In a year where turmoil around the world promoted negative headlines and cultural divide, Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer joined with other professional sports leagues around the country to promote racial equity and equality.

Led by RSL Academy Director of Coaching Arnold Rijsenburg and the RSL Foundation, the club initiated an education program to lead the way to enact change from the ground up not only at RSL, but around the world. With the ability to provide a program that educates, empowers and gives confidence to middle and high school aged student athletes and their coaches, the club aims to be the leaders in change around the world, starting in its own community.

Players and coaches have received training on topics such as identity and diversity, building trust and community and leadership, among others. Through the multi week leadership program, RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality) the RSL Academy players and coaches gained perspective into what it means to be a leader in community and take action to promote respect, equality and understanding in their own lives and the lives of others.

“Using sport as a vehicle for change we’ve been able to identify the causes of these problems and the implications they carry in people’s lives and then find and enact the solutions to these problems,” Rijsenburg explained. “Using the RISE program has allowed for internal reflection for all involved and has helped set the course to make positive changes and gain new perspectives into the lives of one another and the people we’ve surrounded ourselves with.”

While conversations surrounding diversity and identity can oftentimes be difficult, Rijsenburg wanted to do more. By speaking with the next generation at the club to promote equity among all people, his challenge to all involved is an exercise to strengthen the confidence in oneself to have those difficult conversations and use their voices for good.

“To acknowledge what the root cause of the issue is the first challenge,” Rijsenburg said. “To have the maturity to seek out the answers how to solve these social issues is the next challenge. Through this program those involved have become aware of more social issues that they didn’t know about and then began to address how to solve them. By speaking about these issues to better impact the world around them you can already see the impact that this conversation has had on our program.”

RSL is also leading the efforts to bring diversity and inclusion to the new MLS NEXT academy platform and through Rijsenburg, the club began working from the ground up on its own to build a healthy environment to grow and learn. In addition to the work done within the Utah club, Rijsenburg was also selected to lead the Diversity Committee within the new MLS Academy structure in an effort to increase diversity at every level of the league.

The initiatives of the diversity committee don’t stop at the academy level though. MLS players and executives have joined and supported the cause for change at the highest level.

“We have some very strong personalities within our academy and wherever they go I’m sure they have this mindset where they will express their opinion and they have the confidence to have these discussions with people at all levels. They aren’t happy with the way things are going and they’re taking the initiative to have the necessary conversations with people throughout the club and beyond,” Rijsenburg said.

Rijsenburg has seen growth within the RSL Academy players and staff throughout the eight-week program and he attributes the dedication to the overall conversation and leadership of Andrew McIntosh, Ph.D., who played a pivotal role in developing the RISE program.

“This generation cares deeply about society and have a great deal of agency about them maybe more than previous generations,” McIntosh reflected. “I’m very encouraged to see the progression of the boys who have taken part in this leadership program. Naturally on the first night we were with them it seemed like we were pulling the confidence out of the boys. But as we gathered more their comfort of the subject matter was exposed and that is the most important and encouraging thing that we can show that we can progress. To see the growth within the RSL Academy and the RSL organization has been inspiring.”