CONIFA, Gender Equity, and the National Team Giving Karen Athletes a Chance

A new football team is taking root in the all-too-often frozen soil of Minnesota. While the land of a thousand lakes is home to major NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL franchises, the beautiful game is one of its growing industries. Minnesotans of every color and creed can be found kicking around in the spring, summer, and fall, turning to the indoor game when the snowy, constantly below freezing winter arrives. Away from the spotlight of MLS which encircles Minnesota United, the state of Minnesota is also home to a wide variety of academy, amateur, and recreational teams who are using the game to change lives and make memories. 

Perhaps one of the most unique of these sides is not a singular club at all, but a national team-featuring association rooted in the capital of Saint Paul itself. This is the Karen Football Association, a national team looking to represent one of Minnesota’s newest communities. Despite resistance and obstacles at every turn, this team seems set to make history far beyond the borders of one state or one country.

As their name suggests, the Karen Football Association is a body of coaches and organizers who seek to create avenues for Karen footballers. The association’s biggest operations are its women’s and men’s national teams.

These national teams, composed of Karen athletes, seek to represent the Southeast Asian-originating ethnicity as members of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations or CONIFA. While both Myanmar and Thailand, the two nations with the most Karen residents globally, have FIFA-recognized national teams, the Twin Cities-based association seeks to provide a team just for the Karen people. While said team may end up being based in the largely rural state of Minnesota, known for its forests and farms as much as its cities, their hope is to provide a home for a global population.

The Karen people are already far more complicated than a blanket group of people, full of diversity, individuality and variation, and their history is one stemmed in conflict and still-unresolved obstacles. 

The Karen populated parts of what is now Myanmar long before the area’s colonization by the British or before the country even existed. Centuries of complex relationships between Karen communities and other ethnicities which called the area home reached a turning point during World War II when the British-aligned Karen found themselves a target for the Japanese-aligned portions of Burma. The resulting conflict would set off a long line of events leaving the Karen people the targets of violence from many levels of Burmese society. That violence, which continues to this day, has led vast numbers of Karen to move to other parts of Southeast Asia and, on some occasions, to the United States and Canada. This migration is in addition to a sizable presence of refugee camps in neighboring nations like Thailand, where Karen people find both refuge and new obstacles.

According to the Karen Organization of Minnesota, over 17,000 Karen have resettled in Saint Paul, the capital city of Minnesota, since the early 2000s. That same report details that the city, amongst other Minnesota towns and cities, “is home to one of the largest Karen communities in America.”

The Karen Organization of Minnesota further explains that the goals of these communities vary, with some families and individuals hoping to live their lives in the United States and become citizens, while others have strong hopes of returning to Southeast Asia. It should be noted that Karen Americans can be found across the United States, from California to Florida.

Artwork by Charbak Dipta

Communities struggling with refugee crises and large-scale relocation often struggle to maintain the cultural aspects of their old lives. In the words of the Karen National Team’s official statement on their history, they note the challenges that Karen people face even after managing to move to the United States.

“Learning a completely different language is the biggest barrier that refugees face when starting new lives,” the statement explains. “Many refugees are also not familiar with things that we take for granted, such as transportation, winter weather, and even something as basic as how to use an oven or a refrigerator.”

Groups like the Karen Organization of Minnesota provide crucial resources for Karen people in the upper Midwest, including employment and social services, youth development, and community health programs for Karen refugees and Americans of Karen descent. These services and institutions are vital to the prosperity of communities like the Karen.

The Karen have three different original languages – S’ghaw Karen, Western Pwo Karen and Eastern Pwo Karen –  and several religions are practiced across the different corners of their communities. These include Buddhism, Christianity, and Animism. These institutions put a significant effort into protecting and aiding the growth of key aspects of Karen culture and seek to help them keep their sense of identity alive even as they prosper in everyday American life.    

Kyle Johnson first thought about founding the Karen Football Association, now a registered 501(c)3 Non-Profit Organization, after his own experiences as a coach crossed paths with the ever-growing CONIFA. While not Karen himself, Johnson was first able to connect to the sizable Karen community in the Twin Cities through coaching at Como Park High School. From there, Johnson’s interests in helping Karen athletes and improving the resources for fellow Asian-American voices in sport were able to thrive. He became aware of CONIFA through word of mouth. He quickly recognized the unique potential presented to stateless communities like the Karen and pursued membership in 2018.

“Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get it because here I am, an independent person applying for membership as a national team.”

The KFA executive director brought his background in web design and marketing to the organization, hoping to utilize his talents to help kickstart operations. Johnson had previous experience creating and working with marketing and design studios like And One Studios

Already invested in the improvement of opportunities for female footballers in the Twin Cities metro area where he lived, Johnson looked to fellow CONIFA members Tibet as a source inspiration, particularly due to the presence of their women’s team. He managed to get a word in with the Tibet National Football team and organized a Skype call between his newly forming women’s side and Tibet’s.

“I thought it would be a cool connection to connect them with the national team because I thought there was going to be a lot of similarities in terms of the experiences that they had. It’s good for our women to see other women competing at a higher level.”

The KFA would be founded on two key principles. The first was gender equity across the organization and its teams. The second was providing an opportunity for Karen people across the nation to be part of the football world, regardless of whether or not the mainstream soccer system in the United States cared.

After a year of building infrastructure off the pitch and collecting talent, those efforts seem to be coming to fruition.

“We just had our first women’s camp in San Diego over the winter just right over the new year,” Johnson continued, “now we’re getting ready for our men’s camp in Atlanta, at the end of February. 2020 it’s going to be a pretty big year for us.”

Johnson expressed additional excitement for the KFA as CONIFA continues to consider and develop the hosting of both a Women’s CONIFA World Football Cup and an Asian specific tournament to complement their European Football Cup. Both tournaments could be hosted in the next few years, providing two new ways for Karen footballers to shine, in addition to future men’s World Football Cups.

For Johnson and the KFA, the move to consistently fielding squads against international opponents is a vital one.

“I know that the ultimate goal for us to be a national team is to compete on an international level.”

The shift to fielding fully functioning squads also presents the KFA a chance to do what they aimed to do from the beginning, showcase Karen talent and give ignored talent a spotlight.

“It would be 100% incredible if one day a young Karen athlete is able to break into the system,” Johnson explained. “Ultimately the goal is to help these kids achieve their dreams.”

The gender equity principle at the core of the KFA has its origins in Johnson’s years in high school sports, where he quickly realized the day-to-day realities faced by female athletes.

“I recognized that there was really a lack of opportunity for the young women at this high school,” the KFA founder explained. “I didn’t think they were getting the attention that they deserved, and the opportunities that they really deserved… I went in and I just volunteered my time and I opened up more space because I just wanted the girls to have more opportunity to play.”

Building on those efforts, Johnson ensured that everyone involved at the KFA would carry that banner with him. As KFA began to take shape, he also realized that equity wasn’t simply a matter of giving female athletes a chance to play some football.

“At the end of the day, if we really want to make some significant changes for gender equity it’s the guys that need to change,” the former coach continued. “As I’m developing the organization, I recognize that we’re in a very unique situation where we can use sport to really make some significant difference for gender equity. Because now I have the opportunity to work with young men who are in middle school, high school, college age and beyond, and help kind of shape what gender equity really looks like, and how to treat young women and their behaviors towards young women and the beliefs that we should have as men moving forward.”

That mission has brought some obstacles KFA’s way, as the Karen community, like many communities in the United States, still struggles to come to terms with what place women have in athletics.

“One of our players is telling me that she can’t make it because her parents aren’t going to let her go. Because [to them] soccer is not a priority for young women… We want to show parents that this is a good thing. This is great for your daughter to be able to experience. And it’s so much more than the game of soccer too. It’s the traveling, the camaraderie, the team building, everything.”

Despite those barriers, Johnson feels that he sees progress every day he works with athletes and their families and this progress amongst young athletes is what means most for the KFA as it seeks to fuel progress.

“I really wanted to focus on the twenty-somethings,” Johnson explained. “I wanted to do that because those are the ones that are going to be the next elders and it’s not that far off. They’re going to be the next elders soon. I know that it’s the generation that’s ready to make some significant change.”

With principles like gender equity and support for refugee communities close to heart, the KFA carries these ideas into its marketing strategy.

“I don’t want sponsorship to be like, let’s put your logo on our annual gala and call it a day,” Johnson continued. “What I want it to look more like is I want to develop relationships with these organizations and businesses. I want to develop relationships with businesses that have a strong passion for gender equity, for helping the refugee community, for helping communities that don’t have access to mainstream systems.”

While few organizations would openly say they want unpopular sponsors or financial support, Johnson insists that for the KFA, it’s a non-negotiable situation.

“I only want to align myself with companies that have the same mission and values that we do. I am not going to shell out for money.”

Looking back at the first year of the KFA’s existence, Johnson admits it’s all a bit hard to believe.

“If a year ago, you would have told me where we’re at right now, I don’t know if I could have believed it. It’s taken a lot to get to this point. But I’m, I’m very much excited about where we’re at.”

Despite being the main engine behind the KFA’s operations, Johnson insists on not being the sole point of attention for the organization. “I work hard to keep this organization moving, but I want our players and the community we’re serving to be the focus here, not me.”

On January 26th, 2020, the KFA announced a friendly would be held between its men’s team and the George Revolution FC, a prominent American amateur club playing in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). Set for the 28th of February, the match will provide the KFA with one of its first real tests on the pitch.

How the KFA fit into the ever-evolving soccer environment of Minnesota, the US, and CONIFA is yet to be determined, though they seem determined to make a prosperous home for themselves in the snowy lands of the north.

The future is grand if somewhat up in the air for the KFA. What is clear is that the organization has come a long way in a short period of time. What comes next may be unclear, but it seems certain it’ll be exciting.