Figure Skating In Harlem Gives Opportunities To Underserved Communities And Those Of Color
[Editor’s Note: On March 15, Figure Skating In Harlem (FSIH) founder and CEO Sharon Cohen will be a guest speaker at the Women's Empowerment Principles Forum: "Measuring Success, Making It Count: Business Investing in Women and Girls." She will be speaking alongside Sarah Middleton, Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Citizenship, PIMCO; Executive Director of the PIMCO Foundation, about Building Confidence in Youth. Cohen will also be joined by FSIH alumna, Sherrie Smith. The event is a joint convening of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, United Nations Office for Partnerships, UN Women, and the UN Global Compact. Visit the event page for details on speakers, discussion topics, registration, and more.]
For two decades, New York’s Figure Skating In Harlem has helped the underserved and communities of color get involved in the elite sport of figure skating. Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen has helped mentor many of the students along the way. Now FSIH is expanding to include Detroit. Here, we catch up with FSIH founder and CEO Sharon Cohen, 51, to comment on why the not-for-profit is so important - and for her vision of the future.
Jim Clash: How long have you been with Figure Skating In Harlem (FSIH)?
Sharon Cohen: This began two decades ago as a grass-roots program with some students in East Harlem who were interested in learning to ice skate. By a stroke of luck, I became their teacher and we've been growing together ever since. I work with our Board to set the vision and lead a team of 70 full- and part-time staff to execute that vision to the highest possible standard in partnership with our donors, parents, volunteers, the community, etc. It's extraordinarily rewarding work and always challenging.
JC: Why is FSIH so important to skating?
SC: FSIH is truly ground-breaking for two reasons: One is because we are embedded in underserved communities and communities of color that have traditionally not participated in the sport before, either because of the prohibitive cost or lack of access to facilities and outreach. What we have become is a bridge that introduces this wonderful sport to girls who didn't have access and who really had only watched it on TV. Second is that we combine figure skating with rigorous academic support and leadership development. We've created a unique and effective model that helps girls grow physically, emotionally and academically. So, education, in the broadest sense, is at the heart of our work, which began more than 20 years ago in East Harlem.
JC: So FSIH helps with kids' and teens' developments as they prepare to go into the real world?
SC: Well that's exactly our aim: To give our students a solid foundation to achieve success in all aspects of their lives. We do this through a proven model that has three pillars. The first promotes health and fitness through skating instruction and synchronized skating teams. Skating teaches perseverance, goal-setting and resilience, among many other things, in an experiential way. The second is through educational support. We have high expectations for our girls. We provide small group tutoring and measure progress in the basic competencies of reading, writing and math. We also teach classes in financial literacy, communications and STEM. Finally, we promote their emotional development through life skills classes that teach strategies for managing stress, solving conflicts and combatting bullying. We also have cultural trips and career exploration to expand their horizons. We offer individualized high school and college guidance as well. Essentially, we are a holistic program intentionally designed to prepare our girls to be leaders and make positive choices for themselves.
JC: What is Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen's involvement with FSIH?
SC: Sasha became involved very early on. When her career in figure skating was starting to peak, she chose to come to Harlem to a small cultivation event in a Board member's home to learn more about us and meet some of our girls and supporters. She really got it and took an interest in our mission to use skating as a powerful way to engage a population of girls that would not have had the opportunity. Since then, more than 15 years ago, she has promoted our work, come to visit us annually at our gala and been a true advocate for both skating and education. She, herself, is a tremendous role model.
JC: What are FSIH's near-term and long-term goals?
SC: Our goal is to continue growing in New York City to create the most effective and innovative programming for NYC girls and to take this model to other under-represented communities starting with Detroit, where we will open our first chapter in 2017. We have already made the announcement and been embraced by this city in transformation. Long-term, we would like to see our impact spread to as many girls as possible because the need is so great.
JC: Do you have any skaters who have gone on to the Olympics?
SC: No, our goal is youth development, not to create star skaters. Skating is really the jumping-off point to engage girls in broader educational goals and to teach them a foundation of skills that will last a lifetime: discipline, resilience, self-confidence. To train girls for elite levels of competitive skating isn't our goal, and frankly isn't realistic given our resources. We do, however, try to leverage our contacts and provide girls with quality instruction. Finally, we have several girls who have gone on to Ivy League and top-tier schools, and we are incredibly proud of them.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Forbes.com here.]