The racially-tinged shooting that occurred near his hometown forever changed the life direction of DaWon Baker.
The unrest that followed at his school, the University of Missouri, helped set Baker on the path that has led him to Colorado.
This week, CU named Baker its first Associate Athletic Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). During a time of reckoning for equal treatment and opportunities for student-athletes of all genders and racial backgrounds on campuses across the nation, Baker’s drive to make the Boulder campus a more inclusive and welcoming place comes from a place of angst.
Baker, a native of St. Louis, was a senior at Missouri when police in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, killed 18-year old Black man Michael Brown. A year later, protests rocked the Mizzu campus, with students calling out the administration for its lack of effort in addressing racial attacks on campus. The Tigers football team even threatened a boycott, leading to the resignation of campus president Michael Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
In light of those emotional events, Baker underwent his own personal reckoning.
“I get back to campus, and this is the beginning of the school year, and there are friends of mine who are holding candlelight vigils,” Baker said. “Friends of mine who are talking to the psychologists on campus, who are asking administration, ‘Hey, this is happening two hours away down the street and we have a lot of students from that area. Is there any resources you can provide or is there anything you can say from a statement perspective or really just try to understand where we’re coming from?’ I would say a lot of my friends thought that stuff kind of fell on deaf ears.
“I loved my experience at Mizzou. But to me it was pretty apparent they weren’t equipped to handle it. Seeing that in real time, and seeing the disconnect and how what happened literally rocked campus, that was my first time understanding there is an actual strategy that is at play here. It’s not just about OK, we posted a statement and we condemn it and we’re all good. People were asking for a real legitimate strategy and answers how we’re going to deal with this from a student body perspective. How we’re going to help our faculty talk about this. That was my first time seeing that in real time and I was fascinated. I said I need to pay attention to this. There is a right way and wrong way, and I wanted to make sure if this happens again I can be in on the right way.”
Kudos to CU athletic director Rick George and the CU administration for creating the position and getting ahead of the curve in adding a dedicated DEI administrator to the athletics staff. DEI officers aren’t necessarily new entities in campus administrations, but only recently have gained traction in athletic departments. Which seems a little backwards, at places like CU or Nebraska, where Baker has worked in a similar role the past two years, there is far more diversity in the athletic buildings than there is across the remainder of campus.
CU is just the third Pac-12 athletic department to add an associate athletic director devoted fully to DEI matters, following Washington and Cal. (Oregon State does have a Chief Diversity Officer, but that is saddled alongside the title of Student Athlete Development; Arizona State has an associate AD with the title of Inclusion and Championship Life).
It isn’t lost on Baker he is joining a community grieving similarly to the Ferguson community more than six years ago. Certainly the racial overtones aren’t the same, but Baker offered to postpone his first interview with George, as it was scheduled in the days after the March 22 mass shooting at the Table Mesa King Soopers that took away 10 innocent lives. Though he doesn’t begin his new job until May 1, Baker already has a vision on how he will make CU a more inclusive community.
“I think this is of immense importance, DEI specifically,” Baker said. “If we look at everything in the lens of how our different experiences play into this, and how can we make the best possible experience of all the experiences, I think we’ll all do better if we look at it that way. I would like to see this role go to where every single thing we do in athletics we’re asking the question around diversity and inclusion. How does this influence all the people in our department? How does this influence all our fans who might come from different places? How do we make decisions to make sure that we’re creating a positive experience for everybody involved?
“I think if we can embed those types of questions and that line of thinking into our decisions, it’s going to make us better. And ultimately it will make our fans and supporters know that it’s a priority for us.”