The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Commission, along with several invited guests and content area experts, met November 17-19 at Georgia Tech for the NIRSA EDI Summit. Thanks to funding from the NIRSA Board of Directors, the group was able to come together and discuss the concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion within the world of campus recreation.

Throughout our time together, attendees shared examples and struggles, worked through case studies, and challenged each other and NIRSA to weave this value even further into the fabric of the campus recreation profession.

Creating momentum

To do so is, admittedly, no small undertaking. Everyone involved in the work of the EDI Summit acknowledges the fact that real, sustainable change does not appear overnight and an incremental approach is actually quite significant.

“If there was an easy solution to eradicate the oppression many people experience in their daily lives, it would have been discovered by now.”

EDI Commissioner Erin Patchett, Associate Director of Campus Recreation Administration at Colorado State University reflected on the phrase ‘momentum towards change’ as being one of her biggest Summit takeaways. “If there was an easy solution to eradicate the oppression many people experience in their daily lives, it would have been discovered by now,” she says. “Instead, I am committed to the small (and medium) changes that help shift a culture. This idea of ‘momentum towards change’ feels very real; it’s still not easy by any means, but something we can do given the amazing, passionate people in our association and on our individual campuses.”

The big picture

“I am committed to the small (and medium) changes that help shift a culture.”

Attendees arrived in Atlanta throughout the day on November 16 and readied themselves to take on the critical work of further activating this  strategic value of the association. If the events of this past summer, after which the NIRSA Board reaffirmed the association’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, weren’t enough to accentuate the importance of this work, the recent tenor and conversations across campuses throughout the United States certainly has. “EDI work is huge; the more we talked the more [clearly] I can see the need and importance of the work we are doing,” shares EDI Commission Co-Chair Jim Wilkening, Executive Director of Recreation and Wellness at University of Central Florida.

Over the next two and a half days, attendees met in Georgia Tech’s Campus Recreation Complex (CRC). Under the excellent guidance and facilitation of Cara McFadden, Assistant Professor at Elon University, and in consultation with content expert Tanya Williams, they discussed the definitions of equity, diversity, and inclusion; what they hoped campus rec professionals, NIRSA members, and students would know, be, and do; what resources or ideas already existed and could be further leveraged; and the necessity of a tiered curriculum for development.

Post-summit, Tanya, in consultation with the volunteer leaders of the EDI Commission, will use the Summit’s discussion and learnings to draft resources for NIRSA to use as an association, for members to use within their departments, and for use individually.

Building resources that serve as entry points for discussion

Attendees kept this goal of building campus-recreation-specific resources at the forefront of their work. The group recognized that every professional, department, and campus is at a different place of educational privilege, understanding, and progress. With this in mind, the first resource to be produced will feature a conceptual overview, meant as a point of entry to equity, inclusion, and social justice topics, as well as their implication on services provided by recreational sports professionals.

“Every professional, department, and campus is at a different place of educational privilege, understanding, and progress.”

In addition to providing an overview of common social justice terminologies and frameworks, the resource is also aiming to provide demographic information of diversity on campuses and helpful hints as to how to begin dialogue around these issues.

In fact, the concept (and necessity) of civil discourse was heavily discussed. It is worth noting the EDI Commission is not alone in advocating for this; the NIRSA Assembly has been heavily focused on civil discourse and will use their session at the NIRSA 2017 Annual Conference, scheduled on February 22 from 2:15-3:15pm, to discuss the topic further.

The Summit modeled civil discourse by opting to dialogue in a brave space, rather than the traditionally thought of safe space. It is increasingly important for all higher education professionals to be able to engage in civil discourse and facilitate seemingly divisive topics as issues of EDI are increasingly embedded in students’ day-to-day lives. Several Commissioners noted they and others often served as the ‘go to’ individual on their campus for any EDI-related conversation; the work of the Summit helped drive home how, rather than always take the lead, they needed to “teach others to facilitate and encourage them to be brave,” as EDI Commissioner Andrea Snead, Sport Club Coordinator at University of Central Florida puts it.

The forthcoming resources will also feature a robust and multifaceted identity wheel. This wheel, which seeks to highlight identities around race, sex, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, veteran status, and ability, will also provide common terminology for each identity, implications for working with these identities within the context of collegiate recreation, and access to relevant best practice resources.

The use of a wheel as a visual tool will also help stress the importance of interconnectivity—of our identities and our actions. One tool, used to highlight the latter, really made an impact on Summit attendees. The Anti-Defamation League’s “Pyramid of Hate” depicts, at its top, life-threatening behaviors easy to rebuke and find abhorrent; however, its pyramid structure clarifies these are supported and built on more common behaviors often easily dismissed—belittling jokes or insensitive remarks.

EDI Commissioner Marcus Jackson, Associate Director, Club Sports, Intramural Sports & Outdoor Adventures at the University of Michigan explains how the resource drives home “the complexities associated with each level and how they are all connected and grow from one another, as well as how they become more acceptable when we don’t do enough work in the early stages.”

The first full draft of this robust resource will be completed in mid-January, at which time the EDI Commission will have an opportunity to review and provide feedback. The Commission will then be able to preview this resource at their EDI Roundtable, scheduled to take place February 22 from 8:00-9:00am, at the NIRSA 2017 Annual Conference. The NIRSA network of leaders in collegiate recreation provides invaluable feedback and idea generation; we hope as many members as possible will be able to attend and provide feedback to guide the focus and form of further EDI resources.

The importance of the NIRSA network

Throughout the event, dialogue, even on difficult topics, was robust and engaging—on the final evening of the Summit conversation continued easily an hour past the anticipated ending time. “Seeing, listening, and learning to what others are doing is quite impressive,” says Jim.

“The commitment and depth of information and resources we have is energizing.”

Attendees found it exciting to hear and share what great work several campuses are already doing; they made it a goal to share these ideas more widely throughout the association. As Marcus puts it, “the commitment and depth of information and resources we have is energizing.” Andrea adds this was achieved with only a relatively small group of people in the room—“imagine what it would look like if everyone shared.”

It also did not go unnoticed by the group that for those campus recreation professionals from small schools or community colleges, where staff and funds can be especially tight, these kinds of resources, packaged in one easy-to-find place and constructed with the campus recreation lens in mind, are particularly invaluable.

As resources are developed and hosted on the NIRSA website, they will continue to be viewed as ‘living.’ This means they will need to be revised to stay current with the ever-evolving global reality we’re all a part of, but also to reflect the new, different, and trendsetting work of NIRSA members.

Other next steps for resource building will be for volunteers to generate modules NIRSA members can use. Each module will take an in-depth look at an identity or social justice issue. It will provide resources that can be used not just in personal development, but also in staff and departmental trainings. Conscious of the fact that a one-size fits all philosophy will not be productive for the diverse range of NIRSA member institutions, the modules will be tiered. Members can self-select where they feel they (or their staff) are; multiple entry points will help tailor content to be educational and engaging, without being overwhelming.

A momentum towards change

Coming off of the Summit, the ‘momentum towards change’ was felt by all. Attendees left excited by new ideas and concepts, as well as a shared sense of purpose and drive within the Association. On the final morning before traveling home, everyone spent time wrapping up ideas and committing to future action within NIRSA and on their home campuses.

“Coming off of the Summit, the ‘momentum towards change’ was felt by all.”

These promises have already been put into action by Summit attendees. Whether it’s advocating for underrepresented groups when normally they would have let the role fall to another department or individual, starting conversations about hiring practices and the use of coded language when evaluating potential candidates, reengaging in EDI conversations within their unit, or working on forming a departmental diversity committee, the Summit’s ripple effect through the NIRSA membership is already tangible.

  • For more information about the Summit or the work of the NIRSA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Commission, contact NIRSA Executive Communications, Advocacy, and External Affairs, Erin O’Sullivan or EDI Commission Co-Chair Wendy Motch-Ellis, Director of Titan Recreation at California State University, Fullerton.
Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships at |

Erin O'Sullivan is currently the Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships at NIRSA.