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Increasing Diversity and Inclusion on Campus: A Conversation with Nebraska’s DaWon Baker

February 21, 2021

DaWon Baker has an important place in Husker athletics. He has served as the athletic department’s Diversity and Inclusion Director since 2018. Baker earned his undergraduate degree at Missouri and agraduate degree from the University of Central Florida.

Hail Varsity sat down with Baker, remotely, to talk more about his role within athletics, programming the events his department puts together and much more.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: What are the main responsibilities in your role as Diversity and Inclusion Director?

A: The main responsibilities are really creating, and I guess quarterbacking, the diversity and inclusion strategy for our department as a whole. Originally when I was hired, there was a very strong emphasis on the student-athlete experience. Since I’ve been here, we’ve started to grow and expand it to have a lot more coaching and staff responsibilities as well. What that looks like for us is creating and implementing a strategic plan for diversity and inclusion. It is integrating diversity and inclusion into all of our student programming that we do with the Life Skills program, making sure that it is a topic that our coaches and support staff are considering when we’re working with our student-athletes. From a staffing perspective, it has really grown to include how it is that we are trying to integrate the ideas of diversity and inclusion and the values of diversity and inclusion into everything that we do. One thing could be working on a hiring process. Are we making sure that we are diversifying the candidate pool within the interviews? Are we actually speaking with applicants and telling them this is a priority for us and making sure that they understand and know what they’re signing up for? From a social media or content perspective, it’s ensuring that we have a diverse set of stories and content that we can create. Making sure that our student athletes who might come from different or underrepresented backgrounds are also being highlighted for their experience and their different challenges.

Q: Can you just speak to why it is that diversity and inclusion are so important to you?

A: It really kind of stems from my experience as an undergrad. I was a student-athlete. I ran track at Mizzou. My student-athlete experience, it was fairly good. It could have been great, but it was just good. That’s no fault of Missouri or anything like that. I didn’t really run into a lot of issues as a student-athlete. As I finished competing and transitioned to just being a student on campus, 2014 is my senior year. Mike Brown happens back in St. Louis [ed. Michael Brown Jr. was fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer in 2014]. I am born and raised in St. Louis, specifically in Ferguson. That’s probably about 10 minutes from where I live.

Being a student on campus at that time, I have a lot of friends and a lot of people from the city of St. Louis who are just connected to the university. They’re upset, they’re angry. They’re really trying to understand what’s going on in the world and seek some guidance and some answers from people that were working at the university. Really, it was kind of falling on deaf ears. A lot of people were really, really frustrated and wanted to make changes in the administration for the university to show that they were paying attention to what was going on two hours down the street. Truth be told, Mizzou didn’t handle it well.

That was my first time seeing it up close and personal, how this idea of diversity and inclusion is not just making you feel like you’re valued and important but it’s an actual strategy. I don’t think that there was a strategy in place because there was no Chief Diversity Officer, no Vice Chancellor for Inclusion. Those things didn’t exist at the university at the time.

Q: What would you say about your role for people who don’t understand or don’t know why it’s so important?

A: Specifically, when it comes to our athletic department, we have student-athletes from almost every single state, by last count I think it’s 43. We have student-athletes from almost 30 different countries. No matter what sport you are interacting with, there’s a likelihood that there’s somebody who’s not from Nebraska and not from the US participating. Who are we to invite all of these student-athletes here from a lot of different places and not be empathetic to the fact that they’re going to be having a different experience based on their own life experience, right?

We want to make sure that we are empathetic to that and also provide not only opportunity for them to be integrated but also to celebrate the fact that they are coming from a different place. Because Nebraska is really passionate about their own, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it creates a lot of people who have the same type of perspective. When you have the same all the time you get the same results. We want to emphasize this difference is really important for not only competing on the field, but just creating good people once they walk out these doors. Once they leave, the world is not going to be just like them being on this campus for four years. We have to prepare them for what this looks like if they are moving across the world, or if they’re even moving two, three states over. It is going to look a lot different. It’s our job to make sure that they understand that. They know how to integrate and also know how to communicate that and be able to work with people from different backgrounds who have different perspectives, too.

Q: What are the challenges in this role when trying to educate people?

A: I think the major challenge is really just the lack of continuity. That’s one of the major things that I’ve seen. What I’ve found is it’s really difficult to tout how good the community is here or how it can be when you can’t consistently show people either consistent efforts, or consistent people who have been here, to be able to say, “Yes, I remember when we did that 15 years ago, 20 years ago, 25 years ago.” That continuity is really challenging because either people shift around or it’s one person. If that one person is not available, there’s nothing else that you can really put in front of somebody who might be coming from a different place. I also think part of the challenge I face is I think when a lot of people hear me talk about diversity, inclusion and difference, the first thing they think about is race. That’s probably the major one because that’s the difference that we can see in people.

One of the things that we try to stress too is that I will always advocate that we need to talk about race. It needs to be a part of the conversation. It can’t be the only part of the conversation. Sometimes different is just getting somebody who has no ties to here, and just getting somebody who thinks completely differently because they don’t have any ties to here. We tend to hire people who have ties to Nebraska. What I love about it is the fact that you get people who care about not just the institution but the state of the people. That’s fantastic, but we also need to mix some people who are coming with different perspectives. That’s a challenge because a lot of the deep-rooted individuals and processes have been really based on Nebraskan people. There’s a little bit of a challenge in disrupting that and, that’s how we’ve always done things. There’s always a challenge there, but it’s definitely something that we at least have conversations about. We try our best to not only alleviate that, but also provide resources and tools to be able to step aside from that, too.

Q: How do you help student-athletes in the role of a Life Skills coach?

A: I’m the liaison for rifle and for men’s gymnastics. I also have a handful of football and track and field. The way our staff is set up, we have five full-time, one postgraduate intern and we now have two graduate assistants. We’re all assigned a different team and coaching staff. We can really just be the touchpoint with them. We all work with football because of the size of the team, and two of us a split track. But, really, what that looks like from a day to day perspective is consistent check-ins so anything that all of our other life skills counselors do, I also do that. I just have a smaller caseload of student-athletes. Checking in with the coaches to say, “Hey, coach, this program is going on next week, just want you to know that these people are required to attend based on their year in school.” Doing individual meetings just to try to get to know other members of that team and really see what we can provide for them as a university and also as individuals. From a team basis there can also be team-specific programming. One of my colleagues works with our women’s gymnastics teams. Last year, he had a lot of the women’s gymnasts who wanted to get into either personal branding or social-media management. He set up a meeting with OpenDorse to come and speak to them, to teach them exactly what their career path looks like, how to put your branding and your social media to good use. So that could be something that we also do. I haven’t done it to that specific theme, more of the things I’ve done have been around diversity and inclusion. But that’s also something that we can do on a team-by-team basis. The fact that we have liaisons to each team is really helpful because we can share the wealth a little bit. We all have our own special touch on how it is we work with teams or athletes.

Q: Are there particular sports that you see as being very engaged with diversity and inclusion, wanting to learn more about it?

A: Yeah, most definitely. The ones that come to mind for me have to be bowling for sure. I think part of that is because of the makeup of their team being, in my opinion, the most diverse from nationality to ethnicity, race to geographic location. Bowling is probably the most. I would say soccer has definitely been very involved over the past few months, specifically on the education piece. They’ve done things where they’ve done their own education sessions that really just kind of consulted me on best practices and how it is that I can help if they get stuck on some things. Women’s golf has definitely been one. They’ve been in the boat with us for a while. Softball hasn’t done as much but has shown a very strong commitment. The major thing with softball, really, has just been more scheduling issues, but that coaching staff consistently is talking to me and making sure that I’m aware of some of the things that might be happening from a team perspective.

I would also probably say men’s and women’s basketball, too. Men’s to me is a lot more self-sufficient if you will, but does a good job of communicating the things that they’re doing. This summer, when they were creating partnerships and doing their statements, a lot of the conversations were “Hey, this is what we’re thinking about doing. This is the direction we want to take. Is there anything that gives you pause?” A lot of it has been communicative on that piece with them.

Same with women’s basketball. My thing is, I don’t ever want to be the person that’s directing everything, because I don’t think that is genuine. I try and work with a lot of coaches and student athletes to say, “You tell me what you want to do.” I will tell you based on my experience, that’s the best way to kind of get there or to lay it out, so that you can get your goal across. To make sure that it’s effective and people can understand the meaning of it, if some people have some issues or challenges, and how it can be interpreted. So, definitely have a lot of those conversations with a lot of our coaches and student-athletes, really consulting them and trying to make sure that their goals are met, but specifically making sure that everything makes sense.

Q: Are there programs to advance diversity and inclusion within the community as well?

A: From an athletics standpoint, there’s nothing that is directly tied to the entire department. We do have teams who try their best to make sure that they’re diversified in the places they go. Teams might do their own specific programming to try to advance it. I know men’s basketball has a partnership with the Malone Center where they go up there and volunteer and be with some of the students who are participating in the programming. We’ve had a number of student athletes who have done some volunteering with F Street Rec Center.

What I’ve been trying to do too is also create opportunities for a lot of our student-athletes to either have volunteer opportunities or internships at some of the organizations that really do have a focus around diversity and inclusion. We’ve facilitated some conversations from our football guys to go over and get started at the Malone Center in the offseason or right after spring ball. We try our best to try to make sure that it’s an emphasis with what opportunities we’re providing as Life Skills. If this something that your team is really passionate about, we can help find what that organization looks like or what the opportunity looks like to really try to help whatever community that you think is best. I do think it is probably going to be a stronger emphasis moving forward. We’ve had some conversations about what it looks like to generate some additional eyes or some additional spotlight on some of those more underrepresented places around Lincoln. Just kind of using our footprint and using our brand as Nebraska athletics to bring some awareness to it.

Q: What type of programming would you say that you guys typically put on at a given time? And what specifically do you guys have going on this month for Black History Month?

A: The biggest thing from a program standpoint is probably our annual summit. We do a diversity and inclusion summit for all of our student-athletes. It’s typically around January, February every year just because that’s usually the best time of the year for the vast majority of our sports. That’s an opportunity for us to pause and really come together and celebrate the diversity we have, but also practice inclusion. So there’s always some type of element that’s built in where our staff and student-athletes get a chance to practice what our speakers are presenting on. We’ve been doing that program for 6 years now.

When I got here we really weren’t doing a lot past that for staff and coaches, but for student-athletes we were doing more. I’ve tried to put a stronger emphasis on what that looks like from a staff perspective. Over the past year-and-a-half or so we’ve started to do some lunch-and-learns internally. So inviting some of our campus colleagues to come over and do some education for our staff around what it looks like to really engage with a specific demographic, or just learn about a specific demographic. We’ve started to do those lunch-and-learns. We were in a really good pace before COVID, but we are actually bringing it back this way virtually.

Then with women’s golf and bowling we’ve done monthly sessions with their teams, both staff and student-athletes, around what’s it like to build inclusion into your team culture or at least what could be done to foster this. What are ways that we can be better connected to make sure that we can actually have these conversations as a team? We’ve tried to use that model and model it with different teams. We’ve done this with these two teams because we think we can adapt it for you and your staff, too. Creating some of those individualized conversations and experiences has been something that we have been doing a lot more this fall.

I would imagine we’ll probably do a lot more this spring going into the summer. One of the things that we’re doing for Black History Month, we’ll have some more content coming out that I won’t speak on right now because it’s still being finalized. But it will be essentially be kind of like an ode to the past and to the present with our current Black athletes speaking to some of the older Black athletes from their sport about the experience. We will patch together and do some really good content and make it look nice and lovely. That’s what it is we’re doing from a branding and a social perspective. From an educational perspective, we’ll end this month with a lunch-and-learn. We’re trying to tell that history and show our staff we’ve actually been doing this for a while. We’re not perfect, but we’ve always at least tried to be innovative in this area. The plan is to have them come and really try to provide the education for our staff and our coaches at the end of the month.

It’s likely we will do the same thing next month for Women’s History Month, too. We typically do, in person, this thing called the Black History Month Art Showcase. We will adapt it virtually this year but the premise of that event is that it’s a partnership with Oasis and the Black Graduate Student Association. Think of it as a talent show with an art gallery. We’ve been doing it for the past two years and we always host it within the stadium. It’s free to attend. We provide food, we put the flyer up on the on the Memorial Stadium video boards so people get the feel and can get the authenticity of the stadium. It’s a way for us to invite in our campus partners and community and showcase Black talent and Black art, from poetry to dance, singing to music, to stepping. We always have student-athlete interaction. We can’t do it in person this year, so we’re trying to do a virtual event.

Q: What are some positive changes that you’ve seen in your time in the role or indicators of success and progress?

A: The number one indicator I’ve seen is just the change in conversation. When I first got here, I would get questions like, “Oh, you only work with Life Skills?” I think more people are a lot more aware of who I am and what we’re attempting to do. Now the conversation, or the the conversations that I have and the people that I work with, are people who were never in my job description, people that I was never intended to work with. A lot of those conversations are indicators of success.

When I first got here, I didn’t sit down with Bill Moos until probably my second month on the job. Fast forward to now where I’ll meet with Bill at least on a monthly basis, sometimes even more often than that just depending on what’s going on or where he needs information.

I think another indicator of success, too, is having external people see that we are trying our best. We want to get better at this and we want to be a leader at this. Something that I’ve said, too, based on our summit this year is something that I try to tell our coaches and staff. Nebraska has never been a bystander. Nebraska has always been innovative from sports psychology to Husker Power to Husker Vision. We’ve always tried our best to be on the innovative side of college athletics. Diversity and inclusion is no different. This is not a different conversation. This is a part of the conversation and we can be innovative in this. We have been, but we just need to recognize that and get used to that. If we can recognize it and use it, we can take this thing to a different level. Getting people to hear that and understand that has definitely been a key that we’ve been trying to key in on.

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