeed, even if they struggle with school subjects like language or math.

We interviewed Ashoka Fellow Steffi Biester and Julia Sandmann from KICKFAIR, a German non-profit that addresses the mechanisms in education that foster social inequities through a process where young people take ownership of their talents as changemakers. There is a world of possibility beyond what the current system deems as being right and valuable, but immured in the ease of it, children who would otherwise have many success stories think that they are untalented or unworthy. KICKFAIR challenges this system of thought and through football, aims to transform education in Germany (and across the globe).

Q: How would you describe what KICKFAIR does to a general audience?

Steffi: We combine elements of street football with a holistic concept of education to show young people that they are changemakers and transform schools into places of new learning. In Germany, young people grow up in a society marked by social inequalities — every fifth or fourth child feels untalented or unworthy. One of the root causes lays in the mechanisms of how learning is being organized in our school system, what role young people play and what is being considered as a good performance or valued as success. KICKFAIR does not offer a fixed program to young people or teachers and schools to foster learning and personal development, but rather accompanies them in developing new frameworks of learning where young people experience themselves as capable protagonists and changemakers. Based on a particular version of street football, young people take on different roles and tasks to experience their own talents.

Julia: We want to change what we typically think of as success for young people. Change the narratives that define the worthiness of young people.

Photo courtesy of KICKFAIR

Q: What do you think is the biggest barrier to this shift towards viewing young people as talented changemakers?

Julia: It’s the perspective of how we look at young people and their talents and skills. It is the existing normative of what we consider to be a good performance and what we evaluate as being successful — and of course the evaluation systems that are built on that. Let me give you an example: it starts with the words we use in educational concepts or programs. Do we talk about who our programs are serving? Do we see youngsters as beneficiaries with deficiencies that have to be “repaired”? Do we only consider the best school marks and coming from low grades to higher grades being a success story?

Steffi: Our mindset at KICKFAIR is that every young person has talents and capacities — in that sense, young people are already experts and changemakers in so many fields, but the conventional system does not have a learning framework which allows those individual talents to equally evolve. Evaluation tools are also not geared toward valuing those unique talents as (equally) relevant for success. This hinders how young people view themselves and doesn’t allow society to embrace their diversity. This is where we lose many young people since there are many other success stories that we don’t acknowledge as such. If we create a platform for learning, where young people can experience themselves as talented and important, and if we accompany teachers and social workers to implement those platforms into their structures and curricula, then we head towards a society where more young people can see themselves as changemakers and find belonging — on a personal and on a professional level.

We have developed a scientifically grounded educational concept that is based on the principles of sports. It offers a multi-dimensional field of learning: democratic values such as fairness and respect, the importance of rules (and the possibility to co-create those rules), a “three-halves principle” with dialogue and reflection zones before and after each game for the teams to reflect, negotiate and learn. No referees decide. It’s the kids themselves that are the protagonists — in everything. From the very beginning of the KICKFAR program, they take over different roles: as a player, an organizer, a mediator (who accompanies the teams in the dialogue zones), a mentor (experienced youth that accompany younger ones), and Youth Leader.

Our approach makes the kids protagonists of their doing, sees them as protagonists instead of beneficiaries, puts the focus on the process as much as on the results, broadens the picture of performance and success, and accompanies learning rather than imparting knowledge.

This creates a framework where young people are appreciated with all their talents and efforts, while feeling like a valuable changemaker and acting as such.

Photo courtesy of KICKFAIR

Q: How do we bring this change into the mainstream, and have you had any success?

Steffi: By making those principles part of a system change. Start by seeing youth as protagonists and shift the perspective of them as deficient beneficiaries we need to teach important skills to toward a mindset of enabling them by involving them as changemakers and accompanying their learning activities.

Their voices are heard, and their engagement is seen and valued. This needs to be implemented into everyday school activities, development processes and respective curricula just as much as into societal engagement programs beyond school. This requires new communication strategies (with new narratives) and a shift in existing funding strategies from short-term projects into long-term change processes.

Julia: To your question if we experienced success — yes, we have. All our evaluations show that we change perspectives. The perspective of how young people see themselves (“hey — I am someone, I have talents and skills, I can have an influence, I am worthy…). The perspective of how they look at school — being a place where they want to go because they find joy and belonging. The perspective of how teachers and social workers look at the kids because they get to know them in a completely different way that improves their relations. The perspective of how society looks at youth — as being important co-creators of change. KICKFAIR has a positive impact on the personal development of youth, their professional futures, and societal cohesion.

Q: How do you communicate this to funders and start the conversation of changing the way we think about working together?

Steffi: Most funding bodies still fund with a short-term perspective; they need quick success. Their understanding is that the kids need help, and, often, it must fit under a certain subject. But the processes that we lead need a longer time. This is sometimes still difficult to communicate: social impact needs time — and it is not (just) about numbers — but shifts in structural patterns. We do have a high impact and can state it, but we are not scaling as fast as others in terms of numbers. That makes us sometimes less “interesting” for funders.

When we work with funding bodies and partners, we make it our common responsibility to generate impact — and we make clear what we mean by that. There are funding partners embarking on that journey. Trusting what we’re doing, they start a new process of reporting, collaborating, and developing a common plan — because they also see how they can benefit.

Julia: I’d like to give you a concrete example. We speak with companies on how they hire young people. What do they look at? Is it only school grades? What skills and capacities are needed? And how do they assess them? How could selection processes give them a much deeper and better understanding of the person that are not reflected in school grades or typical assessment moments? This is where we really try to start conversations and offer alternatives.

But it’s still a long journey to get this mindset of ecosystem collaboration to these partnerships. A number is not an impact, behind a number is a whole story of impact. That story needs to be told; we need to find tangible, understandable, and acceptable ways to tell it.

I’m not saying no numbers. I’m saying the number has to be connected to the story.

Steffi: We still have a long way to go, but we are heading in the right direction. It’s a complex mindset shift that is challenging the existing power relations. That needs time. This works better with foundations and independent funding partners. It works better in an environment like Ashoka. It is more difficult with public bodies that have a huge bureaucracy — the school system but also sport associations are part of this.

Photo courtesy of KICKFAIR

Q: What is the best path forward for sports for social change organizations to collaborate and accelerate this shift?

Steffi: There have been many approaches to bring us together. And there are already successful collaborations. I think the best thing would be to provide a platform where organizations can work together on strategic mechanisms: since you are developing that sport-oriented program, I think it would be valuable to bring together different thinkers and doers. Then, we can build a close group of change leaders to transform the bigger ecosystem.

Julia: We are really convinced of our approach using sports and football, especially digging into the football industry, with all its power to tell stories and with a whole bunch of fans listening. We’re at the beginning of this journey, but there’s a lot of potential to collaborate with influencers whom young people listen to.

Q: Is there anything else that you want us to know about KICKFAIR, your approach or what you want to achieve?

Steffi: The big vision is that every young person can perform as a changemaker and that they already are. We provide the frameworks for them to experience that.

This article is the first in our “Sport for Changemaking” series — a collection of articles that examine how Ashoka Fellows around the world are utilizing sports to create impact and mobilize change. The series aims to showcase the potential of sports as a tool for social transformation and provide insights into strategies, impact, challenges, and lessons learned. Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with Ashoka’s Sport for Changemaking initiative.




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