Feature story on embracing inclusion within Lehigh Athletics. Among the featured (and quoted) student-athletes in the piece is women's soccer junior Lidia Breen.
By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
If everyone on a sports team played the same position, how successful would that team be?
The answer is pretty obvious… not very successful.
In order to be a successful team, embracing differences is critically important. One example of a difference is skill set on the playing field, but differences go far beyond position within one's sport.
"I have challenged our student-athlete leaders for years to provide leadership in the domain of inclusivity and diversity because we as an athlete cohort should understand better than many other student groups the importance of embracing differences," said Murray H. Goodman Dean of Athletics Joe Sterrett.
Lehigh student-athletes are certainly stepping up to the challenge. In a day and age when hate and discrimination against certain groups of people is far too prevalent in the world, Lehigh Athletics is stepping up its education and programming to help foster inclusion.
Among the programming is Athlete Ally, a national organization with a Lehigh chapter whose goal is to decrease, and eliminate, homophobia in sports. There's also ASCEND, a new organization founded by women's basketball senior Quinci Mann which, broadly speaking, is focused on understanding ethnicity. Members of the Lehigh Athletics Administration are also putting together T.I.D.E. (tackling inclusion, diversity and equity) to provide ongoing focus and support for these dimensions of the department culture.
"It's important to have advocates who make it known that you're our teammate no matter what," said women's soccer junior and co-captain of Athlete Ally Lidia Breen. "We need to create an environment where nothing else matters besides the fact that we're teammates."
"If inclusion is everybody's responsibility, it's also nobody's responsibility," said Sterrett. "Our commitment as a department has a chance to be stronger and more enduring if we have an organizational structure, a collection of people who are dedicated to the intention of fostering an inclusive culture."
Athletics is the perfect venue to display the benefits of diversity because teams on the field truly model the working world.
"Every study you read will tell you that the most diverse teams - whether it's diverse in thought, socioeconomic status, ethnic background, nationality or anything else - are the most successful because they're able to solve problems in multiple ways," said Mann. "I would call ASCEND a multicultural effort - understanding ethnicity, nationality, where different people come from, along with the practices and attitudes they might bring - and incorporating all of those in a way where everyone can thrive equally."
Presently, the environment within Lehigh Athletics is positive, but there is always room to improve, get better and educate for the present and future.
"Wherever we are in regards to our culture, it's not where we'll probably want and need to be, so our efforts to promote education about inclusion are important priorities in the context of preparing our students for a lifetime of leadership," said Sterrett. "Understanding and embracing inclusion is a central dimension of effective leadership in all walks of society."
Athlete Ally and ASCEND are "technically" working separately, but they understand they're in the fight together.
"If you're going to be accepting of one community, you're going to be accepting of everyone," said Breen. "We're at a good place and I believe the department really cares about inclusion, especially with making ASCEND and Athlete Ally official engagement groups.
"Our goals in Athlete Ally are to create an environment in which every single person on every single team, even coaches and staff members, feels comfortable being their best selves at any point in time. We want everyone to feel comfortable trusting their teammates with any information, whether it's about sexuality or anything else."
Athlete Ally has already hosted many events this fall with great turnouts. The first step has been getting people out to its events.
"Homophobia is a hard thing to talk about," said Breen. "This semester, we hosted a pancake breakfast and free ice cream on the lawn. We've tried fun events where we have an incentive, then on the side, there's an educational component where we offer the Pride Center information and have Athlete Allly's mission statement on hand."
Athlete Ally has also held a joint session with Student-Athlete Mentors to talk about inclusive language.
"All the members of both groups sat down and talked about inclusive language," said Breen. "Nicole Yozzo of softball reached out to us because she thought it was important for SAMs to know. A lot of the SAMs are leaders on their teams, so they can help educate their teammates."
While Breen has helped spearhead a local chapter at Lehigh of a national organization, Mann created an entirely new organization in ASCEND, which stands for Athletes Seeking Change in Educating and Nurturing Diversity.
"Hearing from students of color, some felt like they didn't belong at Lehigh and weren't understood," said Mann. "Something like ASCEND has the ability to take a lot of pressure off people in those situations. We give them a place they can go and a place that's advocating for them.
"A lot of the motivation to create ASCEND was from my freshman and sophomore years, when I wish there was an organization like ASCEND or someone I could talk to."
After she had the idea, Mann wrote a proposal and a strategic plan along with a mission and vision. She proposed it to then Assistant Director of Athletics Leadership Development Anna Patterson, who was her initial advocate. The proposal eventually went up to senior administration and Mann worked closely with the department's leadership team in implementing ASCEND last spring.
Like Breen with Athlete Ally, Mann is focused on holding events and getting people to those events. She's working from the ground up.
"Being brand new, affecting change takes a lot of time," said Mann. "We had to spend time watching, observing and learning from other people. We've had to educate ourselves about the climate and what needs to be done, what needs to be taught and how we think we can best help the community.
"After spending a semester doing internal work, we've been able to host some events," she continued. "We hosted a chew and view where we showed a movie that highlighted sport and cultural awareness. We had a pretty good turnout and discussion, with a number of good lessons."
The end goal from all of Lehigh Athletics' initiatives is educating about differences and making student-athletes consciously think about differences, even if they don't deal with them on a daily basis.
"Lehigh is not a big school, so there's not always a lot of diversity on our teams," said Breen. "Many of us are from the same socioeconomic status or from the same geographic areas and we have many of the same viewpoints. We are very similar people so many times, we don't need to handle diversity. We're not put in those situations."
Recently, ASCEND raised money for New Bethany Ministries, which helped the local Bethlehem community while teaching the Lehigh community about differences. It put the Lehigh community into a position where it was forced to understand and embrace diversity.
"There are a lot of cultural gaps between the South Bethlehem and Lehigh communities, so we wanted to shine some light on some of those differences," said Mann. "There was a harvest festival and we raised money for their food bank, hoping to get someone from New Bethany to come over and speak to the types of people they serve and differences in their cultural demographic."
Lehigh Athletics is focused on the long-term just as much as the short term.
"We're fostering that inclusive language and having that educational aspect from the beginning so when the situation comes, people are ready and not fighting to change habits," said Breen.
"Ineffective relationships often suffer from a lack of education, a lack of sincere commitment to try and understand first," said Sterrett. "Any initiative, any program and any team whose primary objective is really educational (enhanced awareness and greater understanding) is going to be serving well the root needs of a very strong culture. Education is a powerful tool, a necessary one and one that's never mastered. We never can learn all there is to know."
Education is happening at a greater and greater rate because more and more people are attending their events.
"The fact that the culture has changed that much where people feel comfortable coming to an Athlete Ally event and getting educated, even if it has to come with an incentive like free food, that's something we're very proud of and trying to sustain," said Breen. "So many people have stopped by at the events and have signed the Athlete Ally pledge."
Mann summed up the efforts into one word.
"In the long run, the most important value that comes from these initiatives is empathy," she said. "These things are bigger than Lehigh, bigger than your game tomorrow, bigger than your test on Wednesday. These issues are important and it's important that you care about them because at some point, something like this is going to affect you and you'll want someone to care, so you should show the same empathy.
"We're all human beings," Mann continued. "Sports is a really good way to bypass the conflicts that difference in identity might create. It doesn't matter whose house you go back to, who you hang out with, what foods you eat or what you do in your spare time because we're all here to play a sport and we're all here to do this together."