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America East schools gather for first time to talk inclusion

Seventy people from nine schools met at the America East Conference’s Spread Respect Forum to speak frankly about inclusion and discuss plans for their campuses. AMERICA EAST CONFERENCE PHOTO

Under the stewardship of Amy Huchthausen, now in her ninth year as commissioner, the America East Conference has long prioritized diversity and inclusion within its athletics departments. To further that effort, the conference gathered representatives from all nine of its schools at Vermont in October for its first Spread Respect Forum. The goal? To lean on experts who could catalyze honest conversations that might lead to changes on each of the conference’s campuses.

The Genesis: Huchthausen’s trip to the NCAA’s annual Common Ground event in 2018, a program which brings together members of both the LGBTQ and faith communities, motivated her to create something comparable for America East schools. Kate Bergstrom, the conference’s associate commissioner for internal operations, stepped in to help organize the event. “Everyone has shared issues and challenges, so we wanted to put them all in the same room, as opposed to having these segmented conversations,” she says. “We put it out to our membership, and there was a strong interest.”

The First Steps: Ensuring the right people were in that room was America East’s foremost concern. All nine schools would send participants to Vermont, which was selected to host because the school’s commitment to inclusivity was well-established. The conference was intentional about who was invited, setting requirements to ensure the right voices were in the room. Student-athletes were the largest contingent of the group of nearly 70 attendees. Coaches, academic advisors and compliance officers also made the trip to Vermont. Plus, the conference asked each school to bring a relevant university administrator who didn’t work in the athletics department, so the entire campus community would have a voice.

The Culture Now: While the event was built around a series of speakers, including local experts from Vermont and from outside organizations that focus on equality and social justice, America East wanted attendees to walk away with more than just a few notes. After digesting information from the presentations, attendees were asked to build action plans to bring back to their respective campuses, identifying what their athletics departments were doing well and what could be improved upon. To ensure accountability, they were also asked to formulate a list of at least three people with whom they would share the action plans upon their return. The conference hopes to hold another event next year with an increased emphasis on conversations and planning, not merely presentations. “I had so many student-athletes and coaches and administrators come to me and say, ‘Where are we going to do it next year?’” Bergstrom says. “That’s the biggest vote of confidence. We’ve now set a stake in the ground.”

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