Written by Shadi Shahbaz, Program Analyst at Peacemaker 360.
“When I was in grade 4 or 5, I ran for student body president at my primary school. The very first line of my speech was ‘Hi everybody, my name is Nicole Banister and I am going to rock this school!’ Of course, I had my own little platform that my 8-year-old self had dreamed up about what we are going to do with school lunches, and how we are going to make things different for the student population–and I totally lost the election. I didn’t win. But it really was that moment when I realized that people were kind of interested in things that I had to say because I could connect with people in a way that wasn’t so boring. For me that was the first moment of stepping into my own power to understand how to make sure that I am connecting people with the resources that they need to thrive.”
In this article, we will read about recommendations about Nicole Banister’s life and work as a young peacebuilder with an intersectional identity active in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights in South Africa. Nicole shares recommendations for young peacebuilders and will share about her platform, My Basketball Team, that shares daily short stories submitted by individuals globally about dating, intimacy, and relationships with the goal to normalize intimacy and eliminate the stigma so often associated with talking about sex.
Nicole Banister is an Iranian-American young peacebuilder working in South Africa. She is the Founder and Commissioner of My Basketball Team, a digital storytelling platform committed to demystifying relationships and intimacy. Nicole is also the Partnerships Coordinator for Grassroot Soccer where she scales sport-based, youth-friendly sexual health programming around the world through innovative partnerships. She is a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Fellow, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. She manages a travel and lifestyle blog on Medium.
We sat together through a Skype call, sharing our experiences and talking about a wide array of things, such as leadership, community building, intersectionality, partnerships and so on.
After sharing about her childhood and youth, she shared about her education, “I had always been interested in social impact work and community mobilization, so I did my undergraduate degree at Georgetown University in Washington, DC by studying the intersection of culture and diplomacy. Through conversations around culture, I really began to realize how we need to think about all these different and diverse people and their dynamic perspectives, and how this informs policy and decisions that affect people’s lives in drastic and tremendous ways.”
After graduating from Georgetown University, she joined the Peace Corps, a government organization and agency that sends American volunteers to live and work in rural communities around the world. According to Nicole, it is a really immersive programme: “It is a programme that requires you to learn the local language. You spend 2.5 years at the same sort of salary point as the people in the rural community you are living in. You eat their food, you dance their dances, you talk their talk, you stand alongside local leaders and you learn from them and simply share your unique and different perspectives.” With the Peace Corps, Nicole taught English and Life Skills classes to young students in a rural community in South Africa. It was then and there that she discovered the need for sexual and reproductive health and rights education.
“In South Africa, having public and open conversations about sex and intimacy is not happening intergenerationally. I started noticing that my kids were coming to me with all these questions. They would say they saw something on TV and they wanted to talk about it or that they had heard something from an older brother or sister and wanted to know about it.”
So, conversations with her students inspired Nicole to enter this new area and to normalize taboo and stigmatized topics. This passion, then, developed into My Basketball Team. This digital storytelling platform publishes one short story a day about sex, sexuality and intimacy–topics that are considered quite taboo worldwide–and it opens door to opportunities to normalize discussions around these topics in people’s lives. The stories are submitted by people from different countries, cultures and backgrounds because having these conversations starts to normalize intimacy. You can send Nicole your story through a Direct Message on instagram or a Private Message on Facebook. My Basketball Team shares stories anonymously, so don’t worry about having your name attached to a very intimate sexy story–they’ve got you covered.
Nicole finds her work relevant to peacebuilding because by talking more freely about sex and intimacy with friends, family and colleagues, nonviolence will be practiced and gender based violence will decrease. “Our goal is to have healthy communication between men, women and whichever gender you identify with. We also have a strong emphasis on promoting consent,” she elaborated. She defines peacebuilding as social cohesion through grassroots-level activism. “It is young people who are not afraid to challenge the status quo and current systems of inequity. Peacebuilding is these people who are not okay with the norm and they see how different people are being affected by all these different social ills that exist. They seek to make a change and a difference. They recognize the intersection of the government, the private sector, community-based organizations and they try to connect the dots.”
To describe the advantages that youth have in comparison with their older counterparts in government bodies and international NGOs, Nicole stated, “Young peacebuilders have social capital. They navigate different social situations, people and cultures. They are uniters and unifiers. Young peacebuilders are individuals who try to be the change that we want to see. They aren’t bogged down by hierarchies and institutions, by the status quo. They see society’s challenges and ills and they use their creativity to seek innovative and dynamic solutions to address them from the community standpoint without leaving anyone behind. Youth come in with the fresh energy and enthusiasm around building a more diverse and tolerant society as opposed to the higher ups who may be jaded from so many years of trying and failing and trying again.”
The conversation then took a shift towards tolerance and diversity, something that has been lacking incredibly much in the work of the older peacebuilders. Young people speak more freely about discriminations they have faced and are also very sensitive to deconstructing decades of consolidating social injustice. In the Oxford dictionary, Intersectionality is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Given the importance of this topic in the work of young peacebuilders in 2020, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic and the global movements in support of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, Nicole defined Intersectionality as recognizing and acknowledging all the different identities that a person has. “People are so diverse. They are dynamic and transient–they move. People are mixed race, mixed nationality, mixed culture. They live in different places. They have different socio-economic statuses. They identify as women, as men, as non-binary as gender-non-conforming. There are all of these different facades and different identities that make them and define them as who they are.”
Nicole elaborated on intersectionality even further by sharing an anecdote from her personal life and how she responds when someone asks her where she is from.
“I am like, how am I supposed to answer that question? Do you want to know where I was born? Where do I live? Where is my passport from? Where is my driver’s license from? Where is my mom from? Where is my dad from? Those are six different answers! And this is intersectionality!”
Nicole also shared her experience of being born and raised in a multicultural household, something that is becoming more common nowadays, “My dad is Black American, born and raised in the US. My mom is from Iran. She moved to the US when she was 16 years old as an immigrant. She met my dad, they had me and my brother, and the rest is history. I was always hearing two sides of the story. My dad had one perspective from his background, his culture and his understanding and my mom had another based on hers. And they would look at me and say, ‘What do you think?’ So, growing up in this multicultural and multinational household there were always so many different perspectives, so I did have to think about my identity. I was the only Black and Persian person I knew, besides my brother! So we did have to think about how we explained ourselves and our identity to people. But to me, the single pivotal moment came when we moved to Singapore.”
Nicole moved to Singapore with her family where she spent the first two years of high school. As a half-Black half-Persian American in Singapore, she found nobody looking like her and nobody speaking the same language as her. This made her constantly aware of where she came from and how she could explain herself to people. It was a tremendous experience for her though, because it allowed her to think out of the box and to see the bigger picture where all these identities overlap. It also facilitated her next moves to Bolivia and South Africa. Additionally, she believes that being able to learn about how she presents herself to different people from different communities and contexts has immensely helped her in forming her social impact trajectory.
To conclude the interview, Nicole made certain recommendations to young peacebuilders such as identifying local champions and advocates to partner up with for better outreach. “It’s like a brand ambassador. If they hear your story and support it, they’ll amplify it,” she explained.
“Strength lies in numbers for youth”, she added, “Young peacebuilders who need access to capital and more visibility shouldn’t be discouraged by powerful and large organizations, who might not be keen to hear their perspective, voices and give them a seat at the table. The seat will be given to us when you have supporters and a movement behind us. Everyone has a unique story to tell and they can contribute to the conversation. Identify local groups and smaller communities, bring everyone together, build community and force higher ups to listen!”