“We’re Breaking Down Barriers”: Gaby Vincent On Embarking On a New Career and Making Soccer More Inclusive for Black Women and Girls

7-b5cb7f.png Vincent has been partnering with DC SCORES to support and inspire girls in the District through a shared love of soccer. Photo: Justin Williams.

When former Washington Spirit midfielder Gaby Vincent reflects on the people who have helped her the most in her career, she doesn’t know where to begin. “So many people supported me,” she says. “A lot of athletes have stories about people not believing in them, hating on them. I feel so grateful I had the opposite.”

She reels off the names of coaches who inspired her: Coach Kevin, her first youth coach; Coach Mel, who worked with her through her teenage years; Coach Ferg, who was her college coach at the University of Louisville.

However, one important role model, a college soccer player named Alex Price, trained Vincent on just a few occasions. Yet, her coaching was transformative. “She was a mixed girl, just like me, and she played in college,” says Vincent. “That was important for me, just to see that that could be me.”

For most of her professional career, Vincent has been one of just a handful of women of color present in dressing rooms, squad meetings, and media appearances. When Vincent retired from professional soccer at the end of last season to serve as a community relations intern with the Spirit, she resolved to change that for a new generation of players.

By working closely with DC SCORES through its official community partnership with the Spirit, Vincent hopes to make youth soccer in the District more inclusive and to help connect girls of color with peers and role models to whom they can relate. “I want to show young girls, especially young Black girls, that they, too, can achieve their dreams in whatever field they choose,” she says.

2-17dadf.png Vincent, pictured far left, says she was fortunate to have a number of supporters and mentors as a young athlete. Photo courtesy of Gaby Vincent.

Inclusion at the Grassroots

In recent years, Vincent says there has been progress in making elite soccer more inclusive for women of color. She cites examples including the expansion of the National Women’s Soccer League, a recent equal pay agreement between the women’s and men’s U.S. national teams, and increased investment by club owners, including the Spirit’s Michele Kang, who is the first woman of color to own an NWSL team.

Vincent has noticed small changes, too. She remembers the moment she saw hair products for Black women in the away team dressing room at Gotham FC’s Red Bull Arena. “It was the first time I’ve seen something like that,” she shares. “That was really cool.”

4-f6bf2f.png Vincent believes athletes’ voices can inspire positive change. In October 2022, she performed an original poem at DC SCORES’ fundraiser gala, One Night One Goal. Photo: Cody Cervenka.

But while she welcomes these efforts, Vincent is adamant that interventions are also needed earlier in players’ development, at soccer’s grassroots level. “There are so many talented young Black players out there and so many girls being passed up on opportunities just because of how they look, whether people want to admit that or not,” she stresses.

That’s where the Spirit’s partnership with DC SCORES comes in. “We’re breaking down barriers. We don’t want those things to be issues for children,” Vincent says.

Community Partnership

An official community partner of the Spirit since 2020, DC SCORES serves more than 3,000 kids at 80 sites across the District through its soccer, poetry, and service-learning program. The organization provides participants with weekly practices and games, as well as soccer gear and equipment, at no cost to children or their families.

Working primarily in Title I schools, DC SCORES serves families that may not have access to the resources required for participation in pay-to-play sports. As a result, DC SCORES caters to a community of children who are often chronically underrepresented in other youth sports spaces.

5-0b23aa.png Vincent and Spirit defender Anna Heilferty referee a girls’ match at Fall Frenzy in October 2022. Photo: Justin Williams.

This impact was brought home to Vincent when she refereed elementary school matches at Fall Frenzy, an annual soccer tournament and community festival hosted by DC SCORES. “My jaw dropped because I’ve never seen a soccer event that big with predominantly Black and Hispanic kids,” she says.

The event was just one of a range of Spirit player engagements with DC SCORES last season. Members of the team donated their signed jerseys for fundraising auctions, packed sports bras for young athletes who needed them, promoted DC SCORES in the local press, and visited DC SCORES schools to celebrate the work of the nonprofit’s coaches.

It is through coaching that Vincent believes the needs of young Black girls in soccer can be most readily met. “I probably had only a handful of Black coaches, let alone Black female coaches,” she shares. “But it’s something that’s really important. You want to feel seen. You want to know that they understand who you are as a person, as a Black girl in this world.”

3-430a08.png Vincent and Spirit midfielder Jordan Baggett (left) honored the DC SCORES coach at Washington School for Girls, Alaina Wells (center), in September 2022 by presenting her with a limited edition Washington Spirit x DC SCORES jersey.

DC SCORES recruits almost all of its coaches from among the staff at the schools where the organization works. As a result, coaches are much more likely to reflect the backgrounds of the students they work with and to have a direct connection to the neighborhoods children live in.

Recently, the Spirit announced that all the team’s home games would be played at DC’s Audi Field. With this closer proximity to DC communities, Vincent hopes that the club can “embody the spirit of DC and be more representative of the city that it lives in.”

To do that, Vincent and her boss, Community Relations Manager and DC SCORES Advisory Council Member Zoe Wulff, are looking to the club’s partnership with DC SCORES to build meaningful and lasting community impact. “What DC SCORES is doing in DC is amazing and I want to see how the Spirit can mirror that, how the Spirit can elevate that,” Vincent says.

“So Much To Say”: The Power of Poetry

Moving into community relations may seem like a dramatic career shift to those who don’t know her well, but Vincent says community work has always been an important part of her life. Her “strong” mother and “caring” father instilled compassion in their children from a young age, and Vincent spent a lot of her free time during college volunteering at a homeless shelter in downtown Louisville.

DC SCORES also combines two of Vincent’s childhood passions: soccer and writing. “I feel like I’ve been writing poetry since I was young, and I didn’t realize it was poetry,” she says.

DC SCORES participants are known as “poet-athletes,” young people who are dedicated to enhancing their physical and emotional well-being, serving as leaders in their communities, and speaking up against injustice in their city.

The moniker is one that Vincent has begun to apply to herself and her Spirit colleagues as they leverage their platforms to advance social change in both professional sports and the wider world. “We’re not just athletes, we are poet-athletes,” she stresses. “We can express ourselves, we can share our emotions, we can talk about hard things, we can have hard conversations.”

6-93bf92.png Vincent says her parents raised her and her siblings to value compassionate leadership and serve their local community. Photo courtesy of Gaby Vincent.

Since first working with DC SCORES, Vincent has been attending poetry nights in DC and, last October, performed her own poem at One Night One Goal, DC SCORES’ annual fundraiser gala. The piece explored Vincent’s journey toward gaining self-confidence, which she hopes inspired her audience to find power within themselves. “That’s one of the beautiful things about poetry, about sharing your art,” she says. “You share it and it helps you but you have no idea how many other people it could be helping as well.”

Ultimately, it is DC SCORES poet-athletes’ impact on their own communities that Vincent believes will be the biggest effect of the Spirit’s partnership with the organization. When she watches poet-athletes perform, she is struck by their maturity and commitment to serving their neighborhoods.

“These kids have so much to say and the spirit, knowledge, and bravery to share it,” she says. “These kids are going to change the world. I’m calling it now.”

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