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Diversity and inclusion issues on the front burner at CIAA town hall

Dialogue ‘we’ve never done’ is important in Charlotte as North Carolina struggles with results of House Bill 2

She looked comfortable and confident walking across the stage to tell a small group of people about the most vulnerable and painful time in her life — a time riddled with tears and self-doubt. Her story took her listeners to Baltimore. She was the oldest of three girls, raised in a family that went to church three nights a week. She was 17, having just committed to Fairleigh Dickinson University on a full NCAA Division I basketball scholarship. It was supposed to be the best time of her life — a new chapter full of learning and opportunity.

Few people knew that deep down she felt pain — the pain of confusion. She knew things in her life were changing — faster than she’d realized — and she became consumed with hiding.

“When I was little, I didn’t think gay people existed,” said Nevin Caple, co-founder and managing director for the LGBT SportSafe Inclusion Program, an organization whose mission is to help athletic leadership champion a culture of respect and inclusion. “I could hide my sexual orientation, but I was dealing with this struggle — that being gay was a sin. That’s what I’d heard all my life — from my own family.”

Caple said the black community would ask her: “Why would you want to put yourself back in this oppression?” The athletic community, which was her world, flat-out wouldn’t talk openly — because it wasn’t safe. Friends who identified as LGBT couldn’t understand her connection to the religious community, which was such a big part of her upbringing. “I looked for role models and mentors, but they were all closeted. Generations before them were closeted. It was safe to stay hidden.”

As one of three speakers to present during a Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) tournament town hall about building equity and inclusion, Caple talked openly about looking at herself through the lens of others: How she walked. How she talked. How baggy her shorts were. “I even went as far as to get a boyfriend. He was one of my closest friends. One day we were hanging out – and I saw his mood change. When I looked at him, he welled up. He said, ‘Nevin, you will never truly love me because you don’t love yourself.’ My very existence depended on them believing my lie. As hard as it was, that liberated me — he told me it was OK to be who I was.”

William Gibson, seated in the eighth row to Caple’s left, waited his turn to tell his story — of acceptance. Her message resonated with his own life story. “I’m a proud son of a teenage pregnancy,” he said. “I’m a product of a third-world country, Liberia.”

It took years for Gibson to speak with such eloquence and confidence. Growing up in an African culture to a teenage mother out of wedlock was frowned upon, he said. He was ashamed of who he was, of who he might become.

“My grandparents made [my mom] understand that she had to keep the child, and on Feb. 24, 1997, I was born during the civil war. My mother’s water broke — in the middle of gunfire. I was born and the war was still going on. War shaped me — I say this: It made me realize I was destined for greatness.”

Gibson is well on his way. A freshman at Winston-Salem University — and the president of his class — he came to America in 2003 having experienced a childhood that often saw lifeless bodies on the sidewalk, crime, rape and cannibalistic rituals.

Things didn’t get much easier for Gibson, who arrived in America having just recovered from malaria. “You’re looked at different. They called me names. They made me feel unimportant. Made me want to hide my identity. It took years to understand and learn that it’s OK to be the black sheep in the room. We’re meant to be different. I realized that — and I took it back to Liberia when I visited in 2012. I reconnected and regained love that I had lost for myself,” continued Gibson, who aspires to attend law school at Howard University.

Undefeated Editor-in-Chief Kevin Merida chokes up every time he talks about his father — a man bold enough to dream of being something he’d never seen before. “My dad … ” an emotional Merida explained, “was growing up liking minerals and rocks. He was bold enough to think he wanted to be geologist. This is 1959. His family dissuaded him. There was none before him. But he decided to pursue it – despite admonitions. He graduated from Wichita State University, sent dozens of applications, and for two years, he got no offers.”

Merida continued on, telling the audience what his father endured — sweeping floors and doing janitorial work along the way — until he got the opportunity at the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C. “When we started The Undefeated, I couldn’t help but think how my dad was Undefeated,” Merida said, alluding to the Maya Angelou quote that serves as the inspiration behind the site.

“Opportunity can lead to greatness but you have to first have the opportunity,” Merida said in his closing remarks. “We have to talk about bravery. If you’re in a position of influence, risk something. So many people risked things for us. Fought. Bled. We have to remember that – risk something. Inclusion and empowerment can’t be a leisure activity. Invest in people on potential – everybody won’t be fully formed like William and Nevin. We need to invest in potential.”

The conversation and storytelling are an intentional effort by the CIAA — led by its commissioner, Jacqie McWilliams — to be bold, even as thousands of tourists flock into uptown for the conference’s signature basketball tournament, one of Charlotte’s few remaining major sporting events that hasn’t relocated from Queen City over opposition to N.C. House Bill 2 (HB2).

As legislators in Raleigh, North Carolina, have yet to reach consensus on an HB2 repeal compromise, the CIAA beat goes on, with an open invitation to all.

“A lot of us sit here with great intention,” said Caple during the question-and-answer session. “Part of the challenge is the silence in our community. That silence is looked at as rejection.”

Candis Cox, a North Carolina resident and transgender advocate, expressed her feelings of being excluded. “Exclusion is difficult. I walk in with the trifecta: black, transgender and I’m a woman,” she said. “And, I’m tall,” she added.

“I walk into a room and I’m asking: Are people staring at me because I’m black? Because I’m college-educated? Because my skin is different? Because I’m a woman in a male-dominated world? Can I be just as empowering as the men? That is something I deal with day to day. Every day I wake up, I have to account for my blackness, femininity-ness and my transgender-ness.”

And, perhaps it’s exactly why this conversation is being had with only a handful of people in the room — in North Carolina. “The CIAA is saying, we want to have a transgender woman come and speak to us. We want people — all people — to know, regardless of HB2, you’re welcome here. We know as black people what that’s like. We know we’re one lifetime from a time when we were excluded because of legislation. But it wasn’t legislation that hurt us — it’s people. It’s business owners. That’s really what we’re talking about — about how we can make a change. We can do that — together.”

Added McWilliams: “There’s only two black female commissioners in the country. We need more people of color being a part of this great work that we do every day. I wish we could be natural and authentic. HB2 — as terrible as it looks — it’s opened up dialogue in ways we’ve never done.”

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.