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July 15, 2020

By Ellie Lieberman

For nearly 20 years, Cal Lutheran University has been a part of Cody Owens' life. The assistant athletic trainer arrived on campus as a student in 2001, earned two degrees from the school and has been working at the school since graduating. Cal Lutheran has played a role in shaping Owens' identity over the last two decades.

However, no occupation, school affiliation, singular value or demographic label - like race or ethnicity - can solely define a person's identity. To gain a better understanding of identity, the topic was unwrapped at Cal Lutheran recently during a virtual RISE workshop with the school's coaches and athletic department.

As part of the workshop, Dr. Andrew Mac Intosh, RISE VP of Curriculum, and Kim Miller, RISE VP of Programs, expanded on the topic of identity, stressing that it is multifaceted in nature, and it's important to reflect on who we are and our values as part of that in order to understand how we are similar and different from one another. Additionally, identities might be applied to people regardless of whether we accept them or not, and for many people, especially from marginalized communities, there is a desire to be known for more than just physical appearance.

To help the Cal Lutheran staff gain a better understanding of their identities and the identities of colleagues and their student-athletes, RISE facilitated its Understanding Our Identities activity. Each participant was tasked with picking 10 words to describe his or her identity. Participants then shared a few of their words, where they realized there were some common words and values being used. After sharing, they were all asked to eliminate one of their 10. Following another round of sharing, they were all asked to remove all but one. Only one word could be used to encompass their entire identity.

Owens and his colleagues all struggled to cut down their list, because no one wanted to part with facets of their identity that were important to them. During the discussions, Dr. Mac Intosh emphasized the depth and breadth of identity. Every athletic department member is multi-faceted, and having to sum up identity in just one word is no easy task.

The same would go for their student-athletes' identities and for everyone on the Cal Lutheran campus. While there are similarities shared in how people view their identities, no two people are exactly the same. Everyone possesses a diverse range of traits, and there is value to that diversity - in sports, on college campuses and far beyond.

"This was the first time we were able to have a healthy dialogue where listening was going on and I think RISE facilitated that, which takes down some barriers for really sharing," athletic director Dan Kuntz said.

Such an open dialogue about diversity and its application to Cal Lutheran in particular was meaningful, several coaches and administrators said, because it was a healthy conversation absent of any yelling or judgment. The athletic department acknowledged they needed to address the concern their student-athletes have shared that their experiences when it comes to issues of race, diversity and inclusion is different in the athletic facilities and on the field than when they are simply students on campus.

Two racist incidents from February in particular created an environment that felt unwelcoming for athletes and students at Cal Lutheran. One incident involved a social media post of three students lip syncing in blackface, and the other incident involved a white student using a racial slur over social media.

"I do believe in my heart of hearts that for all of us in athletics, this matters to us and it means a lot to us," head water polo coach Craig Rond said about creating a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming campus for students.

Those incidents can cause those at Cal Lutheran or in any setting to feel as if they cannot showcase every facet of their identity, which was also one of the takeaways of the RISE workshop. Following the identity activity, Dr. Mac Intosh piloted an open forum about what diversity means at CLU and tangible steps that can be taken to address issues of race and diversity in their communities. Dr. Mac Intosh noted a great way to bridge our differences and leverage our similarities is to know who we are and gain an understanding of the identities of others. Additionally, diversity benefits teams as it expands members' skill base and broadens perspectives.

"It was productive [and] allowed people to open up and was nonconfrontational," associate VP for Athletic Affairs, Jim McHugh, said of the RISE workshop. "When you're in a group with people you know, you can speak freer. This was very educational and allowed for some good discussion among our peers."

The need for more productive dialogue and a better understanding of identity on campus was a theme echoed by several coaches. To help bridge a divide between the experiences student-athletes felt in their sport compared to when on campus, communication and open conversations were brought up often from Cal Lutheran as solutions they will use moving forward.

"In particular, being able to talk and listen and not judging people because they think differently, everyone is going to have different feelings but just because that person has a different viewpoint, doesn't mean they should be labeled as this or that," McHugh said. "The communication piece is the biggest part."

As the meeting concluded, many of the Cal Lutheran staff expressed they were going to be more proactive in reaching out to their student-athletes about addressing issues of race, diversity and inclusion. For the administrators and coaches, there is clearly a path forward to embracing diversity, and Kuntz, said he believes RISE's workshop is a key aspect of that path to progress.

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