Risa Isard is one of the most passionate and fascinating women I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing over the years. As a 13-year-old, she was casually reading a WNBA collective bargaining agreement before bed and dreaming about how to leverage the power of sport for social change. As a young woman today, she is a thought leader at KaBoom!, self-proclaimed sports feminist, and lover of Passover. Read on to get to know Risa!
Allie: What brought you to DC?
Risa: After college I was living in Fresno, California working for a minor league baseball team. While there, I had an opportunity to intern at the annual espnW Summit. It was there that I met my future boss. A few months after meeting, he offered me my dream job opportunity in DC and I moved across the country for it.
Allie: What triggered your passion for sports?
Risa: I grew up as the biggest WNBA fan ever. I was and am a female athlete. I grew up playing soccer and basketball with my dad and brother, and since high school have predominantly been a runner. I’ve dabbled in rowing, frisbee, triathlons, and cycling. I will play anything and everything as long as I’m having fun and being active outside. I first came at [my love for the WNBA] from a fan perspective, but I became more interested in the business of it. At the same time, I was active in community service and social change efforts and as I traveled along these parallel paths, I came to understand the role of sport in the community and the world.
Allie: How old were you when you started learning about the business of sports?
Risa: In middle school, I stumbled across the collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA Players Association and the League. I printed it out and read it before bed. That got me really into sports business. But I felt conflicted. I remember standing at my kitchen counter when I was around 13 years old, trying to figure out how I could change the world and also work in the sports industry. I developed my own personal theory about using sports for social change. In college, I designed my own major around sports and social change, gender, and culture and wrote my honors thesis on the pre-history of Title IX, which I’ve been lucky enough to be able to continue to do some work in.
Allie: How do you think sport relates to social change?
Risa: Sport is a microcosm of society and society is a macrocosm of sport. There’s a constant, metaphorical conversation between the field and the stands, and the stands and those outside the stadium. Sport serves as a barometer of our society’s values towards race, gender, sexuality, class, bodies, ability, and so much else.
There’s a nice narrative about sport being this beautiful thing that brings people together, and I think that is true – or at least can be true – but it’s not inherently so. If we want sport to be a force for good, we need to be intentional about it. That’s my interest. Personally, I’m passionate about the human side of sports and what we can learn about ourselves, our societies, our cultures, our beliefs, and our values through sports.
Allie: If you could change one thing about the sports industry, what would it be?
Risa: Equality. Women’s sports and women athletes are not valued the same way as men’s sports and male athletes are. It mirrors the rest of our society’s gender gap, and it’s a problem. Equality also means making sure athletes with and without disabilities are valued. The first step in both is investment – by leagues and governing bodies, corporate sponsors, and media. Market demand for sport is created, and right now we’re shortchanging a lot of athletes – which perpetuates a culture of inequality off the field, too. We should be celebrating what the human body is capable of.
Allie: If you could be a professional athlete, what sport would you want to play?
Rise: Soccer. You can’t be a female athlete who grew up in the 90s and not dream of playing with Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy. Today, I’m such a fangirl for women’s running. Being a super fast marathon runner would be amazing. If I were taller, I’d say basketball.
Allie: I heard you just started an awesome new job, tell me about that!
Risa: I’m the Associate Director for Thought Leadership at KaBOOM!, which is a national nonprofit dedicated to ensuring all kids grow up with the active and balanced play that they need to thrive.
Allie: Describe your dream day in DC.
Rise: Waking up really early to go for a run during a beautiful sunrise with amazing friends, and brunching somewhere after — maybe the Whole Foods hot bar. Then, I’d go for an adventure in the city, making the most of who I’m with, and end with an evening theater production. Some of my best days are when I think I have nowhere to be but exactly where I am, so I’d love to have a day where I can do that with my friends. We’d probably just sit on the couch at some point, too.
Allie: What is your favorite Jewish holiday?
Rise: Passover. I grew up across the country from all of my extended family and Passover was the one time we all got to be together. That was always really special. I love my family’s traditions – we dance to Dayenu, we have this big negotiation that happens with the afikomen, we tell stories about my grandparents and great grandparents, and I love that my favorite Biblical character – Nachshon Ben Aminadav – makes a small appearance in the Passover story. I love when we get to the part in the story when Nachson has the courage to walk forth into the Red Sea. Passover is an awesome opportunity to reflect on that story and what it means to me.
Allie: What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Risa: I’m a hard ambivert. People who just see me out my might think I’m an extrovert, but I have a lot of introverted tendencies. At the end of the day, I often need solo time to recharge.
Allie: Who is your Jewish role model?
Risa: I’m lucky to come from a line of amazing Jewish women. To know me is to know I adore my Bubby. I also feel really connected to my great grandmother Reisa, who I’m named for. She came over by herself in the early 1900s. She was a doctor and I’m told she spoke 7 languages. I’ve always heard people say amazing things about her.
Allie: When Jews DC gather…
Risa: There better be challah.
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