The Athletics Department’s Anti-Racist Journey: An interview with Ali Paquette

Director of Athletics Erin Quinn, Nate Stewart ‘22, Ellie Thompson ‘22 and Men’s Basketball Coach Jeff Brown hang a Black Lives Matter sign at a ceremony in the spring of 2021.


Ali Paquette, Chair of the Athletic Department’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee talks about the work of the committee, what they’ve learned, and the difference the work is making in the lives of Middlebury’s student-athletes, and those who work closely with them. 

Interviewed by Mike Roy 



Tell me about the task force and what you’re trying to accomplish. 

The diversity, equity and inclusion committee within Middlebury athletics has existed since 2017. We refocused our work when George Floyd was murdered. For many people in the country that was a tipping point. Are we doing enough for our student-athletes? Are we doing enough for our athletics community and the greater Middlebury community? And, the answer was definitely no. This work is always ongoing, no matter how much progress we’ve made, but George Floyd’s murder was definitely something that made us reevaluate and change course.  


How is the committee structured? 

Our committee is made up of athletics’ coaches and staff, as well as two student-athletes.  We ensure that we have diversity of race and gender and different backgrounds on the committee.  I’m on it as a staff member. I also am the chair. We have a small executive committee, composed of Erin Quinn, the athletic director, Michael Carr, an assistant football coach, and myself.  We meet every other week to ensure that we’re staying on track with our programming, plan what we’re doing next, and to address in real time any issues that may arise. The entire committee meets on the opposite weeks. 


What has the committee been working on lately? 

We used last year to think about how we could make this work sustainable. That’s something that people always struggle with and especially when we’re in a pandemic year.  Just fitting it in can seem overwhelming.  How do we do the work in a way that’s authentic and not just a random add on?  We used last year to figure out what we actually wanted to do structure wise.  In terms of programming, we have four workshops a year. At the end of the year, we’ll reevaluate. Did it work? Was that too much or too little?  

The model is to hold four workshops throughout the year. And then after those workshops, there’s a team activity follow-up. The follow-up allows for sharing on a different level. When you’re in a group of 200 athletes, it’s intimidating to share, especially on topics like this that are so personal. We just completed our third workshop of the year. We have one more to go. We selected different topics as focused points. We give a feedback form at the end of each workshop so we can identify where a team might need a little bit more support, and also identify what our teams are doing really well. Outside of the actual programming, we created during the pandemic two different cohorts. One is a staff and coach cohort that meets regularly to share ideas. What are some activities and things they’re doing throughout the year that are working? What are some problems that have arisen? How can we help each other? And we also have a cohort for students that’s run by students. It provides a direct line of communication from them to the DEI committee. We learn things that teams are doing outside of this program, and that are working well, as well as where some issues  are arising. 

We also embarked on our “leaning into discomfort” series.  That was a really awesome experience. It opened the doors to important conversations and set ourselves up for all of the work that was ahead. We did that for a year. We created 18 episodes, with many different voices and experiences. While we may revisit that again and maybe do it again, or do it in a different way, but it was really good and we covered a lot of different topics. And so rather than trying to fit that in this year with all our new programming, we thought  this is a really good standalone kind of series and that we should focus on the educational aspect this year, and then next year we’ll kind of see where that lands us.

Tell me more about the topics you’re covering this year in your workshops.


The first workshop was on intersectionality and identity. Our second one was using the NCAA materials on diversity and inclusion week. The third one was gender and the fourth one is sexuality. We were going to cover gender and sexuality as one workshop, and then accessibility as our fourth one, but as we started thinking about gender and sexuality as two very different pieces of identity, we decided to break those out. So next year, one of our workshops will be on accessibility. 


What are the things that you’re most proud of? What are the things that you think have made the biggest difference so far?


I’m proud that our entire community is really invested in this work and is passionate about creating lasting change. I think our students can push us in very good ways. Last year we were recognized with a national award for our series. Awards aside, the recognition across the country of what we’re doing makes me proud that we’re leading this charge within athletics. And that’s something that’s really special to be a part of. A lot of people are looking to us to help them take their departments to the next level in this area. While we’ve done a great deal compared to most organizations, we still have not even scratched the surface. And so while I am definitely proud of the accomplishments that we have and where we are now compared to where we were two years ago, this work is never ending and there’s just so much to do all the time. Our athletic culture evolves, college campus culture evolves, as does the culture of the United States. There’s a long way to go. So while I think it’s nice to reflect back and have those little proud moments, I definitely don’t want to put too much focus on the past either.


What are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered in trying to do this work?

We’ve encountered so many challenges!  One is that we have a really big group. We have almost 600 athletes. We have 50 faculty and staff within athletics. Whenever you’re working with that big of a group and when you have that many people that hold that many different identities and perspectives, it’s amazing, but it’s also challenging because people are coming at this work from very different vantage points. And it’s always hard when you’re doing a workshop and everyone is at a different level of experience with the topic. How do you ensure that the content works for everybody? And it’s not too beginner for the people that are further along,  but not too advanced for those that aren’t. Because this is a college, we will always have first years coming in, so there is the cyclical challenge of every year having a whole new set of folks to bring into the process. 


More specifically, different challenges arise on different teams. The diversity office on campus is amazing. So we definitely lean on them. They’ve provided some training support sessions, for teams that are interested in digging in deeper with this work, and when challenging situations arise. None of us in athletics are experts, and this isn’t our full-time role, and so just being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and knowing  that we don’t have all the answers when things come up, and that when we need help, we have amazing people to call on to help figure out how we address a problem, or how do we better get at this. Just knowing that we’re not always going to get it right is both the beauty and the struggle of this work.

How do you know that this is making a difference?

We know that it’s making a difference when we get feedback from students. We send out feedback forms after every workshop. We’ve had students just point blank say on this form that this has made a huge difference.  Those impacts can be really small, but they matter. On a broad scale, the fact that other students who are not athletes want to partner with us, that they’re excited about the work they’re hearing about us doing. They have an appetite to connect with us. Folks on our campus and nationally in athletics are looking to us. Those are signs of us making a difference. We won’t really know how big of an impact we are having for a few years until we have a full class go through all of this, but I think there have been some positive signals that tell us we are making a difference.


What advice do you have for other folks on campus that want to do this work?  How do they get started and how do they sustain the work? 

The biggest thing is finding the people within your department who are passionate about this. That might be two people, or it could be 10. There are always some people who are very passionate about this work and others who don’t know where to start, but they want to do it. And then there’s other people that aren’t interested in this work. And so finding the people that are interested is key. Then you have to establish some sort of starting point.  That may be reading a book together, or watching a movie.  We also have some team building activities that are beneficial. Any of those avenues are definitely good ones to start with.  It is good to start with these entry-level ways to get involved with the work for those who maybe aren’t at a point of forming a committee and making any sort of big plan.  It can be enough to get involved on an individual level because the more knowledge we all have and the more experiences we all have, the better our community will be. So it doesn’t have to be the entire department and coming up with a plan but if four people, four professors from that department all are individually working on that, that’s going to be better for the classes that they teach and the department meetings that they have and then that has a ripple effect on campus. It can seem daunting to look at it from this huge upper level, but it doesn’t have to be. What drove us to do these bigger things was that there were a lot of people doing things individually. That made it easier for us to pull everyone together and say let’s come up with a plan. Let’s do this.


What didn’t I ask that I should have?

There’s a lot of ways to get involved in this work and everyone is learning. We really try to model for our student-athletes that we’re not experts, we’re learning alongside you. And oftentimes as staff and faculty members, we’ve all grown up with very different cultural experiences in terms of this work. Be patient with that and know that you’re going to make mistakes.  It’s more about the response that you have to those mistakes when you’re learning. 

Andrew Plumley (class of 2011) has been working with us as a consultant and partner in this work. One of the things that he always does when he’s entering any of these conversations is that he has group agreements about learning in public. My favorite phrase is, “What is said here stays here. What is learned here is shared broadly.” That’s a really good thing to keep in the back of your mind when you are doing the work, because it’s important to protect and respect what other people are sharing and how they’re being vulnerable in these spaces. But sharing what you’ve learned is also so important.