A member of the girl’s wrestling team stands with a contemplative face expression in a gym at a match. She is wearing her headgear and wrestling clothes.

A viewing of Lucha: A Wrestling Tale will take place during Discovery Weekend this March for Morehead-Cain recipients.

Most Morehead-Cain Alumni know Josh Lee ’04 as the co-founder of Green Top Farms, a farm-to-table catering and food service company based in New York City. But after the work day, you’ll find the entrepreneur in the South Bronx coaching girls how to wrestle.

Josh is the founder of the Taft High School women’s wrestling team, one of the first of its kind in the city. A new film by Nike’s Waffle Iron Entertainment chronicles the team’s path to championship over the course of two years.

Centering on the experiences of four team members, Lucha: A Wrestling Tale is a story of resilience, transformation, and victory. From family struggles to homelessness and immigration, the film gives an inside look at how the girls have found connection and success through wrestling. The docufilm was directed by Marco Ricci and produced in association with Noble Heart Films.

Lucha premiered at DOC NYC, the largest film festival in the country, and received two awards. The film will be viewed during Discovery Weekend for Morehead-Cain recipients.

Listen to the episode.

Music credits

The episode’s intro song is by scholar Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul.

How to listen

On your mobile device, you can listen and subscribe to Catalyze on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. For any other podcast app, you can find the show using our RSS feed.

Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at communications@moreheadcain.org.

Episode transcription

(Sarah)

Josh, thank you so much for speaking with Catalyze.

(Josh)

Pleasure to be here.

(Sarah)

So I would say most alumni know you more so as a co-founder of Green Top Farms, a farm-to-table catering and food service company based in New York City. But after the workday, you’ve also been an entrepreneur in the South Bronx coaching girls how to wrestle. And so you just had a film that premiered last fall at DOC NYC, and so I just wanted to hear a little bit about the reactions from the film and then get to how this all came about.

(Josh)

Yeah. Thank you, Sarah. The response has just been humbling and super exciting. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from folks we know, film critics, journalists, people who select films for film festivals. We’ve just gotten a ton of really positive feedback, and we’re super excited to take it to more film festivals and hopefully get it on a streamer somewhere.

(Sarah)

And Morehead-Cain recipients will have a lucky chance to view the film as well at Discovery Weekend coming up in March. So we’re grateful you’re willing to let this audience get a glimpse of what you’ve been up to as well.

(Josh)

I think it’s so cool to do a screening at the Varsity [Theatre]. We’re really, really excited.

(Sarah)

So this movie came about over a long period of time. I mean, this story goes back more than a decade to 2011, I believe. So take us back to that point in time where you are either pulled into or decide on your own volition to teach girls how to wrestle, which was not very common. And in fact, your team that you built has had a lot of milestones in firsts as well. So, what was the impetus for how you originally got started?

(Josh)

I didn’t actually set out to coach girls wrestling. I was trying to start a wrestling program in my school. It was my second year of teaching, and a few of the kids in my classes found out that I wrestled in college. And one in particular kept just bugging me, you know, “Lee, when you’re going to start a wrestling team?” So I inquired about it, and I was told that it would never happen in that building.

(Sarah)

Tell us about the school.

(Josh)

The school is not really a school. It’s a campus. And so in New York City, they used to have these mega high schools with thousands of kids, and at some point, they broke those up into much smaller schools, but they didn’t break the buildings up. So you have a weird scenario where you might have six or seven different schools all inside one building, operating independently in some ways. But in terms of sports teams, there are not six or seven different sports teams because they simply don’t have the facilities for that. So, the sports teams are based on the campus. And so the wrestling program was for the Taft campus, which used to be the Taft High School, but now is a campus with, I think, seven schools, including one or two middle schools, all inside the same building. So it’s a little crazy if you’re not accustomed to that type of school building.

(Sarah)

When there was discussion about starting a women’s wrestling team, were there already enough girls who were playing on the boys team that made it make sense? Or did you have this sense that there was enough interest already of those who would be interested in trying but understandably didn’t want to play on a boys team?

(Josh)

Well, we had no idea how many girls were going to come out for the girls team. The reason there was a girls league is because there was a Title IX lawsuit against New York City. And so that was the actual reason that they would not let us have a new team. The implication that it would never happen in that building was, I think, an unfair indictment of the kids. The implication was it’s not going to be worth my time, and the kids aren’t going to do it, the parents aren’t going to support, the administration is not going to support, and it’s going to be too hard to start a new program in a building where there’s so many different moving parts, which I just think is you’re kind of throwing the kids under the bus before they even get an opportunity to try it out. So we didn’t think that was fair. So, I actually coached at a different high school that year. And so the next year, they came back, and they said, “We’re going to add a new team. You’re going to get it. We’re also adding an all-girls league. And so you have to take a girls team, too.”

It wasn’t phrased in a, “Oh, you get a girls team!” It was like, “You have to take one of these, too,” which we were excited about; the more kids wrestling, the better. We had no idea how many kids were going to come out, how many girls were going to come out for the girls team. There was one girl who had come out on the boys team, Samantha, and she was just tough as nails. Turns out she had tried to apply to try out for the soccer team. And apparently, the soccer coach laughed in her face and said, “What are you talking about? You’re a girl.” And that just burned her up and made her very mad. And so she said, “All right, well, I saw these wrestling posters, and they didn’t say if it was boys or girls, it just said wrestling, so I decided to come out, and they asked me the first practice why I wanted to wrestle.” And she said, “I want to prove that girls can do anything boys can do.” And the whole team gave her an ovation. Like, everyone started clapping, all the boys.

And then, at the very end of the first season, we had this daily award that we would give out to whoever was the toughest kid in practice. We called it the Hustle Award, and the team voted on it, and they all voted for Sam. Not all of them, but she won the Hustle Award based on voting from her teammates, which was pretty cool. When the girls season started, obviously, it was very helpful having Sam, who had already come out. She did some demos, made the other girls feel comfortable. But we had, I want to say, 35 girls come out that first year, and we recruited the same as we did the boys. There was a lot of interest, and they took to the sport really well. Some of them really fell in love with it. And when you’re recruiting girls versus recruiting boys, girls tend to come in clusters. They tend to bring a friend or two. Boys will sometimes do that, but you get a lot more individual boys coming out for the sport, versus rarely do you get just an individual girl who’s not coming with her friends.

(Sarah)

And I should mention at this point that the movie is called Lucha, A Wrestling Tale. And lucha, of course, means struggle. So let’s go to when a documentary has its start. And I remember you talking about this a little bit, and it’s kind of a funny story, so share about how this program turns into the inspiration behind the documentary.

(Josh)

Yeah, we didn’t actually set out to make a documentary like this. When you get a new team in New York City, the way it works is you’re considered developmental for the first two years, which means, essentially, you have to prove yourself that you can recruit kids. They don’t want to spend money on programs that only have two or three kids or no kids. And so they told us, point blank, make sure you recruit a lot of kids, or they’ll yank the program in two years. So we were thinking of, we were going all out on the recruiting. We had posters everywhere. We had done a few highlight videos we would play on the TVs in hallways from the boys season. And my other coach at the time, Rob, mentioned he had worked on a documentary before, and we should do a documentary on the girls team as a recruiting tool. So we actually started doing that with a student film class in the building for the first year. They didn’t have great cameras or microphones or anything, but they had decent equipment, and they followed the girls around after practice and matches and did post competition interviews and came to award ceremonies and filmed them tutoring and doing study hall.

But that school got closed the very next year, and so it was sort of an orphan project, and we were thinking we might get a 15-minute hype video. That’s what we were thinking in terms of the documentary. And then over that summer, I was working as a task rabbit in New York, one of my many, many side hustles. Yeah, you can put almost anything on there, and somebody might sign up for it. I was helping a lady move some art supplies she was donating, and she had been storing them in this guy’s basement, Marco. And so when I was helping move these supplies, I was talking to Marco and asked him what he did for a living, and he said, “I’m a documentary filmmaker.” And I said, “Oh, that’s cool. I’m working on a documentary myself.” And he said, “What’s it about?” And I said, “It’s about an all women’s wrestling team in the Bronx.” And his eyes just got really big, and he said, “There’s women’s wrestling in the Bronx? I’m from the Bronx. That sounds like an awesome story.” And so he just kept following up and offering to volunteer shoot for us.

He said, “If you guys want to get started, I’m happy to start filming, and if you want to go a different direction, you can just have all the footage.” But ultimately, Marco came to the school, met the kids, fell in love with the story, said he just felt like there was magic there, and you obviously saw the film, so he was right. That first crew that we had on the girls team was really special. And some of those stories get, not all the stories, but some of those stories get told in the film. And he said, “Hey, I think there’s a real story here. I think there’s an actual movie here, something bigger than a 15-minute hype video.” And we said, “Well, that’s cool. You can do that, but we don’t have any money, and technically, we don’t have permission, because the school that greenlighted the project is closed.” And he said, “We’ll figure all that out.” And so he filmed, the majority of the film, as you’ve seen, is not in the school. It’s in their homes, on the streets in the Bronx, showing their personal lives. And he filmed them for the next two years and came back a third year for a few shots, never knowing if this thing would ever be approved or see the light of day.

And so he poured his entire heart into it, and so did all the folks working in the crew. Mauricio, Sherelle, the camera folks who are always around. Everyone was just putting so much love and heart into this project, not knowing if it was ever going to see the light of day. And we were just overjoyed when it finally did. And it was definitely a long road. We had to get forgiveness from the Department of Education. But eventually, when they saw the trailer and realized what it was about and realized it was going to be good for everybody, they approved it in 2020. It also helped that Nike had come on board at that point and was our co-producer, so that always helps.

(Sarah)

Yes, produced through Nike’s Waffle Iron films. And so, where did that connection come from? Was that through your contacts or through the directors?

(Josh)

That came through the Morehead-Cain Program, of course. Dave Bernath [’89], a buddy of mine that I met, I don’t know, three or four [Morehead-Cain] Forums ago, and he is in the entertainment industry, had some connections, and he got us a meeting with Cinetic Media, which is an agency that represents independent films. They loved the project and took it on, now they’re our agent, and started shopping it around. They sent it to everybody. They sent the trailer to every studio and production company and anybody you could think of who might want to do it. And everyone seemed to love it. And everyone had a “but” except for Waffle Iron. Waffle Iron said, “We love it. Let’s do it.”

(Sarah)

Very cool. I got to see it yesterday, and thank you for the permission to get that viewing. And you just fall in love with these girls and their struggles. They are trying to overcome the challenge of getting college scholarships and just applying to college at all, which we know is a really difficult process, and increasingly so. There’s someone who just moved to the U.S. and working on her studies and even some housing insecurity. So, can you share a little bit about the choices in determining these four women as those upon which to center the film?

(Josh)

Yeah. After the viewings, sometimes I will tell the audience that these girls’ stories are not remarkable at all. And you kind of get a gasp, like, what do you mean they’re not remarkable? And I’ll clarify that the young women that you see in the movie are incredibly remarkable. But in terms of their stories, the only thing remarkable about them is that we got it on film. So, to answer your question, we didn’t have to choose a story. Marco simply asked the kids and asked their parents, would you be willing to be part of this? And the ones who said yes are the ones he followed. Obviously, some of the stories are very moving, pulling your heartstrings. Shirley’s in particular. Nyasia’s, as well. Alba. I mean, all of them, really. But we had Shirley. Shirley wasn’t even the only Shirley on that team. And there’s Shirleys across the South Bronx, and there are Nyasias across the South Bronx and across America. And so, in that sense, these are everyday stories, especially for the kids who live in poverty. And the most remarkable thing is that we were able to get it on film. That is a testament to the perseverance of Marco and the ladies who really wanted their story told, in particular, Shirley. She was very adamant that her story get told, especially when she was a teenager. Now she’s an adult. When it came out, she didn’t want to see it. She said, “You know, it was a really hard time in my life. I’m not sure I want to relive it.” But she’s seen it, and she loved it. She’s seen it a couple of times.

(Sarah)

Yeah. Can you share where they are now? I know at the end they give a few updates about where they are when the filming ended versus at the beginning. But have you stayed in touch with them, and what can you share?

(Josh)

Yeah, we’ve stayed in touch. I’ll have brunch occasionally and invite them all over, but I try and stay in touch with my wrestlers as much as possible. Obviously, I can’t stay in touch with everybody. We’ve coached a few hundred kids, but Nyasia is a mom now. Mariam is a mom now. She’s about to be a mom again. Makes me feel so old. Although I’m already recruiting their kids, of course, and Alba’s working. She was pretty shy. She hasn’t really taken part in any of the film stuff since it’s come out. But she’s happy and working. And Shirley is still in school. She’s working full time. Marley’s working. Sam has a dog grooming business where I take my puppy to get washed and groomed. Shaq is working at the school as a dean. I think they’re all doing better than they would have been had they not wrestled. But I wouldn’t say we’ve necessarily moved the needle that much. I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture that they joined a wrestling team, and now their lives are free of struggle. Not even close. There are still girls from the film who are living in shelters today. So, you know, there’s that reality.

(Sarah)

I appreciate about you, Josh, that you don’t like simplified stories, it seems like. And usually those are mostly for the listeners’ kind of gratification of you want to feel good, and this story has ended, they are doing well, and there’s no more complexity. So I do appreciate that that’s not your instinct to just provide that. But there also has been so many good outcomes, and I’m just wondering how you’ve thought about that. I mean, since ending filming, 100 women have wrestled on the team as one of the first women’s wrestling teams in the city. There’s been three city champions, two state champions, the programs for scholarship recipients, and I’m sure there’s been more updates since then because this was just from the film. So surely there has been some good, and we never know the ripple effects of our contributions. But anything you want to share about the good that you have seen.

(Josh)

Getting the two scholarships the year before COVID hit was one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had as a coach, second only to the moment when the first kid got upset with me for not bringing salads to practice. That was probably my proudest moment as a coach because I had gotten them hooked on healthy stuff. But seeing Ciara wrestle in college and seeing Hinda wrestle in college. You know Sarah placed fifth her freshman year, fifth in nationals, which is incredible. She’s out this year. She just had shoulder surgery, so she’s going to be back next year at a different school. Her first one was a two-year school, but I can’t even put into words how proud of them I am and what a great example they’re setting for future kids. And not just the girls.

The boys in the high school team look up to these young ladies a lot, especially since seeing the movie. The captain on the team this year, this kid, AP. He went to one of the screenings in New York, and he went up to one of the ladies after the film, and he said, “I want to be just like you.” No caveat. No “you wrestled good for a girl.” None of the qualifications that you might expect. He just said, “I want to be just like you. I love the way you wrestle. I think it’s awesome.” And so seeing that the program is still around and yet some of those numbers do need updating because now we have like 40 kids on our middle school team, over half of them are girls. So the numbers are continuing to climb.

What else? A couple of the ladies are working back in the schools, in the building, which is cool. Miriam and Shakaya are both working there and so obviously, they’re helping to recruit. We really had a ton of momentum before COVID. Obviously, the pandemic just took a wrecking ball to everybody’s plans. But I can say confidently, if we did not have COVID, we would have five or six girls in college right now on full scholarships, at least, maybe ten. Rebuilding the pipeline has been work, but it’s work we enjoy doing. And we’re very excited about the next few years. We actually have, the kids we have now are so lucky compared to the girls in the video. Some of them see what we’re doing now, and they’re like, “Why didn’t we get that?” And I’m like, “You were a trailblazer. It’s different. You were the first ones to do it.” These kids have something they didn’t have. They have role models to look up to who look like them, who’ve been through the program. They’re not the first ones, and they’re not just trusting these random men that they don’t know in a sport that they don’t know. So overall, it’s awesome. It’s the best work I’ve ever done. It’s the best thing I’ve ever been a part of, hands down, coaching in South Bronx. Very rarely am I happier. And I certainly don’t feel like I could spend my time any better.

(Sarah)

I love that. And I remember an interview from a while back with Amber Koontz, who’s another Morehead-Cain Alum. And she knows said, “How you view yourself has an enormous impact in how you navigate the world.” And so just having the confidence of knowing you can win a championship, you can be on a wrestling team at all, and you don’t have to have a “good for a girl” mentality. So, what else would you like anyone to get out of the film? And I’m thinking of the recipients who will be watching. What do you want them to look out for? Or any overarching themes that you think would be beneficial for them?

(Josh)

Just watch it, I think. Don’t have any preconceived notions. People hear wrestling. They hear women’s wrestling and get a certain idea in their head. I venture to guess most people have never been to a women’s freestyle wrestling match ever. Most people have never been to a freestyle wrestling match of any kind, women or men, period. We don’t have the same size audience as some other sports, at least in the United States. But wrestling is the oldest sport in the world. And I won’t say women are the future of the sport because they’re already in the sport, but women are how the sport is going to grow in the future, and wrestling, in particular, has been fairly hostile to Title IX. A lot of the coaches, it maybe took the biggest brunt of the cuts after Title IX, the way it was implemented, but that was not the intention of Title IX at all. I don’t want to judge in hindsight, but I think what the wrestling world needs to do is double down on recruiting as many girls as possible because once we achieve gender parity in the sport, or even get close, I think the numbers are going to continue to grow. And it’s just the best sport in the world for teaching life lessons and learning discipline and learning how to do things that are going to help the rest of your life, like manage your weight and learning to eat healthy, because you cannot wrestle without learning those things. You can’t be good at all without learning how to manage your weight because that’s a key part of the sport. They don’t really touch that too much in the film, mainly because the editor said that we should not, but it is something we deal with.

(Sarah)

I was curious about the thought process of wanting to educate these girls more on nutrition, and that’s, of course, a major focus of your work with Green Top, is providing healthy food and trying to do something different than what the U.S. food system is dominated by. I was curious how much of your work at Green Top is informed by some of these experiences, or vice versa.

(Josh)

Oh, that was my experience teaching and seeing and really getting an up close view of food insecurity for the first time was the motivation behind starting Green Top, for sure. And just seeing what a school lunch looks like in America today. It’s embarrassing. You might have heard this before, but I just learned the acronym for the American Diet, the Standard American Diet, which is SAD, which I think is pretty appropriate, because it’s very sad. We’re just inundated with propaganda and marketing, and food has basically taken the place of cigarettes, and it didn’t even take the place of it. From 1980 to 2001, the cigarette companies owned the food companies, and so they just repurposed all of their dyes and flavorings that they can no longer put in cigarettes into kids’ snack food, because obviously you can’t waste product if you’re a cigarette company. So we have a long, long… that’s a whole different podcast, I think.

I don’t know if I’m answering your question. How does it inform what we do? It was the motivation behind starting Green Top in the first place, and we definitely do, if we’re trying out a new product, I’ll bring it to the kids and get their feedback for sure, because they’re going to be very honest. They’re going to tell me exactly what they think. And it’s difficult when you’re introducing healthy food in someone’s diet, and you’re competing with junk food, you’re competing with something that gives, like, instant dopamine hits. So it takes a lot more work to work that into someone’s diet. But once anybody gets hooked on healthy food, it’s equally hard to get them off of it because you just start to associate what you’re eating with feeling better. And once you can make that connection, the workload lightens a little bit, and it’s a little easier to get folks to eat healthy, but it’s really about creating the environment.

My next step in the South Bronx is to find a space that can be a permanent training center for the kids. Have a little pop up cafe there where we have healthy food for the kids every day. We feed the kids every day, as it is, it’s not always super healthy. We don’t have a refrigerator or any way to warm food up currently in the school. But once we have a training center, we’ll be able to do that and make the food a lot healthier. But if you feed them, they will come, for sure. If you feed the kids, they’ll show up. We have like 25 kids a day at middle school practice right now, and there’s only about 90 kids in the whole middle school.

(Sarah)

In college, too, if you have pizza at an event, maybe that’ll entice people to come, but I feel like it’s harder now.

(Josh)

I was a part of almost every club at Carolina when I was there because I just looked down. “Well, where’s the free pizza tonight? Cool. I’m part of that club now.”

(Sarah)

Okay, so maybe it’s still having a lasting influence there. My last question is you sometimes can seem very much a realist, and so I’m curious how you self-identify of either optimistic, idealist, pessimistic. Sometimes in our conversations you share the real problems that are happening and how it is very dire. But you also are dedicating your day job and your free time to tackling these issues. So how do you think about that?

(Josh)

That’s an interesting observation. I view myself as an optimist, for sure. I don’t think I could do some of the work I’m working on if I wasn’t an optimist. It’s interesting that I come across as a realist. I think that might just be the lack of a filter from growing up in Johnson county [North Carolina]. Sometimes it feels like if I had not just by chance gone to that one job fair and gotten a job at this school, if I’d have gotten a job at a different school or a wealthier school, I might have never known some of the problems that exist in the South Bronx. It was jarring to me, moving to New York City. Like growing up in North Carolina, I kind of knew what rich meant, kind of knew what poor meant. I knew what side of the tracks those were on in my hometown because we did have a train track going through our hometown, and depending on what side you live, nicer neighborhood or not, but I never really knew what super rich was or super poor. And they weren’t next door neighbors like they are in New York. It’s just so stark. You can go from Billionaires Row to project housing in a few blocks, and I’d never seen that. And it doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s certainly not built on a fair and equitable system. Anybody who thinks it is or says it is, they’re just blowing smoke. So I guess the realism part just comes from trying to stay grounded and do the work. It’s also the work that just makes me the happiest. I love coaching wrestling. I love the kids. I love teaching people about healthy food and getting folks hooked on healthy food. I love the sales part of that, like convincing folks that real food is better. I wish we didn’t have to. It would be nice if we were really like competing between who has the best turnips or tomatoes, if those were the arguments we were having about food versus should we have real tomatoes or this canned stuff with preservatives and everything else we don’t know is going into our body. So try to keep a healthy balance, you know, and do like Antonio [McBroom ’08] said in his SEVEN Talk, “Get a reset every year.” I just had a nice reset, so I’m feeling pretty good. If we’d had this podcast in December, I might have aired more on the realist side, especially since the weather was so bad. I was getting a little seasonal depression, but it’s kind of dreary today, but feeling I’m pretty good still.

(Sarah)

Yeah, I’m hearing like there’s of course the privilege of detachment and then the humility and perhaps call to action that comes from demolishing some of that ignorance and making a difference.

(Josh)

And one more thing I’ll add is working in the South Bronx, although it was shocking in a lot of ways in New York, was shocking when I first got here. A lot of times when I would hear the stories from the kids, it would remind me of my dad and his childhood stories and some of my cousins. In rural North Carolina, the poverty is just as bad as inner city somewhere. The races of the people are different, but the problems are the same, and the struggle is the same. So maybe I feel like sort of a kinship, maybe, with folks in the struggle just because of where I grew up. Our mom kept us in a very tight bubble to be where we were, but we weren’t ignorant of it. We saw what was going on with certain folks in our family who were not doing as well. And I had an aunt who ODed on meth, and cousins who are in and out of jail and don’t have custody of their kids and all sorts of issues, and a lot of the same issues you’ll see just in neighborhoods that have been ignored, neglected across America. And they don’t typically get documentaries made about them.

So this is a super cool thing that we were able to somehow get done, and I’m very humbled to be a part of it. And I hope everybody watches it and feels moved to support whoever they can, however they can. Certainly women’s sports, women’s wrestling, but also just anybody who’s struggling. That’s what the movie is really about, is the struggle. La Lucha.

(Sarah)

Yes. Josh, it is always interesting to talk with you. Everyone should go watch the film, and we’ll see you the screening at Discovery Weekend.

(Josh)

Awesome. I’m so excited. Thanks so much, Sarah.

Published Date

February 27, 2024

Categories

Media, Film, and Journalism

Article Type

Alumni Stories, News, Podcasts