Improving Diversity Through Inspiration: Reflections on UK Ultimate’s Minority Ethnic Showcase Project

Reflections on the MESH project and its impact on UK ultimate in its first year.

Mariana Larroque catches over Stefan Lewis at the MESH Showcase game. Photo: Andy Moss -- ShowGame
Mariana Larroque catches over Stefan Lewis at the MESH Showcase game. Photo: Andy Moss — ShowGame

Rewind ten years. You’re at Junior Indoor Nationals. You look around you and you can count two women that look like you. Two other young women under the age of 20 that have the same color skin as you do, in a hall of more than 30 teams.

Ten years later, ultimate in the United Kingdom now has more diverse representation; there are many top UK teams that have players from minority ethnic groups. I’ve never felt like I didn’t belong in ultimate, but when I was younger, there were elements of the sport and community that could easily have led me to stop playing.

During lockdown, we all had time for reflection, and within my club team — SYC out of London — we took time to reflect on diversity and racism. Players from minority ethnic backgrounds in the team gave accounts of their experiences both within and outside of ultimate. It felt empowering to share and hear these accounts, but also infuriating that it had taken the slowdown of a pandemic for us to do so. After this discussion, a group of us felt like there was more we could do to help inspire youth from minority ethnic backgrounds to get into ultimate while bringing together the current community. From this discussion, the Minority Ethnic Showcase project (MESH) was born.

Celebration and Community at the First Showcase Game

We drew inspiration from the Color Of Ultimate Tour and Disc Diversity’s Con10enT Tour in the US and made the highlight of 2021 a showcase game for players of color in the UK. Through this, we aimed to spotlight and celebrate the talents of minority ethnic groups to create a more visible and accessible space for the next generation of players.

MESH kicked off in July of last year, where we opened applications to be involved with the wider program. We had more than 100 signups! That was already far beyond what we had expected. From those signups, we selected 28 players to be part of the showcase game in September.

The game featured two mixed teams named Empower and Emerge. Each of the teams had four players still in school and four captains who had been leaders throughout the project, meaning that both teams featured a wide range of experience and perspectives from people at very different ends of their careers in the sport.

“As a more veteran player, my experiences in ultimate meant I was very much accustomed to being one of a handful of ethnic minority (EM) players in a club, and much more likely the only EM player on a team, especially during university level,” said Ernie Simons, one of the captains on the Emerge team. “Whilst the lack of representation was never a barrier that stopped me playing, it was for other players, and it is still a pertinent issue. I’m confident the MESH project will go a long way in addressing this imbalance and promoting greater representation of EM’s in ultimate.”

Carla Borges, one of the students on Ernie’s team, was keen to show younger players in the position she had been in only a couple of years ago that they can reach whatever level they want to. “I got into ultimate completely by pure luck in high school, and among all the sports I was doing, this is the only one I’d consider taking professionally,” she said. “This is why I was so happy to be given the opportunity to play in the MESH showcase game. It was an opportunity to play against more experienced players and an opportunity to show young people — especially those of color — that they too can achieve something great in any area they put their focus and commitment into.”

The game was held in north London in an area with a high population of minority ethnic backgrounds. Tickets were sold, with free entry to any spectators from the local area and kids under the age of 18, and the game was fully streamed by ulti.tv with live commentary.

“Being a MESH captain was an overwhelmingly positive experience,” said Simons. “Coming together with some of the finest EM players I’ve only ever witnessed from the sidelines or on streams, I was able to compete alongside some of the most athletic and technically skilled rising stars that are leaps and bounds more developed than me when I started. Unsurprisingly, the MESH game was one of the most competitive and spirited games I have ever played in my ultimate career.”

The full MESH game can be watched on YouTube via Ulti.TV (and there’s a sweet highlight reel from the event if you’ve only got five minutes!).

What’s Next For MESH

The MESH project is completely managed by volunteers, and runs off fundraising and sponsors (BE Ultimate, FitFlop, and Startwell Engineering were our 2021 sponsors). We are grateful to have had the support of so many from the UK ultimate community last year, but the future of this project still relies on donations.

In MESH’s first year, we were able to host several MESH training sessions between July and December. Plans for 2022 are even bigger with more training, more events, and more showcase games! Any profits made from the extended MESH project through fundraising will be cycled back into the project to provide specific events for junior players in areas accessible to those from minority ethnic backgrounds, with the aim to host these with little to no participation costs. Making the sport more accessible is a crucial part of the MESH project.

“This is why groups like MESH are so important,” said Borges. “As a sport that is still pretty white-dominated in the UK, MESH provides a solid foundation for future POC frisbee athletes to learn, train, and grow. This is something my team definitely needed back in high school as we were all self taught with no coach. So it makes me happy to see just how MESH will provide that. I hope that future players of minority backgrounds can now feel more empowered and encouraged to take up the sport. It is a sport where I found an accepting community and never looked back. I hope they can too through MESH.”

Simons is also confident that we can all make a difference through this project. “I believe MESH has given a platform for EM players to aspire to, in addition to providing an avenue to play competitive ultimate with players from similar backgrounds and experiences. More importantly, I think MESH has created an environment for EM players to become ultimate role models, to foster communication about this issue, and to showcase the talent of players from EM backgrounds to inspire the next generation by increasing awareness, participation, and ultimately collaboration.”

Making Ultimate More Inclusive for All

As I think about the initial discussion I had with my club team back in 2020, I am so proud of everyone involved in the 2021 MESH project. This community brings me joy and security. But there are young athletes out there still looking for a community to be part of who would thrive within ultimate and MESH is able to give these athletes a place to start. Inspiring the next generation matters! Bringing together the community of not only players, but coaches, photographers, commentators, game advisors, and administrators matters.

We’re also keen to encourage all players to reflect on their role in ultimate and how they can help remove obstacles to young players from minority ethnic backgrounds across the UK and elsewhere. Some of those obstacles might be:

  • Mixed competition. In some cultures, mixed groups are looked down on. While times have changed and will continue to do so, there are still talented athletes from minority groups who may miss out due to the openly mixed aspect — which is one of the keys that makes ultimate so special!
  • Short shorts. Excellent for ultimate (and fashion), but maybe not too accommodating or sensitive towards different cultures. We can wear leggings under shorts, wear tracksuits over shorts, or wear different shorts altogether, but we need to see more brands modeling sport shorts in a manner that accommodates different backgrounds.
  • Timing. In the UK we spend a lot of time traveling over the weekend or on Fridays with the Christmas holidays being a key time for time off, however for different cultures, there are also other holidays and traditions that are not always considered in the ultimate calendar.

MESH cannot wait to keep showcasing the talent which exists in ultimate, to drive the next generation of players to get involved, and to increase the sport’s presence amongst minority ethnic groups. We have had more training sessions since last year’s showcase event and will have more in the future to continue the momentum we generated in the summer and to keep giving young minority ethnic players the opportunity to play with more experienced players in a space in which they can improve their games and become the stars of the future.

  1. Rupal Ghelani
    Rupal Ghelani

    Rupal Ghelani is a female-matching player based in the UK. She plays for SYC and is one of the organizers of the MESH project.

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