Changing the world through sport
When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, UN ambassadors, high-level UN officials and renowned Sierra Leonean author Ishmael Beah came together to play football in April 2012, Jakob Silas Lund cheered on from the sidelines as he watched the “DiploMatch” fundraiser he had organized. Jakob is Founder of Play31, an organization that uses the unifying power of football to bring together people and communities who have been torn apart by armed conflict.
It all began when Jakob went to volunteer with a local human rights organization in Sierra Leone, a country devastated by civil war. He was approached by three young boys who asked him to play football, and after seeing that they planned to play with what resembled a plastic bag, he immediately bought them a new football. “It was the joy and enthusiasm that these three kids showed when they played with the new football that started Play31,” says Jakob. “I soon realized that we could use football not just as a tool for bringing joy through sport in Sierra Leone, but to bring about social change and peace.”
The winner of the Beyond Sport 2011 Sport for Conflict Resolution Award, Play31 not only brings together communities that might not otherwise take that first step towards reconciliation, but selects and trains local leaders to educate their communities about human rights, children’s rights and conflict resolution. Jakob’s approach to promoting human rights is straightforward: “It must be a locally-owned process and a locally-owned solution,” he says, recognizing that individuals and organizations in the West often attempt to design and implement strategies that do not involve the local population or its culture. “That approach is dangerous and isn’t productive, especially when you’re trying to achieve peace and reconciliation.” He acknowledges that while there is certainly a need for the more traditional ways of encouraging peace and reconciliation, such as through workshops that teach participants about human rights, it is not always clear that such methods serve as effective avenues for justice. “We need to strengthen the traditional avenues of justice by ensuring that people who participate in these workshops know how to report violations of human rights.”
Prior to founding Play31 in 2008, Jakob worked with the Anne Frank Foundation as well as Amnesty International. He completed his Humanity in Action Fellowship in Denmark in 2005 and the Lantos-HIA Congressional Fellowship in Washington, DC, which gave him the opportunity to work alongside Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA) on Capitol Hill. Working alongside a member of Congress bolstered Jakob’s passion for human rights, but the experience also helped shape his personal approach to justice. “Being on the Hill made it clear to me that I didn’t want to be in the legislative sphere, or in a tie,” he says. And his work certainly involves very little of either. While Jakob has been very busy organizing promotional and fundraising events for Play31, he also makes it a priority to visit Sierra Leone several times a year to oversee the progress of the program, attend football matches and join in the fun at the “discos,” the celebrations that follow the matches.
Jakob admits that he has very ambitious goals for Play 31, including his desire to expand the program within Sierra Leone as well as apply the Play31 “plug and play” model in other countries around the world. Asked where he expects to see Play31 in the future, Jakob smiles. “Colombia. East Timor. Liberia. Anywhere where there’s a need and desire for reconciliation and a love for the beautiful game.”