Sports

Athletes take on diversity with honest conversations in video series

Ellie Thompson in the pool

“I’ve had excellent conversations over my four years with people who don’t share ideologies with me and people who have different political views. And that is just a microcosm of what can happen at Middlebury if we can lean into this discomfort, if we are willing to actually talk and educate ourselves.”
— Jourdon Delerme-Brown

MIDDLEBURY — In the first video in the weekly Middlebury College Athletic Department’s “Leaning into Discomfort” series, Chinese-American swimmer Ellie Thompson talks about the conflict between her racial identity and her mostly white team’s culture of conformity.
For Thompson, that tension heightened this winter when the president blamed China for COVID-19, leading to discrimination against Asian-Americans.
None of her teammates addressed the issue, she said in a 16-minute video conversation with fellow Panther student-athlete Jourdon Delerme-Brown, a Black football player, that can be viewed at tinyurl.com/yyhucrj6.
She asked herself why the conversations weren’t happening.
“You want to have a sense of acceptance, and that comes from following the status quo, and that drives the types of conversations that happen on your team, and maybe the conversations that don’t happen on your team,” Thompson said.
“There wasn’t anybody talking about how the president’s rhetoric affected myself and other teammates … It maybe felt like they didn’t see me as a Chinese-American. It was almost like an invisible identity.”
In the conversation Delerme-Brown spoke about what he went through on his team after the November 2016 election.
“The different views on my team were brought to the forefront on the field. People were wearing Trump-Pence gear during practice. That has a direct effect when the president is saying conjectures or misnomers about your people, your heritage,” Delerme-Brown said.
But both ended the first episode of what is a planned year-long series — it will feature conversations on diversity among students, coaches, administrators, alumni, professors and others — on hopeful notes.
They believe the videos, produced by the athletic department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, could make an impact in a college community that has at times struggled with the issue by normalizing the conversations they say are necessary.
“I’m extremely optimistic,” Delerme-Brown said. “I’ve had excellent conversations over my four years with people who don’t share ideologies with me and people who have different political views. And that is just a microcosm of what can happen at Middlebury if we can lean into this discomfort, if we are willing to actually talk and educate ourselves.” 
Thompson said she hopes the Leaning Into Discomfort series can model how people can begin to talk, listen and learn.
“This series is a really good example of how we’re having conscious inclusion, by including a variety of voices,” Thompson said. “If you have an open mind and are willing to listen, the opportunities for progress are just completely endless.”GENESIS
The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee includes the two students, Middlebury Athletic Director Erin Quinn, men’s basketball coach Jeff Brown, women’s lacrosse coach Kate Livesay, assistant women’s basketball coach and chairperson Savannah Morgan, track & field coach Martin Beatty, women’s soccer coach Peter Kim, assistant football coach Dave Caputi, and Alexis Paquette, the school’s assistant sports information director. Sebastian Sanchez, a 2018 graduate and member of the baseball team, was a recent addition to the committee.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the national protests that followed provided urgency to the committee’s mission, members said.
Thompson lives near Minneapolis, and afterward she called Quinn to talk.
“When George Floyd was murdered early this summer it really hit me personally,” she said. “That’s where I get the excitement, the energy, the want to be a part of this, to start something.”
Paquette said at a Zoom meeting earlier this summer that talk of promoting the committee’s work morphed into modeling a video series after former NFL player Emmanuel Acho’s “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man.”
That series can be found at uncomfortableconvos.com and describes itself as “A conversation with Emmanuel Acho about race that many white people have never been able to have.” 
“The way Emmanuel does it, it just makes it normal to talk about these things,” Paquette said. 
Quinn echoed that viewpoint in a Zoom interview with Thompson, Delerme-Brown and Paquette that was held after he and Brown sat down to record the second video. It was released on Aug. 4 and may be viewed at tinyurl.com/y2ryexy3.
“I think that (it’s) modeling for our entire community, whether it’s our athletic community, the Middlebury College community, anybody in our extended alumni community, the local community, who is maybe struggling with how can I talk about this,” he said.
“They’re going to see different ages, different races, different genders, having these conversations, putting themselves out there for people.”
According to Paquette, as of Aug. 6 the first Leaning Into Discomfort video had been viewed on college platforms about 3,000 times, and the second about 1,500 times. Those numbers did not include sharing or re-posting.CONVERSATIONS
For their video, Thompson and Delerme-Brown discussed their topic in advance, but the result was unscripted. Quinn and Brown took turns asking each other questions prepared by the committee, but not revealed to each other.
Brown spoke on what his experience had been as one of the few Black coaches in Middlebury and individuals in his community, and on his feelings about having two brothers in law enforcement during the current unrest.
Quinn fielded questions on whether as a white male he was “equipped” to make reforms in the athletic department in the area or racial diversity and inclusion, and why the college had not been more successful in recruiting more coaches and athletes with diverse backgrounds.  
His response, in part, to the last question: “We have work to do.”
This week’s video offers Delerme-Brown Zooming with 2020 graduate Chellsa Ferdinand, a member of the campus Black Student Union and volleyball team, and Sanchez, one of three non-white players on the baseball team his senior year.
Quinn and the students said the series is not placing an undue educational burden on its minority participants.
Quinn said identities and discussion on the committee extend beyond race, as would topics on future videos; Delerme-Brown said he “definitely” felt it was a shared burden; and Thompson said the early response has come from many quarters.
“From the first episode we saw the extent of community engagement we had in Middlebury and beyond,” she said. “People are ready to talk from all different identities, whether they are white, black, Asian, female, male, they’re just ready to talk. And we just opened up the door.” 
And Delerme-Brown repeated the optimism about the series he expressed on the first video.
“You can’t understand the complexities of these topics unless you have conversations face-to-face, until you decide to sit down and talk about it,” he said. “So I think the Middlebury community will be better for it.”

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