Halifax Wanderers want players, fans to know it’s truly a community soccer club
It started on the pitch.
Players from the various teams in the Canadian Premier League were gathered on P.E.I. in 2020 for the Island Games playoffs and championship. They saw what was happening around the world with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death and wanted to do something to show their support.
The players, like other athletes, opted to kneel at the beginning of the Island Games and took a moment of silence for Floyd. This player-driven gesture, repeated before each match, resounded with many of the Premier League teams, the Halifax Wanderers being one of them.
The team returned home with a new mission: to demonstrate to its fans and players that diversity and inclusion weren’t just words. The team has since launched several initiatives aimed at positively reflecting the make-up of the Halifax community in both its play and operations.
The first step was taken by Marvin Okello, the team’s manager of member services. Okello says the video of Floyd’s death was a trigger for him and he knew he needed to step up.
“I knew if I wanted to make something happen, then I needed to show that in a real way. That’s why I offered to become our team’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer,” Okello says.
Okello has done several speaking engagements since taking on his new role, speaking to schools, the 40 Cups of Coffee Network and other organizations about what’s needed to become an ally, fight racism and promote diversity in the workplace.
“It can be as simple as making choices that are more culturally conscious when buying food for your office,” Okello says.
Team-based initiatives in 2020 included a series of zoom calls on different topics, including one in which players were encouraged to speak about their own experiences with racism, another on pride month, and one on indigenous experiences. This year these calls were expanded into a regular podcast called Together for Change.
Theme nights are another way the team tries to reflect the community around it. Caribbean Night, Student Night and Euro Night are just a few of the themes the club has presented so far, as well as celebrations of Viola Desmond and Buddy Day.
Helping Okello carry out his role is Omar Kreim, a midfielder on the team. He acts as the player liaison, carrying word of initiatives from Okello and the club directly to his fellow players.
“My role is still new, and we have a new season coming up and new players, but it’s important to all of us to have a good mix and different perspectives,” Kreim says. “I explain what is planned and identify which players want to engage with each initiative.”
However, perhaps the most ambitious initiative to date is the formation of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The committee draws on community representatives to be a voice in how the club operates and suggest ways it can do even more. Okello says the group currently includes representatives from academia, human rights advocates, the medical profession, and indigenous communities. He hopes to add someone from the accessibility world soon, so the committee aligns with all the communities in Nova Scotia.
“Regardless of your background, we all have a role to play in bringing about a diverse and inclusive future by changing the status quo,” Okello says.
Community outreach and education is important, but the Wanderers also want to make some fundamental changes in the way the club does business. That’s why it started a program to bring on local African-Nova Scotian owned businesses as vendor partners. This includes Delectable Desserts and Smooth Meal Prep.
Smooth Meals now supplies all the club’s training camp meals and some of the players have bought into the company’s meal plans during their time in Halifax. Delectable Dessers supplies cakes to celebrate each player’s birthday that are customized to reflect their nationality and personality.
“We plan to continue this program throughout our season and want to bring in more local businesses to participate with us,” says David Finlayson, director of business development for the Wanderers. Finlayson says any business interested in joining the program can reach out to him on LinkedIn.
The commitment to making every Wanderer fan feel included and respected reaches into the stands. Finlayson says the team expanded their safety plan aimed at addressing concerns in real time.
“We want people to feel comfortable when they come to the Wanderers Grounds,” Finlayson says. “We want to fix any issues right there on the Grounds. We have expanded our safety plan so when anyone hears something, that makes them feel unsafe or disrespected, our security people can step in and address it on the spot.”
However, all of this doesn’t mean as much if no one gets to see it in action. That’s why Finlayson, Okello and Kreim are excited about the team getting back on the pitch this summer. COVID-19 restrictions have limited the club’s ability to do what it was designed to do, namely play soccer, but that is currently planned to change in a couple months.
“We’re aiming for the end of May to start our year,” Finlayson says. “We can’t wait for a full season in front of our fans.”