Critical Conversations: GW Athletics builds on DEI commitment with ROI partnership

By: Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications

On a recent morning, Kate Dylag left the Smith Center feeling energized.

In a venerable arena that pulses daily with the unmistakable electricity that comes from 400 Buff and Blue student-athletes spanning 20 teams, the veteran women's soccer assistant coach found inspiration in a quiet conference room.

To Dylag, the first group discussion on Return on Inclusion's opening module represented a powerful next step in the department's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

"We talked for an hour about things that I think need to be brought to light," said Dylag, who has been a leader within the department's DEI initiatives during her four years on campus. "We're not just in athletics, we're in the business of people. I think getting to know our people and our differences and celebrating that has really poured out of the work that we're doing with this program."

Launched in October 2020, Return on Inclusion (ROI) offers online sport-specific education aimed at helping members of athletics organizations at all levels develop the leadership skills to support student-athletes across social and cultural differences.

GW Athletics has shown its continued dedication to these crucial topics over the past three years through the efforts of its DEI Task Force, and on Feb. 28, the department officially announced its partnership with ROI that will deliver the programming to all of its coaches, administrators and staff.

Together, GW Athletics has begun a journey of education, reflection and discussion aimed at making the Buff and Blue community more diverse, inclusive and welcoming.

"What I love about the work we're doing with ROI is it's not simply about checking a box and saying we've gone through training," Director of Athletics Tanya Vogel said. "We're working to get to a place where at least we've all had the education. Certainly, we're not all going to be in alignment on every topic, but we will at least have a common vocabulary and a better understanding of how our words might impact the conversation."

ROI was founded by Nevin Caple, a former D-I basketball student-athlete who has spent the past decade traveling the nation as a keynote speaker and consultant helping college athletic programs become more inclusive.

The program Caple has developed features six online modules that expand on topics related to diversity, inclusion and belonging through the lens of college athletics via self-reflection exercises, case studies, best practices, knowledge-retention quizzes and discussion guides for group participation.

Over her career in the world of college athletics, Caple has seen the conversation surrounding these topics change. It's no longer about making the case for their importance but rather providing a toolkit for navigating the critical discussions of race, LGBTQ+ inclusion, social justice and more.

In recent months, the organization has announced national partnerships with organizations such as the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and United Soccer Coaches.

"A lot of the work has been driven by the student-athletes," Caple said. "What's changed the most is the focus on the student-athlete experience and them asking their coaches to engage in meaningful conversations that don't involve athletics necessarily but their experiences as people."

Caple has seen first-hand the time and resources that GW has devoted to the space.

Three years ago, she visited Foggy Bottom as a guest speaker for the department's spring kickoff event, and she has maintained relationships within the department ever since.

"By doing this now, GW is really leading the charge," Caple said. "The development of these skill sets doesn't just happen because we want it to. We have to take the steps necessary to educate ourselves.

"This department-wide commitment will really help redefine the standard of care in college athletics to ensure staff, especially coaches and administrators, are both socially and culturally proficient enough to provide support and develop as inclusive leaders."

GW Athletics Senior Associate Athletics Director Internal Operations/ Athletic Diversity and Inclusion Designee John Square has been a leading advocate for ROI, serving as chair of its advisory board.

He said the lessons have made a profound impact on him professionally, and he's eager to continue to share that knowledge with his colleagues.

"What I've learned is you never know as much as you think you know," Square said. "This process has taught me how to show more compassion and care for others.

"We want folks to show up and be the best version of themselves, but that's hard when you're not cared for like you think you should be. It has really opened my eyes to make sure that I am an inclusive leader and I am doing what's right by others in my words and my actions."

Members of the GW Athletics DEI Task Force began the training last month and will serve as coaches guiding the rest along through the program.

The first department-wide discussion, covering the opening module Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Foundations and facilitated by Square, took place during an all-staff meeting last month at Smith Center. Tables mixing staff from different teams and units within the department discussed what diversity looks and feels like and why it's important.

As everyone works through the modules over the coming months, the goal is to spark critical thinking, create opportunities for discussion and ultimately lay the groundwork for continued DEI work.

"It's just a lot of really good information to soak in," said Women's Tennis Head Coach Torrie Browning, a member of the DEI Task Force as well as the A-10 Commission on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. "For me personally, it's already uncovered some things that I thought I knew but I didn't or maybe didn't think about before or there was a certain new lens to look at things.

"I think it does a really good job of taking these big ideas and simplifying them to make them easy for anyone to understand."

Dylag was among the first in the department to finish all six parts and earn her Inclusive Leader Certificate.

The women's soccer assistant said she's already utilized some of Caple's strategies with her student-athletes, including devoting more time this spring for discussing things that have nothing do with performance on the pitch. She's pushed outside her comfort zone while reflecting on who she is as a person and coach, and as she's learned working through the lessons, that's precisely the point.

"I am proud of the work that we're doing," Dylag said. "It's easy to say that you're working on diversity, equity and inclusion without putting in the hard work.

"The modules in this program are hard work, but it's such rewarding hard work. I just couldn't be happier that our leadership is placing such an importance on having an athletic department that understands that diversity, equity, inclusion is pivotal and should be part of the foundation of who we are."