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Our Work

Our empowerment philosophy at the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society is simple. We want to expose, equip, engage, and entrust local and global audiences to use sport to make a positive difference in the world.

Our work is grounded in more than twenty years of international sports development experience, using sport to promote empowerment and peace-building in some of the most volatile post-conflict and post-disaster regions of the world. We also work locally, creating sports and physical activity opportunities for a growing number of refugees, immigrants, and underserved youth in East Tennessee. As educators, we teach courses related to leadership, sport, development, and peace, and conduct research on the power of service-learning and sports-based exchange programs.


Through scholarly research, writing, and evaluation, the center contributes to sport for development and peace literature and delivers keynote speeches at conferences worldwide. Since its founding in 2012, leaders of the CSPS have published 16 academic articles, presented more than 50 times at national and international conferences, delivered three commencement and international keynote addresses, and developed a unique model of empowerment: the Theory of Empowerment for Social Change.

In 2017, CSPS assistant director Ashleigh Huffman took lead on a book chapter, “Sport and Education,” which outlined the Center’s pedagogical approach and philosophy for an upcoming manual on sport for development and peace (SDP) in higher education. In 2016, CSPS staff members also published an article on SDP programs in conflict zones in Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health.

At the same time, the center has presented across the United States, Brazil, and France in the past year. In March 2017, CSPS director Dr. Sarah Hillyer and assessments and impact coordinator Carolyn Spellings presented at the U.S. Soccer Symposium in Washington D.C. In addition, Huffman gave the keynote address at the 4th Annual Sport for Social Change International Conference in Rio de Janeiro, and Hillyer was a moderator and panelist at the Tignes International Conference on Sport Values in France.


At the University of Tennessee and abroad, the center teaches on topics including women in sport, service-learning, and sport for social change and leadership. Since 2015, directors Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman have led a student-athlete leadership development program, VOLeaders Academy, in collaboration with Tennessee Athletics and the Center for Leadership and Service. In 2016, the VOLeaders Academy was named the Gold Award Winner for Athletics, Recreation, Physical Fitness, and Non-Varsity Sports by NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Outside of Knoxville, CSPS staff deliver sport and social innovation trainings across the world, as well as engage youth and adult participants from dozens of countries in our culturally-grounded “Better World” curriculum through international workshops and sport and life-skills sessions. Since 2012, the center has collaborated with U.S. Embassies in the Philippines, Brazil, France, Egypt, Macedonia, Mexico, and New Zealand to provide training for hundreds of local leaders.

For their work empowering generations through education and training, Hillyer and Huffman received the 2017 Smart Award from Girls Inc. of the Tennessee Valley.


Since 2012, the center has  implemented the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), an initiative that brings international leaders to the U.S. for five-week exchange programs focused on women’s empowerment and inclusion of people with disabilities. Through eight installments of the GSMP, our team has trained and empowered 130 participants from 67 countries to positively impact underserved populations through sport. In the process, the CSPS has also partnered with more than 50 mentor host organizations, such as Google, the National Basketball Association (NBA), ESPN, Fox Sports, the Lakeshore Foundation, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, and developed relationships with hundreds of public and private organizations around the world.

In 2013, the GSMP was named one of the world’s Top 10 diplomatic achievements by the Public Diplomacy Council. In 2017, the initiative was also featured as the State Department’s key initiative addressing UN Global Goal 5: Gender Equality. According to our data, alumni have mobilized more than 5,000 volunteers, developed 428 local, international and government partnerships, and formed 97 sport-based organizations or working groups.

Click on the image above to learn more about how the GSMP works


As part of our commitment to promoting equality and inclusion worldwide, CSPS team members travel the globe to support program alumni, U.S. Embassies, and program partners through sports-based clinics in local communities that promote the values of equality and inclusion. Within the past five years, we’ve trained more than 4,000 coaches, educators, social entrepreneurs, and executives during conferences, roundtable discussions, and educational sessions.

Since the inaugural class of GSMP graduates returned home in 2012, the center has led six international exchanges to nine countries: the Philippines and Taiwan (March 2014), Brazil and Argentina (March 2015), Egypt and Jordan (December 2015), Mexico (August 2016), Ecuador (November 2016), and New Zealand (November 2017).

In addition to supporting GSMP graduates abroad, our team has hosted more than 250 international visitors—youth, coaches, and administrators—in the United States since 2012. These 10-14 day sport-based exchanges, which were sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, provided opportunities for participants to experience American sports and culture, develop leadership skills, learn best practices from organizational leaders, and take lessons learned back to their home countries. From 2012 through 2015, the Center hosted 14 groups from Belarus, Colombia, Jordan, Lithuania, Pakistan, Poland, Senegal, Ukraine, and many other countries and led activities in basketball, track and field, volleyball, and adaptive sports.


“I couldn’t be more proud of the incredible work coming out of the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society. Drs. Hillyer and Huffman have advanced this essential work to a level that has exceeded my wildest dreams. I know thousands will be impacted aswe continue to move forward.”

BOB RIDER
Dean, College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences
University of Tennessee

“The CSPS provided the impetus and wherewithal that enabled me to launch my own sport for development programs in my country. Drs. Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman clearly walk the talk. Their vast experience in the field of sport for development is embodied in how they implement programs. Even years later, they continue to connect and involve us, ensuring that the ‘sisters’ will always have a web of support and opportunities for cross engagement. The CSPS formula in a nutshell: Mentor. Nurture. Capacitate. Empower…now, share and repeat!”

GERALDINE BERNARDO, Philippines
Founder, Sport Management Council of the Philippines
GSMP: Empower Women through Sports class of 2012 alumna

“My experience in the VOLeaders Academy helped reinstate my will to act and my faith in people. I learned how to actively pursue my purpose and how to use sport to influence society for the better. I am a different person because of it.”

JUAN CARLOS SERRANO, Mexico
Tennessee Men’s Golf
VOLeaders Academy class of 2015-2016 alumnus

“Working as an envoy with the U.S. Department of State, and traveling alongside the Center for Sport, Peace, & Society in Jordan, is a unique opportunity. Women’s soccer is exploding in the region and leaders are committed to advancing access to sport for girls and women. I’m proud to assist in a meaningful way and to help move the needle.”

MARY HARVEY
U.S. Olympic gold medalist
Sport Development and Sustainability Consultant

“The VOLeaders Academy changed my perspective immensely. I grew more in one year than at any other time in my life. I’m more confident in my beliefs, in the person I am, and the man I want to be. And I must act on what I’ve learned. I am taking ownership of my responsibilities and working to become an even better influence on those around me.”

JOEY REILMAN
Tennessee Swimming and Diving
VOLeaders Academy class of 2016-17 alumnus


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