It didn’t take long for a student to seek out Marcus Kirkland in his new role as the director of diversity and inclusion for Wingate Athletics.
Toward the end of a long summer of nationwide social-justice protests, Kalen Clark, a running back on the Wingate football team, wanted to stage a peaceful protest on the University grounds. He contacted Kirkland, who had just taken on the director’s role in June.
Having Kirkland as the point person gave Clark the guidance necessary to organize the march properly.
“They had somebody to go to that looks like them, that they can trust is going to have their best interests at heart and just guide them,” says Kirkland, whose day job is associate head coach for men’s basketball.
The Aug. 30 march, in which more than 200 people walked from Irwin Belk Stadium to the steps in front of the Stegall Administration Building, went off without a hitch. It ended with a variety of speakers, including someone whose brother was a victim of police brutality. “I thought that was pretty powerful,” Kirkland says.
Kirkland’s role is part of a movement toward making Wingate a more inclusive campus. Kirkland is a member of the new campuswide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, which consists of seven faculty and staff members and two students. The first task for the council, which met for the first time in early August, is to conduct an audit of the diversity and inclusion work already underway on campus.
“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are core values at Wingate and, despite the pandemic, we’ve made some clear progress in recent months obtaining grants, creating functional student space on campus, and planning for the future,” says Provost Jeff Frederick, who is co-chairing the council alongside CFO Craig Addison. “The formation of the DEI Council is an important step which promises to shine a light on the issue each year and bring fresh ideas from across the campus.”
Iyanna Salters, president of the Black Student Union and a member of the DEI Council, says she hopes the council can help make Wingate the model of what a college campus should look like: “a better representation of the diverse world we live in.”
“Every day we are seeing society around us continue to show it’s time for change, and the first place we need to start is with our campus,” she says. “Although our community is small, we can make it the example with this council.”
Another diversity-related initiative on campus is the new Multicultural Center, headed by Dr. Antonio Jefferson, director of Lyceum and multicultural programming. The Center’s primary mission is to provide support for underrepresented groups on campus, such as students of color, first-generation students, LGBTQ+ students and those from religious minorities.
The Center’s home is the former Watson House, recently renamed Unity House, on the northwest side of campus near the Levine College of Health Sciences. Besides being one of the first buildings visitors will see when they arrive at the University off the Bypass, the location has many other advantages. The building has a kitchen, so students can cook food for events, and offers plenty of meeting and hangout space. And it has a large parking lot that is perfect for barbecues, team-building exercises and any large gathering (once Covid is under control, of course).
The Center will be the home of multicultural programming on campus. In the works are cultural-heritage months, peer mentoring programs, a program to help students prevent the “sophomore slump,” and diversity peer educators, who will provide training to registered student organizations, Gateway classes, resident assistants and any other groups that request it.
Yet another development on the DEI front is the $116,500 the University is planning to spend over the next year on DEI initiatives. The Jessie Ball duPont Fund is chipping in $75,000 of that money, which will go toward increasing retention among students of color, increasing the diversity of candidates applying for positions at the University, and decreasing the number of bias incidents reported on campus.
The institution has intentionally grown more diverse in recent years, with the student body now more diverse than many of North Carolina’s public universities and independent colleges. Thirty-five percent of Wingate students are low-income and qualify for a Pell Grant, up from 20% in 2010, and half are the first in their families to go to college. Additionally, students of color make up 34% of the undergraduate population.
Over in Athletics, Kirkland is part of the Diversity and Inclusion Council, which features several coaches and one student-athlete representative from each team. The program will have monthly meetings to discuss a wide variety of topics. Kirkland says the council, and his office, will be there to support racial minorities, LGBTQ+ students, Muslim students and anyone else who feels marginalized.
Just as important, they’re looking for allies.
“The key to moving forward and not having a need for the department of diversity and inclusion is to get everybody on board,” Kirkland says. “Once everybody’s on board, then this no longer becomes necessary.”