The following is a response to a discussion about increasing attendance at go clubs, which was initiated by Aulden Murch recently on the AGA-Chapters email list. It has been reprinted here with permission.
by Eric Jankowski
After running the Ann Arbor club for a decade, I moved to Colorado and have been largely invisible as an organizer for the last year. Having been both very and negligibly involved in running clubs, my feeling is that two ingredients are needed for sustainable growth: 1) a tireless advocate for the club who 2) understands the importance of creating an inclusive environment. I suspect we’ve all known someone with this rare combination at some point — the Susan Weirs, Paul Barchilons, Greg Leflers, and Guo Juans, to name just a few. Those of us who try to build clubs may have even been that person occasionally, and can appreciate it is not a trivial effort to maintain.
The great thing about the first ingredient is that it doesn’t depend on rank. Anyone that has been bitten by the beauty of the game can be that tireless advocate. The catch here is that it takes time and energy to be tireless: it can take a big bite out of time for other important life priorities such as work and family. The tireless advocate here is that person who is always at the club, dragging in all of their friends, putting on workshops at libraries and festivals. Someone with infectious enthusiasm. One great example back in Ann Arbor was Albert Guo’s mom; she didn’t ever play, but saw how much her son loved the game and would show up to cook egg rolls at our tournaments. You just can’t beat that for enthusiasm. When you show other people how much you want to be somewhere, they want to be there too.
The second ingredient is a little trickier; it requires leadership from strong players who are willing to teach and maintain a welcoming environment. When the top guns only play each other it creates a feeling of inapproachability. Back in Ann Arbor, we had a great mix of kids, college students, permanent residents, and even a few famed homeless folk, and I think it’s because we went to great lengths to emphasize an inclusive environment. We had an implicit rule: Ignoring or bullying younger players, weaker players, or anyone really, cannot be tolerated. In the most constructive and positive way possible, you need to set the tone: “This is a place for having fun, making friends, and a place to learn about this game; if you’re not helping that, you’re not welcome here.” It’s not enough to parrot that quote; you have to get to know the members of your club and set an example. Every so often, remind your strong players that they became strong because someone had helped them previously, by creating a place where they felt empowered to learn. Set an example by teaching new players. Emphasize that your rank has nothing to do with your value as a human. To grow, your club needs an inclusive culture, but this requires constant attention, and it can fade if you lose that strong player leadership. Sometimes as a strong player, you just want to play a game and try out that new trick you saw. Running a club and improving as a player are different things, but this can be easy to forget when there’s a board in front of you. Resisting that temptation is important if the aim is to grow your club.
So, my advice is: If you wish to grow your club, be tireless in your efforts to make a welcoming place to play. And as folks involved in the AGA, I suppose that we have a responsibility to show that these efforts are appreciated and worthwhile.
Jankowski (top right) is a Research Associate in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder . photo at bottom left: at the 2010 University of Michigan/Ann Arbor United Way tournament.