On Sept. 19, I gave the keynote at the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) meeting. With approximately 250 high school and district administrators in attendance, I talked about how to build inclusivity and community in an education-based sports environment.
Participation from the audience was limited. Nobody wanted to discuss issues they were facing with their students or community members. In fact, I gave everyone a stern dressing down. I reminded them that I was an advocate for diversity and inclusion and that if they couldn’t talk to me about their issues and needs, how would their student-athletes or community talk to them?
When I left the podium, I was saddened. The candid discussion about race, class, gender and other identity aspects had fallen flat. While disappointed in the audience, I was more disappointed in myself. How had I allowed diversity and inclusion issues to turn into obstacles instead of opportunities?
Rob Cuff, UHSAA executive director, announced that I would be available to meet with people individually for about 15 minutes during a break. I chuckled softly to myself, thinking, “That will never happen.” Well, I was wrong.
When I stepped out of the room, a single-file line had formed. As I moved to the front, the first person started speaking with me about their situation. Each school was more than willing to discuss their concerns one-on-one. Nobody wanted to make their issues public.
As we spoke, I saw the obstacle turn to an opportunity. I tried to provide ways to improve understanding and belonging on their teams and in their community. I also made myself available for deeper discussion, and even training.
Enter, Tabiona School principal, Darin Jenkins. An educator in Duchesne County, he leads a K-12 school. Their mission is “to provide a safe, supportive, learning environment with opportunities for each student to develop the skills and knowledge to become a responsible, successful citizen. Every student can learn and will be college and career ready.” They seek to accomplish these aims through active partnerships between home, school and community.
Unfortunately, in early 2019 overt racism was experienced at multiple athletic events. As the principal, Jenkins was found to have violated the UHSAA’s Sportsmanship Rules by failing to remove students, spectators and/or fans making racist or harassing remarks at students/athletes of the opposing team. He and his school were fined, placed on probation for three years and subjected to sportsmanship audits. The school was further directed to “engage with the school and the community to discuss and remedy the evils of racism.”
That’s where I came in. Principal Jenkins invited me to spend a day at Tabiona School, holding three workshops to discuss racism: K-3, 4-6 and 7-12 plus the community. Each group was engaged in dialog and exercises about identity, stereotypes, respect and exclusion.
With the youngest students, we shared a story and discussed how to accept and respect the differences and similarities of people. With the fourth through sixth graders, we focused on the ways people from different cultures and backgrounds hold similar values and beliefs as well as the differences that may exist between us. We rounded out our discussion focusing on respect and learning with and from each other. Finally, with our seventh through 12th graders and community members, we focused on becoming aware of our own cultural viewpoints and stereotypes that we may have directly or inadvertently picked up. We also explored the impact of unconscious bias.
Needless to say, it was a very busy day. Principal Jenkins was adamant that his students and community explore racism and other forms of hate because that is not the value that they uphold. In fact, as a part of their mission, they believe that diversity strengthens individuals and the community. The best way to show that is to engage in direct dialog. In other words, turn the obstacle into an opportunity. I think we can all do a little more of this. I look forward to working with Tabiona students, faculty, staff and community members in the future. We have work to do, and it looks like the people of Tabiona are willing and committed to seeing it through.