Within about a day of the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Ed McLaughlin conceived an avenue of action.
A strong voice was needed out of the athletics department at VCU, McLaughlin felt, of what steps it would take. The department could look within, while also examining how to impact the community at large.
Serving those functions, McLaughlin, VCU vice president and director of athletics, moved to establish a new entity within VCU’s athletic department: the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. He appointed Sofia Hiort-Wright (senior associate athletic director for academic support, associate vice provost for student services and senior women’s administrator) and Takeya McLaurin (senior associate athletic director for administration) as co-chairs of the group.
Twenty-six more members joined from across the department: athletes, administrators, coaches and support staff.
Over the course of the summer, the group has worked on various programming, both internal and external, while trying to foster the most supportive and inclusive environment as possible within the department.
The DEI committee was announced publicly on Tuesday.
“In this current environment, we wanted to make sure that we were a part of the solution as it relates to all of the social justice issues that directly impact our Black and African American student-athletes, as well as our coaches and staff,” McLaurin said. “So we really wanted, in this environment nationally, to let those student-athletes know that, ‘We are here for you, we support you and we’re here to be a part of the solution.’”
The cornerstones of the committee, McLaurin said, are education and advocacy on social justice issues, unity and solidarity, and community service.
Committee programming has been open to all in athletics. Over the past three months, since its conception, the committee has spoken to VCU officers about policing; collected supplies for youth in Title I schools in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico; held webinars on inclusive leadership; and started an athletics diversity reading and discussion series that has read and will soon discuss Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” before moving on to Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.”
The committee is also working with VCU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee on a series of voter registration drives, the first of which was scheduled for Thursday.
Voter education is one of the committee’s immediate focuses, as the November election approaches. The SAAC has three more voter registration drives planned after Thursday, on Sept. 22, Oct. 9 and Oct. 13.
“The most important thing is that people vote,” McLaughlin said. “We don’t care how people vote, we just want people to vote and be active participants in their citizenship in this country. And our hope is to raise awareness, raise voter registration.”
The feedback on the committee has been “overwhelming and humbling,” in a positive way McLaughlin said.
But even in the midst of the steps already taken in the several weeks since the committee was born, a takeaway has been that there’s a lot of work to be done, McLaurin said.
One aim is to ensure that staffing and resources are reflective of the students served.
VCU’s rosters bring together a diverse mix of athletes, of a range of races and nationalities.
“And so we should have a department that better reflects that,” McLaurin said.
Also part of the committee’s vision for the future is continued education, on multiple topics, including racism, gender inequity and LGBTQIA issues. Another aim is to complete internal assessments, examining personnel and how student-athletes and staff of color are being valued.
The group is trying to make a culture change, McLaurin said. The VCU athletics department wasn’t in a bad spot, but there are things it could be doing better, she said.
The DEI committee seems to have the wheels in motion.
“What we are really just looking to do is really just to amplify what is already a VCU athletics core value: diversity and equity,” McLaurin said. “And really have that be just a real standout for us in terms of our culture.”