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Future Shapers Community Emerald City Kickball
Photograph: Supplied

Time Out's Community and Culture Future Shapers: Emerald City Kickball

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

A sense of belonging is something we instinctively recognise as valuable. In fact, it’s a yearning that’s hardwired; the most primitive parts of our brain crave interpersonal contact with others. Loneliness isn’t just a pointless emotion: it’s our nervous system howling at us to get connected. And yet, just being a common-or-garden grownup dampens our social generosity. As we grow out of the innocence of youth and into adulthood, we pick up all kinds of valuable life experiences that help protect us in an often challenging world, but this also makes us prone to suspicion. More often than not, a random approach from a total stranger is something we’re quick to wave away with a dismissive “No thanks”. 

This is a truth many people faced head on during Sydney’s first lockdown in 2020. Making new mates and discovering community as an adult can be difficult enough under normal conditions. Throw stay-at-home orders into the mix, and isolation can be an all but unsolvable puzzle. 

But sometimes, all that’s needed to plant the flag of friendship is the smallest patch of common ground, as proved the case for Steven Shuldman. “I had just moved from New York to Sydney, arriving literally the day the border permanently shut [in March 2020]. I was new to the city and was looking for a way to make new friends,” he recalls. “I had mentioned to my boyfriend, Ross, how I missed having a social kickball league since it was a huge part of my New York life. My boyfriend knew Dave [Parsons] had played kickball at one point back in the States, so he introduced us and our conversation started right then and there.”

The result of this shared love of an obscure team sport was the creation of Emerald City Kickball. As Steven and Dave hatched a plan to put together a few informal games, the potential for a league that could provide a safe and galvanising way to create an inclusive community in the middle of a pandemic emerged. Two more organisers – Jamarr Mills and James Edward Shields III – joined Shuldman and Parsons to form a board of directors, with each providing a valuable skillset from their professional lives. Parsons applied his analytic brain as an architect to managing the group’s finances; Shields’ role as a community liaison with Transport for NSW made him the ideal person to direct stakeholder management and engagement; Mills’ powers of communication as head of business planning at a data company transferred easily to the task of handling marketing; and Shuldman, an attorney and kickball aficionado, was the perfect choice to oversee the rules of the league.

Within just a few months, this grassroots lockdown side hustle had grown into a major community sports group, bringing together people across a broad spectrum of lived experiences, but in particular, people from Sydney’s LGBTQIA+ community. A year on and Emerald City Kickball is now one of Sydney’s fastest-growing community sports leagues, using its extensive membership to run charity tournaments, most recently to raise money for the Smith Family Charity, which supports Australian children living in poverty.

Follow Emerald City Kickball here: @eckickball

Why is sport a meaningful way to connect people?

Dave Parsons (DP): Sport is the ultimate equalizer. It transcends sexuality, race, gender and religion and helps bring together many people within the community that wouldn't have otherwise never met. We aimed to push the social agenda even further with kickball, creating social committee members in each team that organise inter-team and league-wide events, we host craft days to decorate team jerseys and even bake birthday cakes for team members.  Both the sport and these social events build bonds within our community.

Australia is a nation obsessed with many sports. Kickball is not one of them. Why did you choose this rather obscure team sport for your community group?

Steven Shuldman (SS): Kickball is hugely popular as an adult recreational sport in the US because it’s an accessible, social sport. If you’re great at sports, you’ll be great at kickball.  If you’re a less experienced athlete, you can jump right in and play too. And for that reason it’s a perfect fit for an LGTBQIA+-centred sports league where we have athletes of all different skill levels but what binds us all together is the shared enthusiasm for building an inclusive community.

The speed with which ECKickball has gone from a grassroots group to a significant community movement has been remarkable. In less than a year, the group has established a huge following, run its first charity tournament, and recieved backing from Google and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Have you been surprised by the speed with which the group has gained this momentum, and what have been the most valuable things you’ve learned about the LGBTQIA+ community through administrating this group?

James Edward Shields III (JES): Our work demonstrates that when you create spaces that are inclusive and fun, people will want to be a part of it. So am I surprised? No. Now what I am reminded of is how passionate and talented our community is. As we look to develop philanthropic arms of ECKickball and expand nationally, I am overwhelmed by the volume of active hand raisers wanting to lead. Our community is so experienced and when we have a shared goal, we can do anything - and we make it flashy. 

Jamarr Mills (JM): I’m incredibly impressed because our momentum represents the best, brightest, kindest potential of an inclusive LGBTQIA+ community. ECKickball’s progress isn’t superficial, that's the best part. We’ve had 60 per cent retention while still growing more than 120 per cent. I think kickball confirmed what we’ve all known: we’re a community starved for spaces safe from judgment, but full of fun where we can meet, bond, and know each other as beautifully nuanced individuals. 

What advice would you give to those who may be considering launching their own community groups, and what do you think has made ECKickball such a success?

JES: It may fail, it may not. But in the attempt, you will discover like-minded others who are willing to take the step with you. We can meet weekly for 3-4 hours discussing mundane subjects, and I make the time because I believe our mission to reduce barriers, connect and be aware of others’ life experiences is the right thing to do. 

SS: Each of our directors offers direct value and experience from our everyday jobs and regular hobbies which have been essential to the league’s ongoing success. Four people who are all a bit type-A, with diversely camp personalities, make an architect, a lawyer, a marketing strategist and an engagement specialist into a board who works hard, plays hard and more importantly, dedicates time to projects where our passions exist. You’d be surprised at the number of casual conversations we have about expansion packages and by-laws.

What do you see as the future for Emerald City Kickball?

DP: I would love to see the league expand into more teams and to take the game to every capital city in Australia.

SS: My dream is to take a championship Sydney kickball team back to the US to compete in the annual Sin City Classic LGBT sports tournament weekend in Las Vegas.

JES: I see Emerald City Kickball as a tool of maximising our community to be the loving and accepting space I know it is. We’re creating a national (and maybe international like NZ) profile of spaces where you can face insecurities of otherism, fear of sport and toxic masculinity in order to come out the other side as your most authentic self 

JM: I dream of our players creating safe spaces and organisations that we can welcome under our umbrella, which continue demonstrating we’re more than individual letters in LGBTQIA+, but we’re all one team realising our unlimited potential to be winners.

Meet the Future Shapers

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