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Episode 26: LA84 Foundation with Renata Simril

Renata Simril is the President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation, the youth serving organization committed to transforming the lives of youth in Southern California through sports and play programs, through ongoing investments, infrastructure, research, and education as a legacy of the 1984 Summer Olympics. Since her appointment in 2016, she has positioned the Foundation as a national leader in the role that sports have in positive youth development. Simril has expanded the Foundation’s mission in vital ways by focusing its work on supporting childhood health, social-emotional development, and community well-being by collaborating with corporate partners, sports organizations, civic institutions, and philanthropy. Simril has brought new resources to communities to remove barriers to access to sports and play for children. Inspired by the many organizations working to improve the lives of youth, Simril founded the Play Equity Movement to drive meaningful change, this gave rise to the Play Equity Fund, the LA84 Foundation’s charitable partner focused nationally on play equity as a social justice issue and building access for kids from all backgrounds to play. Simril has a longstanding commitment to leadership and service with more than 25 years of diverse experience, including a background in government, business, publishing, and pro-sports. 

As a third generation Angeleno, who grew up in Carson, Simril is actively engaged in civic and community service in a variety of roles, including serving on the boards of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Sports Entertainment Commission, and the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation. She also serves on the ESPN Return to Play Advisory Council and the Play Coalition, national efforts focused on addressing the Play Equity Gap.  

Simril earned a Bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Loyola Marymount University and a Master’s in Real Estate Development from USC. She currently resides in Studio City with her husband and two sons. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nati Rodriguez [03:03] 
Thank you. Well, it’s such an honor to have you here today. I’d love to start by really diving into the Play Equity Fund – what that is and how that came about? 

Renata Simril [03:13] 
When I took over the Foundation in 2016 – really reflected on the great work that the LA84 Foundation had been doing to support the ecosystem of sport-based youth development organizations – those on the ground engaging young people in sport, play, and movement to help create lifelong well-being, mental health, physical health, but also in helping them create pathways to success in life. It was very clear to me that despite our efforts over 30 years at that time, the gap between young people who had access to sport, play, and movement in schools, in communities, and those who hadn’t had grown quite precipitously.  

Despite our managing a small surplus from the 1984 Olympic Games, there were more resources that needed to be provided to those communities. I also discovered that philanthropy, like health and wellness philanthropy, education philanthropy, didn’t see their work around health and wellness and education in our work. They thought of sport as something different. Public resources hadn’t really prioritized sport, play, and movement, most notably in schools. P.E. is an unfunded mandate at the state – maybe schools provide P.E. one to two days a week. Recess is a challenge. Many schools don’t have after-school sports programs like they once had when I was growing up. The budget crisis that school districts across this country face – sports is the first to go, high school athletics.  

When you look at the data in LAUSD, as an example, more than 50% of young people, many of them Black and Brown youth, are struggling with obesity. Type two diabetes is rampant; stress and anxiety of Black and Latinx kids are two times the national average. As we started to look at the data, and look at the lack of resources, and more importantly, the lack of priority that was put on sport, play, and movement, we knew we needed to do more to double down on the work that the Foundation has done. Listening to our community organizations on the ground, it was clear to me that we needed to have an organization that didn’t compete with the grantees that we were funding, but really served as a conduit, as a backbone infrastructure to really bring the various voices of the sport based youth development ecosystem to help elevate and lift up the voices of those on the grounds doing work – number one.   

Number two is to elevate and re-center the important role that sport, play, and movement has to whole-child development, mental health, social-emotional learning, academics, a sense of community, having a coach/mentor. And then unlocking resources through private philanthropy that hadn’t heretofore seen sports-based youth development as a positive youth development tool and then certainly, advocating for more public funding and meeting kids where they are. One of those areas that we’re focusing on is the county and the state, but both community organizations, but also school-based funding – that was the motivation for the Play Equity Fund.  

I have to say, in the four or five years since we’ve launched, the response has just been tremendous. We’ve made some tremendous progress toward re-centering sport, play, and movement, and bringing more funding into the work that these amazing community-based organizations are doing.  

Nati Rodriguez [6:49] 
Yes, that’s great. There’s a lot there to unpack. One thing that I did not know, so P.E. is unfunded?  

Renata Simril [06:57] 

Nati Rodriguez [06:58] 
Wow! Okay, that’s going to take me a minute to wrap my head around. It also reminds me that one of the first schools that I ever taught at, we didn’t have any physical fitness classes in a community where there was a high dropout rate; we were just hyper-focused on academics. There was such a desire from our kids to have team sport, but that just wasn’t part of the model at the time.  

One thing that you mentioned is, and I hope that there’s much more awareness about the importance of that for mental health, emotional well-being, and health, to really have that be part of the school day and after-school. Have you seen that increase whether through money or some other means because of the pandemic?  

Renata Simril [07:40] 
Well, it’s interesting and data is important, right. I appreciate your narrowing in on P.E. as an unfunded mandate as a former educator. Last year, there was a New York Times survey of 362 school counselors that revealed pandemic-related losses of social-emotional learning continues to wreak havoc on students. In that report, through the counselors, that sport, play, and movement, were lifted up as a key component of re-centering social-emotional learning, getting young people to connect to themselves, connect to joy, and then ultimately connect to their academics.  

When you think about social emotional competency, what is that? That’s relationship building – it’s being able to engage, it’s emotional regulation, so if I’m stressed or anxious and somebody brushes against me in the class or a hall room, am I going to lash out? Or am I going to be able to engage in some breathing techniques to really anchor myself and realize that it was an inadvertent bump and it wasn’t intentional? 

When you think about what happens when you elevate your heart rate beyond the sitting heart rate, there are chemical changes that are taking place in your brain that are releasing endorphins, those joyful chemicals within the brain, that makes kids ready to learn. If you push kids in a class and they’re sitting – my son, for example, has ADHD. He needs to move; he needs to be engaged in movement for the academics to actually connect with him.  

The data exists in terms of the critical importance that sport, play, and movement have just in terms of your physical and mental health. Once you’re centered on those things, only then are kids ready to really embrace the academics. That’s the work that the Play Equity Fund is doing, being the pied piper of the connections that sport has to physical, mental health, social emotional well-being, but also to academics. It’s not an “or”, it’s an “and.”   

Part of the challenge that we also see is the school day is not structured. It’s a time-based environment for kids and it’s not structured to allow for play. The play that we see that has benefit, it’s not a lot of time – it’s a five-minute break, it’s a ten-minute break. It’s actually letting kids run on the playground at lunchtime for 30 minutes and the benefits will engender themselves. That’s the work that we’re doing. You can get me talking about data and the importance of sport, play, and movement all day long, but it is the work that we’re about because I think you first have to value that thing before you see the value in funding it. That’s the work that we’re doing is trying to shift mindsets, to get people to see the importance of many of the organizations that we support are doing.  

Nati Rodriguez [10:45] 
That’s great. I know that one of the programs that we’re going to talk about here today came out of the Play Equity Fund, which is the College Football Playoff Legacy Program – Champions Educate Here. Can you tell us about this program and why it matters?  

Renata Simril [11:00] 
Sure. Just a little bit of background – Los Angeles, I believe, is the sport capital of the world. We have twelve professional sports teams. The collegiate universities that we have that are powerhouses – UCLA, USC, and LMU is doing pretty good in basketball this year as well. There are a number of major sporting events that come to Los Angeles. We’ve had over a dozen, or will have over a dozen between 2016 and 2028 when the Olympics come back to Los Angeles.   

A colleague of mine, Kathryn Schloessman at the Los Angeles Sports Entertainment Commission that bids on these major sporting events, wanted to make sure we were deepening the social impact and the legacy that those major sporting events left and the College Football Playoff was the most recent. She’s partnered with the Play Equity Fund and the LA84 Foundation to come up with what should be the legacy, the social impact of that major sporting event. The College Football Playoff Foundation really focused on educators, that is their lane, and how do we lift up and support educators in the classroom doing the work every day to help build pathways and educate our young people.   

Our focus is purely on sport, play, and movement. For this legacy, we decided to flip the script and recognize educators on the playground, and how they are using sport, play, and movement, to bring back joy, to anchor the young people to their academics through sport, play, and movement. We recognized through a selection process; it was an open nomination across Southern California. Nominate an educator who is using sport, play, and movement in interesting and simple ways to bring joy back to students, to anchor their academics, and improve outcomes in the classroom.  

We recognized 46 educators. They were all provided with a grant to support their work, to expand their work, and we did videos of 23 educators. We use the social platforms and media platforms of the College Football Playoffs, of the Los Angeles Sports Entertainment Commission, our own social platforms, to shine a light on the great work that these educators are doing through their work. We were so heartened that Christine Devine from Channel 11 actually created a program and featured some of the educators on the local news. That was our goal ultimately – to lift up the great work that we know that’s going on in our school systems, to celebrate and thank the educators for the work that they’re doing, particularly coming out of the pandemic to really link sport, play, and movement to outcomes in the classroom.  

Nati Rodriguez [14:25] 
Yes, thank you. Could you give us a highlight reel of some of the awardees and what some of the initiatives that they launched or are doing with their students at their school sites?  

Renata Simril [14:37] 
The 23 videos, I read all of them, but the videos are really about storytelling. That’s when they pull at your heartstrings, and you see little elementary school kids talking about how they were able to breathe and they’re calm. They were all great and wonderful and impactful. But there were a couple that really stood out to me.  

One was Martha Alba Gonzalez. She’s an elementary school teacher at Chavez Elementary School in Long Beach, and she introduced a ballet folklorico program to her students. The dance class begins at 08:00 a.m., almost an hour before school starts, and it’s about teaching the cultural competency and the history behind folklorico dance. The students actually dance, and move, and to see these young kids talk about how they learned about their culture, how they were inspired and invigorated during the school day, because they spent an hour dancing before class, it just warms your heart.  

The grants that we provided were up to $20,000, and it just warms my heart and shows the small investment to support teachers. She asked for $7,800 to buy skirts for the class because that’s such a critical component to the movement in folklorico dance.  

Jason Morgan, who’s a math teacher at Dominguez High School in Compton, and he actually uses a program that infuses play and movement during his math class. In the video he’s got kids moving and it’ll be stopped and then he will explain the math concept through movement. He says in the video that the body is a great tool that we don’t often use when it comes to learning. He says the body is a learning tool that goes underutilized and his mission is to promote and share the experience and the benefit his students are getting, and the classroom culture is getting from including play and movement in his classroom.  

There was one – Daisy, and this was an interesting story, and it just goes to the history of the LA84 Foundation’s impact. Daisy is an educator in a middle school, and unbeknownst to us, she was actually an LA84 beneficiary. When she was growing up in East LA – we did a video of Daisy but she said this to me offline – is that she was not going down the right path and struggling to find her positive way through life. She happened to come across a boxing program that we funded and that boxing program, and the coach, and the environment that she was included in changed the trajectory of her life. She ended up going to college, became an educator, and somebody nominated her because she created a boxing program in her middle school. It was a full circle moment for us that, unbeknownst to us, an LA84 grantee is going on to continue to impact the community in amazing ways.  

That’s just a sample of three of the awardees, the educators that are doing amazing things. We’re so grateful, I was personally grateful, to be able to shine a light, a spotlight, and to elevate and celebrate the work that they’re doing to support our kids.  

Nati Rodriguez [17:48]  
Thank you for sharing those, those are wonderful stories. Renata, can you speak about the state of physical education today in Southern California and how is that similar or different at a national level?  

Renata Simril [18:02] 
Yeah, sure, Nati. I shared some of those demographics. We’re in a crisis and it’s a crisis in some ways, it’s hiding in plain sight. The work that we’re doing to re-center sport, play, and movement I think is starting to have some effect – at least I hope so, in terms of our thought leadership. 

JAMA Pediatrics did an investigation of decades of research around the mental health crisis, as one example, and starting to point to sport, play, and movement as an antidote to what ills our communities. We talked about social-emotional learning; we talked about physical health; certainly, the mental health crisis that we’re in – is that we’re just not seeing a priority put on sport, play, and movement. You see recess in most elementary schools, but not necessarily the time that they need or the programs that really engage students. We’re seeing a lack of after-school sports programs in public schools, particularly in BIPOC communities and poor communities. The budget cuts that school districts have faced historically, and sports is usually the first thing to get cut. P.E. across the country, and certainly, we see this in Southern California and the state of California is an unfunded mandate, with most schools having P.E. one to two days a week. My own son, who was in public school, had P.E. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and maybe on Fridays. Friday was only because the parents had created a nonprofit organization, Parents for Carpenter, that helped to augment what wasn’t being funded through the district itself.  

You juxtapose the lack of opportunities, in schools in particular, to community. Parks are strained for funding. I know the city of LA is facing a pretty significant budget deficit. There are a lack of opportunities within the park systems, although both county and city parks are doing great work to focus on play equity, and free and low-cost programs. You have barriers to park access. I think the city of Lynwood is one of the most park-starved areas in the country. Safe passage – I mean, I can go on and on – but it is a crisis, both in terms of access and opportunities for young BIPOC, and poor communities to access sport, play, and movement. When you think about COVID-19, and coming out of COVID-19, and the health crisis, and the obesity crisis, type two diabetes, the stress and mental health issues, most often Black and Brown communities are two times, three times, four times more likely to experience those issues than their counterparts in a more privileged part of the country, or part of the cities in this case. We do see it as a crisis that demands focus, it demands attention, and it demands funding to support our most vulnerable youth.  

Nati Rodriguez [21:19] 
What is your vision for youth, sports, and education, and what does the future state look like?  

Renata Simril [21:26] 
I would say my vision for the future is that educators and policymakers see the value and connection between sport, play, and movement and academic outcomes. If I could wave a magic wand, is that we would have a fully funded P.E. program in every public school in the state of California. We would have robust after school sports programs in every public school in the state of California, and that we would celebrate sport, play, movement for the benefits that it provides to whole child development, for what it does to build individual resiliency, grit, and social emotional competencies, what it does to bring communities together. We believe that sport has transformative powers to really create well-being. I think at the end of the day, we all want to be in a state of well-being and find pathways to becoming our best selves in life. That’s what I hope for in the future for youth sports in this country.  

Nati Rodriguez [22:30]  
That’s great. Thank you. It reminds me when I first played sports in middle school, I wasn’t very good, but it did change my life. It’s totally changed my love for running and all kinds of physical fitness stuff.  

Renata Simril [22:47] 
I suspect you feel better after you work out or after you run. That’s at the end of the day, I think it’s an important point to note, LA84 historically has spoken about the work we do as youth sports. We’ve really opened the aperture for people to think about sport, play and movement. In our work over the last, coming on 40 years now, hasn’t been about developing collegiate, professional or Olympic athletes. If the kids that come through programs that we run go on to greatness in that thing, that’s fine, that’s wonderful, but at the end of the day, our work is about engaging youth in a structured environment, that they have a coach that’s trained in positive youth development bringing out the best in those young people, that they’re able to find their tribe in a group of, or community of, young people, friends of teammates that lift them up. They’re able to, in that environment, develop the life skills that help them go on to develop both physical and mental wellness. That they ultimately are able to find a pathway to success in life, more often off the field than on the field – that’s ultimately the work that we do. I’m glad that you lifted up that you were a non-competitive athlete because that’s okay. I was a competitive athlete in high school, thought I wanted to be a professional athlete, which wasn’t my path in life, but it certainly helped to navigate my career. Ultimately, I don’t think I’d be the president of a foundation had it not been for sports.  

Nati Rodriguez [24:24]  
I’m curious if you set out a really great picture for what we want the future state to be and where we’re headed. Do you see any innovative models now, either at a school site or a community site, where they’ve really taken this on and built it as part of their school day, or after school programming, that we could point to?  

Renata Simril [24:45] 
That’s a great question. The answer is yes. There’s a number of those models that we can point to. I think the 23 of the videos that we shined a light on for the College Football Playoffs are 23 examples of innovative work that’s being done. I would look to those and share those with you.  

There’s other examples, like in Oakland, the Oakland School District, their ELO money that came in for expanded learning. The unprecedented funding that Governor Newsom authored last year focused on expanded learning that could be used for after school sports. There’s an organization by the name of Positive Coaching Alliance that worked with the school district to use their ELO money to create a robust after-school sports program – so that’s an example. There is a plethora of examples that we see of how educators, coaches, after-school providers are really standing up sport, play, and movement in the classroom. What we’re not seeing is that done at scale.   

I’ll give you another example. There is a program called the Balance Bike that can be used in elementary school for curriculum. It’s a bike, but it has no pedals on it. It’s been designed for the play element, for elementary school kids. Instead of pedaling, because you don’t know how to pedal yet, you basically kick your feet, then you kick your feet up, and then you start to balance on the bike. Hopefully, your listeners can visualize this. As you start to develop your balance, then they have a mechanism where you can put the pedals on and then they learn to ride a bike. There’s a curriculum that the teachers are able to use within the classroom that connects to the learning environment for the young people. The program is about $5,000 per bike program which gets you, 24 bikes and then a year of curriculum and support. That was one of the College Football Playoff Legacy grants. 

It’s $2 million to put that program in all LAUSD elementary schools, and we just can’t find the resource or the focus to do that as a matter of policy. Yet, we know the program works and it actually is a resource to the teachers, and the students are having joy from that.  

There are a ton of examples of great programs that are using sport, play, and movement to anchor students in joy and to improve outcomes in the classroom, we’re just not doing it at scale in a way that is sustaining over the long term. I think that’s ultimately the work that Play Equity Fund is looking to do – the College Football Playoff is one example. How can we shine a light on these educators using these innovative programs, that aren’t expensive, that aren’t difficult to implement within the school day, and then how can we share those as examples and match those with funding to sustain those in the schools? In this case, the balance bike is one example.  

Nati Rodriguez [27:50] 
Thank you for this work and for uplifting these opportunities. We’re happy to share these on our site so people can link to these videos. I think you painted a really great picture, and it’s always great to see the teachers actually share their stories. I’m just going to shift gears here. I’d love to hear about what your own K-12 educational experience was like? 

Renata Simril [28:14] 
It was a good experience. I mean, I was a public-school kid. I played sports. It’s interesting, we’re talking about, the lack of access to sport, play, and movement in schools. I can remember in middle school, we actually ran and played games and it was tied to physical literacy and all that. My goal was not to sweat in middle school P.E. because I didn’t want to take the showers. I was sort of athletic and I would love to run around, but I was like, “don’t run too much because I don’t want to have to take a shower.”  

I had a decent K-12 experience. I do have to say that if it wasn’t for my love of sports, I played basketball and then ultimately tennis, like many kids in the communities that we serve, sport for me was the reason I showed up for school. I was an okay student. I had teachers who cared. They tried to make it inspiring and innovative, but school wasn’t my thing.  

Again, if it hadn’t been for being on the basketball team and ultimately being on the tennis team and wanting to show up to support my team, I don’t know that I would have made it through high school. I have a lot to be thankful for sports in my life, that it really kept me anchored and engaged to school. As many students, athletes, who might be listening, realize that you have to get a certain GPA to continue to be on the team, that was certainly a motivating factor for me to focus on my academics. I ultimately did well and went on to college and got a graduate degree. I’m thankful for my public education in LAUSD schools, and certainly sports helped me stay connected.  

Nati Rodriguez [30:15] 
What are you reading, watching, or listening to these days?  

Renata Simril [30:21] 
I’m not watching anything because I’m pretty busy these days, but I picked up a book just recently on my travels in the airport, and it’s The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age. It sounds like a really boring book, but he’s a professor at Columbia Law School, Tim Wu, is an incredible writer, and it’s about the inequities – inequalities, the wealth gap that exists, and I think the power imbalance between government, big business, and community. He compares where we are today to the Gilded Age of the early 20th century. It’s a fascinating read. I’ve been enjoying it.  

Nati Rodriguez [30:58] 
Wow, great. Thank you – we’ll link that in our notes as well. Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Learner audience before we sign off today?  

Renata Simril [31:07] 
Yes. If you care about sport, play, and movement, if you want to figure out a way to get involved and help support the tremendous number of organizations and educators doing incredible work to anchor sport, play, and movement for the joy that it brings to young people and the connections to academics, find ways to get involved.