The women’s basketball team socially distances from the bench on February 6, 2021 at Schoenecker Arena in St. Paul where they defeated Concordia with a final score of 63-58.
John Smith

DEI Journey Makes Impact on Athletics

Tommie fans will notice changes big and small when they return to the stands to watch their teams compete. One of these changes will be four words adorning some of the warm-up apparel: Shed A Little Light.

Together those four words are making a big impact. 

The “Shed a Little Light” initiative was started last fall after deep conversations in the Athletics Department about racial injustice in the wake of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, who died while being physically restrained by Minneapolis police. As a result of those talksAthletics formed two groups:  

  • The Athletics Alliance 4 Change, comprising athletic coaches and staff who have developed four key pillars – education, exposure, empathy and equity – to guide their work.  
  • The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee’s (SAAC) Racial Justice Workgroup, consisting of student-athletes who lead discussions and engagement on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues. 

Both groups came together to create Shed A Little Light, named after a James Taylor song about peace and unity. In a few short months, the initiative has generated increased DEI dialogue, voter registration initiatives, educational opportunities and the creation of a pre-national anthem statement read at sporting events to recognize that the American experience has not been the same for everyone under the flag.  

Studio headshot of Jemal Griffin, senior associate athletic director, student welfare and development, taken on November 4, 2019 in St. Paul.

Jemal Griffin

“Shed a Little Light,” shows that the groups are committed for the long haul, said Senior Associate Athletic Director, Student-Athlete Welfare and Development Jemal Griffin.  

“We tried to strategically think about a way that everyone could get involved, something that everyone could get behind, something that was clear, concise and gave a directive,” said Griffin, who also recently took on the role of DEI coordinator in the department. “We talked a lot about the word ‘little’ in Shed a Little Light because we didn't want people to feel like this is something they had to take on all by themselves.” 

The increased focus on DEI efforts has impacted those in Athletics across the board, from learning about the history of racism to strengthening team bonds through open and honest conversations.  

Leading a team in DEI 

For men’s soccer coach Jon Lowery, the fall 2020 soccer season was an unprecedented one. While his team couldn’t play a single game due to COVID-19 restrictions last fall, they were able to focus on creating a culture of inclusion on and off the field. That meant a lot of discussion, education and listening. 

Head Coach Jon Lowery talks to his team during a men's soccer game against St. Olaf College on October 12, 2016 on the south athletic fields in St. Paul. The game ended in a double overtime 0-0 tie.

Jon Lowery

Lowery credits his increased knowledge of Black history to an all-staff meeting featuring a discussion on the history of racism in America led by Dr. Yohuru Williams, distinguished university chair and professor of history and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative 

“There have been times in this process as a 44-year-old dad, husband and coach, I've been embarrassed about what I don't know,” Lowery said. “I've been very truthful with my team and saying I can't believe I wasn't aware.” 

The discussions and learning opportunities have helped foster a sense of open-mindedness, empathy and self-reflection among his colleagues and student-athletes, leading them all to ask how they can do better when it comes to inclusivity, he noted.  

"We've talked about diversity and inclusion as it relates to all members – no matter what they look like or where they come from – being welcomed into our program with open arms and a kind heart," Lowery said. "We've talked about things that could make it a better environment for someone, from the music played in the locker room and the words we use, to how we treat each other. Our differences add to the richness of our culture and our program."

The recently released St. Thomas 2025 strategic plan highlights the importance of the athletics program, especially as it builds greater national awareness with St. Thomas’ upcoming historic move to Division ISo far, more than 150 student-athletes from 14 states and three countries have been recruited for the fall season.  

When he’s recruiting soccer players, Lowery openly talks to them about DEI expectations for student-athletes.  

“I've made it clear to players who are coming into our program that this is what's important to us and these are our values and standards,” Lowery said. 

The student-athlete perspective 

Headshot of University of St. Thomas Women’s Basketball team member Kaia Porter, taken on November 5, 2020 in St. Paul.

Kaia Porter

Women’s basketball player Kaia Porter chairs SAAC’s Racial Justice Group. She said student-athletes are in a unique position to use their voices as leaders both on and off the court. Porter and her teammates have had discussions about the role they need to play in creating a more inclusive and accepting environment. These dialogues, she said, have made the team more unified.  

"A lot of times people don't want to talk about things because it can be super uncomfortable,” Porter said. “But people are coming to the table and talking about challenging issues. And it's messy, but that's the only way you're ever going to make progress.” 

Junior Jack Nasby, SAAC president and captain of the men’s golf team, said developing a better understanding of where someone is coming from helps build stronger bonds.  

Jack Nasby student golfer

Jack Nasby

“There's no way I'm able to advance my understanding of other people if I'm not listening,” Nasby said. “Part of that empathy piece is being able to listen to one another and trying to understand even though you haven't been in a similar situation. Continuing to be a listener, not only for me, but also for my peers, is something that'll be very helpful and worthwhile down the road.” 

Griffin said he wants student-athletes to realize how vital a holistic education is to their growth as a person.  

“It's important to me that they understand how to be knowledgeable before expressing opinions,” Griffin said. “Our job is to teach them how to think critically and to educate themselves while they're building who they are and shaping their opinions.” 

Moving forward 

Vice President and Director of Athletics Phil Esten said student-athletes, coaches and staff have embraced the “Shed a Little Light” initiative in a variety of ways.  

Introduction of new Athletics Director Phil Esten '95, on November 12, 2018, in St. Paul.

Phil Esten

“I'm really proud of the way that staff, coaches and student-athletes have responded since the killing of George Floyd,” he said. “We’ve engaged in very thoughtful dialogue around some really difficult topics. We’re at a place where our coaches and staff are comfortable having these difficult conversations because we all collectively know we have a lot of work to do.” 

Esten noted DEI has been integrated into the department’s strategic plan and DEI metrics will be included in all program and staff annual evaluations. He also said in fall, all incoming student-athletes will be required to complete the online educational series Becoming Human: Dismantling RacismThe self-paced course, created by St. Thomas and made available to the public through its Continuing and Professional Education (CAPE) division, confronts the legacy of white supremacy and helps people understand how they can engage more humanly in the world.   

For student-athletes Porter and Nasby, the DEI discussions they’ve been having aren’t going to stop after graduation. Porter, a biology major, intends on going into health care in the future.  

“There's so much you can talk about in terms of the injustice that happens within the health care system,” she said. “I want to learn more about that. If I want to be a health care provider someday, I want to do it in a way that I can give the best care to all my patients. And that's going to mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people.”  

Nasby, a finance and real estate major, has even noticed during a recent internship search that there is an increased emphasis on DEI at major corporations.  

"It’s a big question in interviews – ‘What are you doing within social justice or racial equity?’” he said. “It was something that was cool to see happening throughout that process.”