Becoming an Active Ally in Your EDI Journey

Image courtesy of Wendy B. Motch-Ellis

Wendy B. Motch-Ellis, the director of Campus Recreation at the University of North Carolina Asheville, shares about her journey in becoming an active ally in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Campus Recreation is uniquely positioned to make a significant impact among our campus community related to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). On many campuses, we have more student employees than anywhere else on campus. We also see a large cross-section of students participating in our various programs from competitive sports to outdoor programs. And while campus recreation has always welcomed everyone, we have not always been intentional about recognizing the various identities of our participants and their needs. Rather, we had an attitude that when folks came to the recreation center, everyone left their issues at the door and we were a neutral place where folks could just play.

In 2012, NIRSA adopted new strategic values, established an EDI commission and implemented a formal NIRSA Statement for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion. Commission members articulated the need for EDI to be woven into professional competencies. We could no longer rely on just the multicultural office; Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), or other experts to come in when invited, but rather, all campus recreation professionals need to have EDI competencies just as you would have risk management competencies. NIRSA focused on increased workshops and presentations related to EDI topics, and the EDI Commission culminated its work with the publication Equity, Diversity & Inclusion: A Resource Guide for Leaders in Collegiate Recreation. Echoing recent communications from the NIRSA board and NIRSA headquarters related to current events, now more than ever we must acknowledge that EDI impacts people’s health and well-being, and we need EDI competencies to support our students and colleagues and work towards truly creating healthy communities. 

Today, more and more colleagues around the country, particularly White colleagues, have increased their awareness of equity and diversity related issues, have spent more time listening to our BIPOC and other underrepresented colleagues and students, and are aware of the importance of intentional conversations and learning opportunities around EDI in staff training, as well as program curriculum. There is an increase in the number of professional staff, as well as student leaders, who are more aware of the impact policies, practices and interactions have on the true inclusion of all members of our campus community. Departments that have embraced EDI as one of the core values of campus recreation utilize various strategies such as creating a diversity committee, work to infuse EDI competencies into job descriptions and performance evaluations, provide on-going professional development related to EDI, and include EDI goals in each employee’s annual plan.

The impact of embracing or not embracing EDI throughout campus recreation can be felt and seen among staff and students. Engaging in authentic work around EDI positively impacts staff retention, increases involvement of diverse program participants, impacts the retention of students as well as the quality of the student experience. In conversations with colleagues around the country, a few powerful examples of EDI within campus recreation include changes in policies and practices that impact full engagement in our programs and services, personal stories of students or staff feeling more connected and welcome within campus recreation, and powerful teachable moments where learning occurs. The EDI Resource Guide for Leaders in Collegiate Recreation offers examples of real situations that have occurred around the country and discussion questions to help staff think about how they might respond in a similar situation on their campus.

For folks who are just beginning their EDI journey, it is important to know everyone is at their own place in this journey and it is a very personal journey on how you move forward in learning about EDI. As I reflect on my journey which is still underway, key lessons I’ve learned have been to always remain curious, that it is my responsibility to educate myself, and to know I don’t have to agree with every opinion I come across, but that I understand objectively and critically why I believe or think the way that I do, that I remain open to challenging narratives I may have been taught, and that it aligns with my values of who I want to be as a person.

In the early 90’s, the first piece I ever read about EDI was Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. I was 22 years old and in a Student Affairs graduate program when I first consciously recognized one of my identities is that I’m White. I have other non-dominant identities based on my gender identity, sexual orientation and religion, which were always at the forefront of how I saw myself, and privilege was not one of the words I used to describe my life experiences. It took some of my own unpacking to recognize and understand how I move through the world based on the color of my skin and how race plays such an impactful role in our lived experiences. Twenty-five years later, I still find myself having to re-check my Whiteness and the privilege that comes with being White and the choices I can make on how I show up and interact with others.

I’ve also learned that because everyone is at their own place, it can be very difficult to talk to others and find common ground. Some folks are open to share and engage in conversations while others are not comfortable or may not feel brave enough to share how they feel or think about race and EDI. Some folks are afraid of saying the wrong thing or may not feel they can safely explore race in their current environment and must do so silently. Self-care is critical, and you can make choices on who and how you engage with others. There are lots of groups available online that are meeting virtually and talking about EDI. If you’re still not sure how racism is really present in our country, you might want to watch the documentary 13th. If you’re struggling with how you’re feeling, you may find some insights reading Dr. Robin DeAngelo’s White Fragility. It can also be helpful to reflect on your discomfort when talking about race and equity. And if you are White, this is part of recognizing White privilege and that you can enter this space at your leisure when you feel comfortable or it’s convenient. Challenge yourself to be empathetic and comfortable being uncomfortable and recognize folks with salient non-dominant identities feel discomfort most of the time.

If you’re in a space that is led and designed for BIPOC, it can be helpful to just listen and be there in support and just observe and learn. It’s also important to be aware of the White savior complex, where White folks may have learned a little about racial equality, are truly interested in making changes, have good intentions, but approach this work in a way that alienates or offends others, especially BIPOC. Keep in mind that while you might have really great things to contribute, White folks have a history of entering a space and taking over or dominating the conversation. In addition, who are we to educate people of color on their lived experiences? Take the time to unpack your need to prove you have enough knowledge to be at the table. Respect and preserve spaces for BIPOC, listen, observe, and offer help when needs are identified and help is requested by BIPOC.

I have personally found great value in focusing on myself and engaging in conversations with other White folks around holding myself accountable to keep moving forward on my EDI journey, to learn and listen a lot more to other voices. I also try to read and watch a wide variety of Anti-Racism Resources written by diverse authors that are both White and BIPOC. There is also great power in sport to create social change. Reading or watching content such as the Showtime series “Shut-Up and Dribble” by LeBron James, ESPNs 9 for IX and 30 for 30 series, as well as looking at stories, biographies, and the history of inclusion, oppression and discrimination in sport are incredibly powerful. There are triumphs and travesties in the world of sports, and sport has played a significant role in influencing and reflecting societal issues.

As I’ve grown as an ally, I’ve shifted my focus to think about how I can be of service to others, especially BIPOC and other underrepresented folks, to advocate for more voices and representation at the table, but more importantly, to step back and create a space where non-dominant voices are truly able to lead and focus my work on how I can support and champion their leadership, goals and vision, without stepping into the limelight, asking folks what they need/want and offering resources where I’m able. This can be hard as a person with multiple non-dominant identities that has not always — or still even today — been welcome at the table, particularly in the world of recreation and sports. I many times still yearn for my voice to be welcome and accepted at the table.

As I grapple with these emotions, I remind myself that I still have this White privilege that has helped me move through spaces far easier than colleagues and students who have non-dominant identities and are BIPOC. As I’ve become more educated around EDI, I have also challenged myself to be courageous and brave and call-out behaviors that perpetuate inequality. This work is scary and hard, and there are cost-benefits associated with moving from just being an ally, especially a performative ally that only shows up when it’s convenient or feels safe, to becoming an active ally, or as Betinna Love says, a “co-conspirator” that is willing to be brave and put themselves on the line.  We are at a crossroads in our country where being complicit is perceived as contributing to the systemic issues and if we don’t act now, then when?

The 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge provides additional resources on committing to your EDI journey and Dr. Kathy Obear has resources for white accountability. Regardless of where you are on your journey, as Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

A former colleague, Tracie Lockwood, the associate director at UCLA Recreation, created the image above while homeschooling her three children during the pandemic, teaching them about venn diagrams and talking with her children about the current events occurring in our country. It provides a great visualization of Angelou’s wise words, and a sense of hope as we each move through our unique EDI journey.

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