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Ty-Ron Douglas: Bridging the academic and athletic worlds

By Anne Brice


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We’ve heard the acronym DEIBJ a lot on campus, especially in the past few years. For those who might not know, it stands for diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice. A growing number of people at UC Berkeley have positions dedicated solely to this incredibly important work.

But sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what DEIBJ means, what it actually looks like in practice — now, in our day-to-day lives, but also in the future, when initiatives and policies and other on-the-ground work has transformed our institution.

So, we talked with Ty-Ron Douglas, the associate athletic director of DEIBJ at Cal Athletics, who explained the nuts and bolts of DEIBJ in his upbeat and clear-eyed way that he seems to apply to all things he does. He also talked about growing up in Bermuda, a precocious kid feeling like he didn’t belong; why sport is a legitimate academic discipline; and how “justice is the juice” of DEIBJ.

a person stands speaking with hands together

Ty-Ron Douglas is the associate athletic director of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice (DEIBJ) at Cal Athletics. (Photo courtesy of Ty-Ron Douglas)

Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode 104: Ty-Ron Douglas: Bridging the academic and athletic worlds.

Ty-Ron Douglas: For us, for me, I really see this work as life and death, not just of human life or death, but also of potential, of that glow in a person’s eyes when they know that they belong. You can see it, you can feel it. Belonging has a feeling, and you can feel the healthy space.

[Music: “Stucco Grey” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.

We’ve heard the acronym DEIBJ a lot on campus, especially in the past few years. For those who might not know, it stands for diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice. A growing number of people at UC Berkeley have positions dedicated solely to this incredibly important work.

[Music fades down]

But sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what DEIBJ means, what it actually looks like in practice — now, in our day-to-day lives, but also in the future, when initiatives and policies and other on-the-ground work has transformed our institution.

So, I talked with Ty-Ron Douglas. He’s the associate athletic director of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice at Cal Athletics. Douglas, who joined Berkeley two years ago, explained the nuts and bolts of DEIBJ in his upbeat and clear-eyed way that he seems to apply to all things he does.

He also talked about growing up in Bermuda, a precocious kid feeling like he didn’t belong; why sport is a legitimate academic discipline; and how justice is the juice of DEIBJ.

[Music comes up, then fades out]

Anne Brice: First, can you introduce yourself? So, tell me a little bit about your position at UC Berkeley and how long you’ve been on campus.

Ty-Ron Douglas: Sure. First, hello to your audience, so grateful to be on. My name is Dr. Ty Douglas. Most people know me on campus as Dr. Ty. I am the associate athletic director for diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice. The short version of that is DEIBJ. You’ve got to let it flow, Anne, D-E-I-B-J, right?

It’s a big title for a very simple but an important message and focus, and that is to ensure that every single person in our department knows and feels that they belong and are able to thrive, you know, and to live lives of justice.

It’s a beautiful job. No two days are the same. But every single day I get a chance to love people. I get a chance to lift people and listen to people and seek to leverage that momentum for individual and institutional impact.

That’s a part of who I am. I am also a professor, I’m a teacher, I’m a husband, I’m a dad. You know, I’m a writer, I’m an author. I’ve written or edited five books. Prior to being here at UC Berkeley in Cal Athletics, I was a professor at the University of Missouri for 10 years, associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis, former middle and high school English teacher. I grew up playing soccer and cricket in Bermuda. So, I’m originally from the beautiful island of Bermuda, born and raised.

But interestingly enough, my biological father, my father, is from St. Louis. So, I write about and literally describe myself as a border-crossing brother, a Black male who has navigated various geopolitical, sociocultural and even national borders and identities and spaces.

And so, it gives me a really unique purview to think about the world, in addition to my research, to think about space and how it matters as to how people experience belonging or not.

Anne Brice: Bermuda, where Douglas was born and lived until he went to college, is a self-governing British overseas territory in the western North Atlantic Ocean. It’s an archipelago that’s about 24 miles long and averages a mile wide.

More than half the population is Black, about 30% is white and the rest is from mixed, Asian or other backgrounds. Douglas went to a competitive high school that was founded in 1662, so it was entrenched in particular ideologies of who belonged and who didn’t.

Ty-Ron Douglas: What we’re talking about is the ideology of whiteness being right. That’s what I felt in the school that I was at. That me, as a dark-skinned Black young man, just my ways of being and seeking to navigate the space, it didn’t feel like it was for me. And this was long before the conversations that were being had in 2020, so there wasn’t as much language for it. But it has prepared me now to advocate for all people, and in particular for those who are most marginalized.

Anne Brice: What did it look like for you when you were feeling like you didn’t belong? How did that kind of manifest in your life at school, outside of school? How did you work through it?

Ty-Ron Douglas: Yeah yeah. So, I have to take you back. When I went to my elementary school, they call it primary school, but, I mean, I was in classes where my teachers told me that I was likable and capable. I had a teacher, Miss Ferber — I talk about her anytime I’m invited to give talks and the like. I had a big crush on Miss Ferber, she was my grade two teacher.

I was a precocious kid. I’ve always been a word person. So, I was the kid who was like, you know, I told her that she was being facetious, Anne. At like, 7 years old, right? She was just like, “What does that word mean?” And I was like, “Trying to be funny but really not respecting others.” (Laughs)

When I write about community-based pedagogical spaces — my fancy term for the barber shop, for the neighborhood, for the athletic spaces, for faith communities — I write from a very personal place.

She was like, “What? Spell it.” And I was like, “f-a-c-e-t-i-o-u-s.” I knew at least one word from the word-of-the-day calendar that my mom bought for me.

It was a space where I thrived as an athlete. I was champion boy in sport, and I was the head boy, which is like in the British system, you have like this, the young people who are, they are sort of almost like, almost like student body president, but it’s more like the class leader who basically helps the teachers to do what they’re supposed to do, as well.

But long story short, you know, transitioning from there to another space where one, I was amidst other people at the top of the class, so that comes with a level of challenge. But, you know, I wanted to understand why. I’ve always been a researcher, right?

So, I learned and was in a Eurocentric environment where the call and response, the inquiry of asking “Why?” wasn’t valued. In fact, it was seen as disrespectful. And so, I got in trouble for talking too much, if you can imagine. And now, I get paid to speak, right?

And so, in moments of question, it wasn’t school that carried me. I struggled at school, at times. I think I probably went to school depressed most days. Just carrying my saxophone over my head with my big heavy bag and walking to school. And there were people, like my barber and people in my faith community and in my neighborhood, who helped to keep me grounded. In fact, this morning, I just got a call from my barber from Bermuda who was just giving me an update and checking in on me. Those are the people. And that’s why I do what I do.

So, when I write about community-based pedagogical spaces — my fancy term for the barber shop, for the neighborhood, for the athletic spaces, for faith communities — I write from a very personal place because I know that those were the spaces that continue to breathe in me when I felt like I can’t breathe in these school structures, in these social structures that were never designed for people like me.

[Music: “Ultima Thule” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Douglas was recently profiled in an episode of Pac Leaders, produced by the Pac-12 Conference. In the video, Douglas talks about his role in Cal Athletics and how uplifting the athletes goes a long way.

Anne Brice: How do you define what DEIBJ is? What does it mean to you in your life, but also in your position that you’re working in right now?

[Music fades out]

Ty-Ron Douglas: Yeah, yeah. So, we have some clear definitions. We actually have a glossary in our office. A lot of people, they see us do like the, what some would see as the exterior, you know, pumping people up, encouraging people. Inspirational pieces, the external-facing pieces. And that’s important.

There’s great strategy in what we do. There’s pedagogy. This is an educational space, right?

I have the opportunity to be a bridge and to connect the academic and athletic worlds in a way that I think sometimes they’re disconnected. And I get the opportunity to be a bridge in that way.

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And so, to that end, when we talk about diversity in our office and beyond, right, that’s pretty common, you talk about difference, recognizing individual differences, valuing the unique individual identities that people have. And institutions typically value diversity because, for the most part, it actually helps their organizations or, at the very least, it makes them look good. You want to have at least some diversity.

[Music: “Palms Down” by Blue Dot Sessions]

But, you know, we have to go further, right? We have to understand what equity is, which is not the same as equality. Equality is talking about the notion of things being equal. Equity is talking about fairness. If you’ve ever seen a visual of — it’s pretty common online, take a look if you get a chance — of folks who are outside of a baseball stadium, and they’re trying to see over a wall, and you have people who are different heights. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that before.

And equality would say, “Give everybody the same size stool to see over the wall.” But equity would differentiate the size of the stools to be able to attend to the differences in the heights of the people, so that each person can see or have the same vantage point. That’s equity.

Inclusion would say, we talk about place, being invited, being a part. An so, continuing with the baseball metaphor of the folks outside, I like to have us to consider, what does it look like for those people not just to watch the game, but to be included, for example, in the game, right? Maybe they want to participate and play. Maybe they want to be a GM, maybe they want to be a coach. Like, what does it look like to not just be a spectator.

[Music fades out]

Belonging is the close, intimate relationships, the sense of security that one has. So, you’ve been included, but you could be included and not feel like you’re at the table or that you’re welcomed. And so, belonging has this sense of, “This space is for me” or, at the very least, there’s an intention that, “What does it look like for this space to feel like it’s for me so that I can make it for others who are like me?”

I’m convinced that sport is a legitimate academic discipline … and we need to strengthen the connection and the bridge between these supposed disparate spaces to better help our human society.

And then justice. In our office, we like to say, “J is for justice. Justice is the juice.” Justice is doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time. So, there’s an urgency. In the words of Dr. King, “The fierce urgency of now” — there’s no time for gradualism. This isn’t the time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism, Dr. King says.

So, there’s an urgency, there’s a passion that people feel when they interact not just with me, but with the work that we’re doing, because it matters, because it has real implications for people’s lives and access and the value that we place on people’s lives.

[Music: “Pastel de Nata” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Frankly, I’ve been in this DEIBJ space for a very long time and I think that, at times, there’s this sense that all the real scholarship happens outside of sport. And I’m convinced that sport is a legitimate academic discipline, a legitimate academic space — that athletes and coaches and administrators in this space are brilliant. And I think that we need to strengthen the connection and the bridge between these supposed disparate spaces to better help our human society. Sport, like music, is a language that brings people together.

Anne Brice: Sport, says Douglas, is one area where genius is manifested. And there’s a lot of value in taking the time to understand the brilliance that goes into it.

Ty-Ron Douglas: There are historical and racist ideologies of the sort of mind-body dualism, right? That certain things are more cerebral, and then other things are just about the body. And those constructs are most detrimental to people of color, in particular, because of how Black and brown bodies have been historically misused and abused in this country.

And so, in the words of Dr. Harry Edwards, the Black athlete has to already overcome the proverbial notion that, quote unquote, we’re “just a dumb jock” or “just an athlete.” And that’s something that athletes of all backgrounds have to navigate. And it becomes even more complicated when you add to it, obviously, the racialized narratives about Black and brown people in this country that show up in sports.

Anne Brice: Harry Edwards is a renowned sports activist and UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sociology. Last year, Douglas had a conversation with Edwards about the intersections of race and sport, the history of predatory inclusion and the power of sport to change society.

Last year, Douglas had a conversation with renowned sports activist and UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sociology Harry Edwards, later featured on the Berkeley Talks podcast. Read the transcript on Berkeley News.

Ty-Ron Douglas: Dr. Harry Edwards is just an amazing and important pioneer in activism and sport in society. In fact, super excited — we’re working on a project with him to actually highlight and share his last lectures with our campus community and to offer, I don’t want to give it all away, but we’re trying to work on some things in our department that would be pretty cool to engage not just with him, but with some of the individuals that he highlights in his lectures. So, I’m grateful for his example.

I agree with his take that sport is a vital mechanism and tool of societal change, yeah. I believe there are things that you’re forced to talk about in sport and you get to talk about in sport that you can avoid in other spaces.

And in part it’s because, like Bryan Stevenson says, there’s something powerful about proximity, right? There’s something powerful about working together toward a common goal. Like I said, sport invites you to cheer for people who are different from you. And I think it’s vital that that sharing and advocacy continues — off the court, off the field.

[Music: “Keeping Up” by Blue Dot Sessions]

It’s important that we understand the systematic and systemic nature of racism. And I think it’s important that we have these conversations, even around white supremacy, because you’re talking about the devaluing of Black lives.

And so, when something has been created for a particular group or without the thought or inclusion of particular groups of people, it’s very difficult for those organizations to ever really fully, without great intention and for great accountability along the way, to be able to include those folks, because the the nature of it is that it will always go back to what and for whom it was created.

I think it’s important that we have these spaces for understanding and for relationship building and for information education, so you can get beyond those fears and also really engage in, not just allyship, but being accomplices in challenging systematic oppression that impacts us all.

a person wearing yellow Cal athletic gear stands with his arms crossed in front of a sports field

“I have the opportunity to be a bridge and to connect the academic and athletic worlds in a way that I think sometimes they’re disconnected,” says Douglas, who joined Cal Athletics’ DEIBJ office two years ago. (UC Berkeley photo by Paul DeShield)

[Music fades out]

Anne Brice: So, Dr. Ty, I was wondering if you could talk about some on-the-ground initiatives that you’ve been working on and and really what it looks like to do the work of DEIBJ?

Ty-Ron Douglas: Yeah, sure. When I think about the timeline of my arrival, and then, the vision, sort of capturing and casting — I had to understand the vision. We took a lot of time to listen. In 2020, even before I came, listening was happening.

And once I got here in 2021, it was really also about lifting. And so you’re listening, because I needed to listen, but also, how do we lift up some of the voices that are not always heard as much and are not centered? We’re seeking to ensure that this work is happening and with being thoughtful about it every single day.

So, what that looked like, for example, was the development of our, we call them accelerate DEIBJ employee engagement groups. We have engagement groups for our staff and coaches, and we have student-athlete versions of them, as well, led by our Cameron Institute, and our office partners with many of them — for our Black staff and coaches, for our Latinx community, for our LGBTQ+ community, for our Indigenous community, for our AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community. And these communities and individuals have not only become more comfortable sharing and leading, but now they’re lifting others.

So, that also includes shifts in practice and policy when we’re hiring. I’m in consultation with hiring managers about ensuring that we’re engaging in best practices and that we have a diverse pool, that we’re reaching out to the right networks to ensure we can have a diverse pool.

We’ve hosted various individuals. That program you mentioned, the event with Dr. Harry Edwards. We have a DEIBJ book club that’s led by our CFO, who’s amazing. That kind of stuff is happening. People wouldn’t even know that we have a CFO, shout out to Tom Lowry, who’s a behind-the-scenes person who probably wouldn’t even want me to say his name because he’s just that type of guy. But I think it’s important that we give flowers and acknowledge that we have people who want to be a part of solutions. And that’s powerful, right?

[Music: “Alustrat” by Blue Dot Sessions]

A lot of it is interpersonal. It’s about relationships, right? It’s about sensing the needs of people, being proximate. There’s a lot that we do that people will never see.

J is for justice. Justice really is the juice. If you engage in this journey of the pursuit of justice, you will have juice and energy and hopefully joy to be able to continue to live life with purpose.

It’s a beautiful job. No two days are the same. But every single day I get a chance to love people. I get a chance to lift people and listen to people and seek to leverage that momentum for individual and institutional impact, not just in our department, but we’re seeking to also be partners and levers as it relates to the work on campus that’s being led by many competent individuals. So, we’re grateful to be a part of the Cal UC Berkeley family and to better engage together each day.

Anne Brice: Thinking about the years of work to come, when you think about what success looks like, what do you envision? What do you have in your head?

[Music fades out]

Ty-Ron Douglas: Yeah. I would love for us to be a center of excellence, right? A DEIBJ Institute, where we’re also producing research. I’m a scholar and a practitioner, so I would love it if we could have tenured faculty members who actually have a home in athletics.

We think about the academic and athletic connection, that we could build a space that is not just respected in academia, but actually gets to contribute in ways that show up in the metrics of academia and contribute in its intentional way as we continue to seek to be the No. 1 public.

Some of these things that we do, they may never show up even in traditional metrics. Some of what we do is very difficult to quantify. But it has certainly been qualified by the lived experience of people who come back and say, “Thank you,” or by their presence.

And so for us, for me, I really see this work as life and death, not just of human life or death, but also of potential, of that glow in a person’s eyes when they know that they belong. You can see it, you can feel it. Belonging has a feeling, and you can feel the healthy space.

And I believe that that will also show up for us in national championships, in the sports that we serve, in the sports that we’re part of. And in the degrees, academic and otherwise, that I see athletes actually earn, our staff and coaches help them and support them, too.

[Music: “A Rush of Clear Water” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: Wow. Thank you so much. Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about that we didn’t touch on?

[Music fades down]

Ty-Ron Douglas: I’m just super excited. I think it’s important that anyone who knows about the Cal Athletics DEIBJ office knows that I get to work with an amazing team of colleagues and leaders. I want to acknowledge my athletic director, Jim Knowlton, who I get to partner with. You know, he is a man who, when he believes in a cause, he’s willing to jump out of planes for it, literally. I mean, that’s what he did in his military background.

And so, when I think about moving here in the middle of a global pandemic, moving my family here and and coming, I came because I believed that this is a special place and that we can do something here that is world-changing. This is not hyperbole when I say it: I believe we can win a Nobel Prize for DEIBJ in sport. This is a new field and we are leaders in it.

I get to consult and work with various professional and other organizations, corporate companies have me come and share. And so, the concepts that I have been able to mobilize in partnership with our team here, they’re innovative and they’re game-changers.

And I want to acknowledge that there was a strategic plan in the Cal Athletics department that helped them in partnership with alums and staff members on campus who said, “Hey, we want to get better in this area.” So, you know, I’m here because they wanted me here, right?

And so, I’m grateful for my team that I get to work with. I’m grateful for the leaders in our department that I get to partner with. I’m grateful for our amazing student-athletes, and I just want to invite your audience to join us in the journey.

[Music comes up]

There are a lot of challenges in our world. And I still, we still, have hope. And in part we have hope because as I said earlier, we believe that J is for justice. Justice really is the juice. If you engage in this journey of the pursuit of justice, you will have juice and energy and hopefully joy to be able to continue to live life with purpose. So, thank you again for having me. Let’s continue to accelerate DEIBJ together.

[Music fades out]

Anne Brice: Ty-Ron Douglas is the associate athletic director of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice at Cal Athletics. To get in touch with the DEIBJ office at Cal Athletics, email caldeibjoffice@berkeley.edu. You can learn more about the office’s work at https://calbears.com/sports/deibj.

I’m Anne Brice, and this is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley. You can follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts.

We also have another show called Berkeley Talks , which features lectures and conversations at Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.


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