An Anti-Racist Future Requires the Work and Energy Now (and Beyond)
By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
Even though the fall semester has kept student-athletes, coaches and staff more physically apart than they’re used to, the Lehigh Athletics community has continued its priority of learning, growing and leading.
That includes in the area of anti-racism and inclusion.
“I’m really proud of our students and staff for demonstrating a responsiveness to the root of these issues,” said Murray H. Goodman Dean of Athletics Joe Sterrett. “The bottom line is these are issues because people don’t have the same history or background. Their perspectives are different and their life experiences are different. The need to be heard, the need for others to understand a perspective or experience that’s different from their own, is absolutely essential to an inclusive and high-functioning culture, and to providing leadership for generations to come.
“As a department, we’ve made this work a top priority since last spring and undertaken that challenge of learning, understanding and supporting each other with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
Lehigh Athletics has tackled the challenge through a number of different forms – and various groups – all with the same goal of anti-racism and inclusion. Two student-athlete groups, Student-Athletes of Color and TIDE (Tackling Inclusion, Diversity and Equity), met regularly throughout the fall. Staff initiatives included head coach meetings, open education sessions, open dialogue sessions and staff TIDE working group meetings.
A monthly opportunity for cross-generational dialogue (between student-athletes and coaches/staff) about leadership and social justice also occurred this fall.
Creating change starts with deeply respecting each other.
“For our Black and Brown students, and international students, it’s not enough to just say we respect and appreciate you,” said Sterrett. “We have to value their experiences and understand them at a deeper level if we’re ever going to be as effective as we want to be.
“I have great admiration for our students, who are leading the way,” he continued. “This is their generation; this is their time to be leaders. It gives me great hope and optimism for the future of our country, for the world my grandchildren will grow up in and be a part of.”
Sterrett also acknowledges there is a long way to go.
“Particularly the white community has a long way to go to truly understand and embrace the value of people who have not shared in the privileges of our upbringing,” he said.
“I think we’re making great progress, though we must sustain the current effort and enthusiasm across each new community of Lehigh students and staff.”
Let’s take a closer look at that progress through the lens of the different student and staff groups.
Dean Sterrett and Lehigh head coaches share a message of support for the Black and Brown members of the Lehigh Athletics community. pic.twitter.com/iiEDIYL8Zp
— Lehigh Sports (@LehighSports) December 11, 2020
Patriot League Anti-Racism Commission
Assistant coaches Khayla Atte and Noel Hightower (from track and field and men’s basketball, respectively) are members of the Patriot League’s new Anti-Racism Commission, which formed in July.
“The commission worked to identify areas of concern and interests in order to focus its efforts; these areas were then formed into subcommittees,” said Atte. “Noel serves on Hiring and Retention, and I serve on Professional and Student Development.
“My subcommittee is supporting the creation of SAOC groups across all league institutions, developing a league-wide SAOC leadership council and actively developing a league-wide student-athlete alumni network,” Atte continued. “We are working extensively to provide our student-athletes with spaces to cultivate and develop the skill sets necessary to elicit sustainable systemic change.”
Atte and Hightower are helping oversee and provide support for the Student-Athletes of Color group.
“From my perspective, Student-Athletes of Color has been a great addition to Lehigh Athletics,” said Hightower. “We have great mentorship from our assistant coaches – Khayla Atte, Zee Ortiz, Montell Allen, Brandon Lemon, Christina Sather, myself… and especially with [former and long-time assistant football coach] Donnie Roberts. We also have a terrific leadership from our student-athletes (Divine Buckrham, Brianna Wanbaugh, Evan Taylor, Kiara Damon, RaShawn Allen, Samuel Tapera, Stephen Grant, Tre Cundiff, Tesha McKoy and TyGee Leach).
“As a group, we’ve had open conversations about a healthy relationship with the police, the importance of voting and financial literacy,” Hightower continued. “We hope to continue meeting in the spring semester as well. The ultimate goal is to have SAOC become a part of Lehigh Athletics forever. It’s the responsibility of the entire Lehigh Athletics Community to keep this group as a priority.”
Atte summarized the potential and power in the hands of student-athletes, who are among this country’s next generation of leaders.
“Patriot League student-athletes continue to demonstrate profound leadership surrounding social justice and equity,” said Atte. “Lehigh University and the Patriot League have an amazing opportunity to create a more robust educational experience for our students.”
Thank you coach not only for this super raw and honest video but for taking the time to help shape your student-athletes into becoming better people every day. #NCAAInclusion | #PatriotITF | #PatriotOTF | @Div1SAAC | @LehighTFXC pic.twitter.com/do5kN8tFVo
— Patriot League (@PatriotLeague) October 27, 2020
For @LehighMBB assistant coach Noel Hightower, it is more than just being a coach on the court. It is about being a coach OFF the court too.#NCAAInclusion | #PatriotMBB | @Div1SAAC | @LehighSports pic.twitter.com/wQVIwcE7SF
— Patriot League (@PatriotLeague) October 27, 2020
Student-Athletes of Color
Student-Athletes of Color was founded in conjunction with the Patriot League Anti-Racism Commission. They met every three weeks this fall.
“Social justice is such a big topic because we all deserve an equal opportunity to what life has to offer,” said football senior Tre Neal, who is part of SAOC’s leadership committee. “One should not be put at a disadvantage because of the color of their skin, where they live/come from, or the economic status they were born into. No one should have to fear for their life in simple traffic stops, feel as though they’re targeted or all in all, just have basic rights violated.”
So far, SAOC has been holding both information and opinion-based discussions.
“We had two informational sessions centered around financial literacy and knowing your rights when a police officer has stopped you,” said track and field senior Brianna Wanbaugh, also a member of SAOC’s leadership committee. “We had some opinionated discussions about what it’s like to be Black in America during these times and what it’s like at Lehigh in particular.”
Meeting topics have included voting, financial literacy skill development with PSECU and dialogue with Drs. (Richard and Karla) Cooper about their experiences at Lehigh.
“We also had a debrief on the presidential debate and navigated our thoughts and feelings as a group,” said Wanbaugh. “From my personal surveying, it seems most people who attend our meetings enjoy the discussion, or value what they learned from attending. It’s great to hear because that’s why we’re doing this – to benefit student-athletes of color.”
Wanbaugh sees herself as a catalyst for the group’s ideas, thoughts and discussions.
“During our events, all the leaders are prepared to ask questions or share opinions to keep the conversation going,” she said. “I hope to provide a safe space for student-athletes of color to share their experiences, thoughts, feelings and opinions. Within our own teams on campus, there is not a space to do that given the people we’re surrounded by, and I strongly believe the opportunity to talk to someone who can understand what you’re going through helps clear your mind and heart, or even makes it feel a little less heavy.
“The ability to have a community of people as a sounding board for what you’re going through is so impactful for your mental health, especially in these times.”
The support Wanbaugh and Student-Athletes of Color have received this fall has been encouraging, but there is plenty of room for continued growth.
“We also partnered with Flight 45 in two Coffee Talks,” she said. “Both conversations were about activism in sports surrounding racism and that platform was particularly powerful because it was mostly coaches. As a facilitator, I had some great conversations with various coaches. Although there’s a lot of work to be done within the department, it’s encouraging to see most, if not all, the coaches making an effort.”
In general, discussion leads to greater understanding, empathy and action.
“I am a firm believer that through discussion, progress for the fight for equity can be made,” said Neal. “In our meetings, we’ve had multiple conversations concerning social justice, politics and racial injustices within the United States. By hearing others’ viewpoints and opinions, we’re contributing to progress in the right direction. While it’s important to listen and speak to one another to understand each other’s perspectives, it’s also crucial to note that everyone doesn’t have to always agree.
“Respecting one another is the ultimate goal.”
Right now, respect for one another’s differences is lacking far too often in the country. Neal and Wanbaugh hope SAOC can be part of the solution.
“Our country’s Black population is 13.4 percent and yet, a lot of people remain ignorant and apathetic to the racial tensions that are at an all-time high,” she said. “Unfortunately, it takes personal relationships for many people to conjure up empathy for others.”
New initiative for student-athletes of color launches at Lehigh https://t.co/XDYSsk3Huj
— The Brown and White (@LUBrownWhite) August 12, 2020
Wanbaugh admits SAOC is primarily serving as a support system for the Black community, but is interested in having discussion around activism moving forward.
“In the future, I hope SAOC can begin to do anti-racism work with people who are not of color and continue to have social justice/activism talks within the athletics department,” she said. “Our main focus will continue to be supporting athletes of color.”
One goal of Neal’s is to extend the conversations and broaden their reach to the entire Lehigh community.
“Not just limit things to student-athletes or people of color,” he said. “I feel this step is when we’ll start to see more significant changes. I am willing to help in any way I can, whether that be a large or small role in the process.”
Coaches 4 Change
In late July, women’s basketball associate head coach Addie Micir joined college basketball coaches around the nation in Coaches 4 Change. The organization is dedicated to helping student-athletes, campuses and communities.
We are very proud to stand with coach @amicker23, as she joins @Coaches4Change in pursuit of equality! ✊🏾✊🏻
🔗: https://t.co/asCRrMHEs9#SoarWithUs pic.twitter.com/lNtZOcvTsf
— Lehigh Women’s Basketball (@LehighWBB) July 22, 2020
Specifically, the mission of C4C is to provide a platform that engages, educates, empowers and evolves the collegiate student-athlete on issues of social injustice, systemic racism and the power of voting in the endless pursuit of equality. The four Pillars of C4C are to: engage, educate, empower and evolve… all with an end goal of equality and equity.
“Coaches 4 Change took an active stance by engaging, educating and empowering student-athletes on how to use their voices, both in their communities and at the polls,” said Micir. “Each week, the members met to discuss ways to encourage voter registration throughout our respective athletics departments and ways to empower and support student-athletes as they used their voices and platforms to foster positive change in their communities.”
The primary objective is action, especially through voting.
“It’s important that our student-athletes understand how our government works,” said Micir. “For example, knowing who makes and enforces laws at both the local and state levels, and how each branch of government works, would help student-athletes figure out the candidates who align with their own ideals.
“It’s fantastic to speak out, show support and protest, but also important to use your voice by participating in our democracy through voting.”
The efforts were a success.
Micir worked tirelessly to engage, educate and empower student-athletes, with a goal of evolving (which are C4C’s four pillars).
“I worked with a fantastic group of student-athletes who served as liaisons to each team,” she said. “Together, we provided resources to help everyone get registered to vote, educate themselves on the representatives and issues, find their polling places and if needed, receive and return their mail-in ballots. Our goal through this voter education was to engage with young voters, not only for this election, but also for future elections in hopes they will become lifetime voters.”
Micir knows voting is only one piece of the social justice fight, but has been encouraged to see how Lehigh Athletics has come together to listen, learn and connect on issues of race, injustice and inclusion.
Because in the end, change starts with understanding and empathy.
“There’s a lot to learn and do when it comes to pursuing equality and continuing to shape a society where everyone feels safe and valued,” said Micir. “As we take care of home (Lehigh Athletics) with the Real Talks, Coffee Talks, leadership discussions and more, I hope the impact of these conversations and the action steps that follow will spill out into our local communities and beyond.”
Student-Athlete TIDE (Tackling Inclusion, Diversity and Equity) is comprised of 21 members across 12 teams, meeting every other week. Meeting topics have included voting, planning for the NCAA Diversity and Inclusion campaign, anti-racism and dialogue with Drs. Coopers about anti-racism at Lehigh.
It’s NCAA Diversity & Inclusion Week! We caught up with some of our student-athletes who shared how their story matters. What about you? Use #NCAAInclusion to share who you are, what your story is and how you can use that story for diversity and inclusion! pic.twitter.com/faCJjeAT3d
— Lehigh Sports (@LehighSports) October 27, 2020
TOGETHER. WE. RISE. The theme for Day 3 of this year’s NCAA Diversity & Inclusion Social Media Campaign prompts us to think about how we can enrich our communities through strategic action. Share your commitments to Diversity and Inclusion! #NCAAInclusion pic.twitter.com/99lDzeFMTE
— Lehigh Sports (@LehighSports) October 29, 2020
“TIDE’s work in social justice is surrounded in our core values,” said women’s basketball senior and TIDE co-captain Mary Clougherty. “We want to create an inclusive, diverse and equitable community for all athletes. Our members are made up of a variety of different sports, years, majors, genders and races. One of our main goals is to be allies to others. Pushing the social justice conversation among our group and teams is extremely important because it’s not up to just one person or group to make change.
“It takes all of us.”
It takes everyone because as Clougherty said, a marginalized community has gone – and will continue to go – unheard if something doesn’t change and others don’t truly listen.
“Social justice is something I hope everyone can commit to,” she said. “Recognize your privilege. Learn from those who have laid the groundwork. And get to work. It’s important to understand that’s the effort is continual.
“We don’t have to be experts to make a change. We just need to have open minds.”
Creating change isn’t easy, but TIDE has had a number of tangible accomplishments this fall. Clougherty and TIDE worked closely with Micir surrounding voting. In the end, 14 varsity teams became 100 percent registered to vote, with nearly 80 percent of the entire athletic body registered.
TIDE also took action to educate, beginning right away after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis this summer.
“We’ve been talking about the Black Lives Matter moments, starting from the summer when we hosted a viewing of the documentary called ‘The 13th’ to the athletics department,” said rowing senior Emma Gromacki, who is also a co-captain of TIDE. “Since then, the work hasn’t stopped, Mary especially did a lot of work on this and created documents about how to talk about racial injustice on our teams, and resources for education.
“Our group has been discussing how to be catalysts on our team, from starting conversations with our teammates to holding our coaches accountable,” Gromacki continued. “We’ve also been part of a taskforce in tandem with Student-Athletes of Color to work on anti-racist initiatives.”
The impact and involvement of TIDE’s work has been both tangible and intangible. No matter the initiative, the goal is the same.
“In TIDE, our athletes are expected to talk about social justice issues,” said Gromacki. “It’s what we’re about, so we have to use it to help open up dialogue with athletes, coaches and administrators. It’s about bringing others with us. Like in our sports, those who are doing the work need to call people in and hold them accountable.
“Conversations about social justice aren’t exclusive to any one group. In fact, it can’t be. Part of that is our work to push our coaches to open dialogue and make statements that matter to our student-athletes.”
Making change demands difficult, challenging and often uncomfortable conversations. It’s truly a team effort.
“Our group can help start (and has started) the change of culture in the department, but we cannot do it alone,” said Gromacki. “We firmly believe in Better Me, Better We as our TIDE members stay up-to-date on relevant news and educate themselves. An athlete can watch all their film and know everything they need to fix, but if they never get out on the field and practice, it doesn’t matter how many hours they spend in the film room.
“Social justice issues are the same.”
Lehigh Athletics has taken important steps forward this fall in having conversations, but it’s a continuous effort that demands further steps forward, which Lehigh Athletics is committed to achieving.
“Right now, we’re having conversations,” said Clougherty. “But, where will that go? It’s up to us, on every level, to take initiative to be a more inclusive, understanding community.”
Several Lehigh Athletics staff meet weekly as part of Staff TIDE, with the same goals in mind of inclusion, diversity and equity.
An objective this fall was to bring dialogue-based educational opportunity to the Lehigh Athletics community.
“This initiative was designed to offer meeting spaces to talk about current issues, learn common language, connect with campus partners and create action steps for impacting positive social change in our department,” said acting swimming and diving assistant coach Erin Matyus, who’s part of Staff TIDE.
“In addition to our weekly TIDE meetings, we offered a General Education Series to address a broad overview of topics, a Real Talk Dialogue as a more informal discussion on broad-ranging and current issues and a monthly cross-generational conversation with students and staff called Coffee Talks centered around leading through action.”
No truly effective action can happen without empathy.
“One of my favorite coaching quotes is, ‘they’ll never care how much you know, until they know how much you care,'” said Matyus. “There are people in our community who don’t feel like people care about them. Even bigger, there are people in our community who don’t feel like their lives are valued. They are hurting, and have been hurting for a long time… too long. Lehigh admitted its first Black student only 70 years ago, and it admitted its first female only 45 years ago.
“That’s not some distant historic past. That’s only a generation away.”
Truly making progress demands self-awareness.
“I don’t think we can afford to be shy in saying we’re not where we need to be yet,” said Matyus. “As coaches and administrators, we have to understand and accept the responsibility that racism – interpersonally and systemically – is a student-athlete welfare issue. And if we’re serious about living out our mission of developing people, developing the next generation of leaders and succeeding at the highest level, then we have to not only acknowledge the issues, but also actively work to address them head-on.”
Moving forward, TIDE can play an integral role in that social justice conversation.
“Each of the initiatives taking shape across our campus (and the Patriot League) has a role to play in dismantling racism and inequity within our systems,” said Matyus. “It was, is and continues to be important to bring those insights together consistently for a more comprehensive representation of the work ahead of us.
“Our hope is that TIDE can serve as a ‘hub’ for a more unified, but nimble, approach to addressing both the structural and grassroots needs within our athletics spaces.”
Creating a strategic plan for anti-racism work is one of several important next steps.
“That includes an internal audit of all of our practices and language, a survey of our departmental strengths, weaknesses and opportunities related to diversity, inclusion and equity, and a review of the policies associated with each of our functional areas in the department… from recruiting to academic support,” said Matyus.
“The second phase of a strategic plan requires an external audit of best practices for DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion), and a pulling of information from institutions and data sources across the country engaged in this work.”
Lehigh Athletics made significant steps during the fall semester, having so many conversations and building the foundation to effectively move forward.
“After several months of conversations, now is the time to put those words into action,” said Matyus. “We also need to continue having critical, potentially uncomfortable, conversations with members of our community about their experiences. Recently, we’ve been engaging in dialogues with our student-athletes and coaches of color about what support and engagement look like at the interpersonal and institutional levels. Implementing that feedback, and that humanity, in any recommendation we put forth is essential if we’re going to make real strides in being anti-racist in real time.”
Powerful meeting this morning w/ Lehigh Student-Athletes of Color, TIDE group, & Athletics Leadership Team. We must to continue to educate ourselves, act to support our Black and Brown S-A’s, & denounce systemic racism. #LearnGrowLead #BlackLivesMatter #SocialJustice #AntiRacism pic.twitter.com/Jb3oiwBRy3
— Lehigh Sports (@LehighSports) December 7, 2020
Matyus has plenty of reason for optimism and hope.
“I’m confident that we’re serious about becoming a more equitable, inclusive and anti-racist community of diverse individuals,” she said. “I also know Lehigh is a place filled with people who work hard, are incredibly innovative and fundamentally care.
“I believe if we can channel those attributes, unify our efforts and stay focused on the goal of becoming an anti-racist department and institution, we can make a significant impact on our community.”