Citing influence from increased awareness and demand for diversity in leadership positions, the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Adminstrators Association recently undertook a plan to change the way it determines members of its executive committee.
The MnIAAA, a nationally affiliated organization representing athletic and activites directors in Minnesota, had planned to pursue ways to increase diversity in its governing council, but the continuing protests sparked by the death of George Floyd on May 25 spurred the group to seek changes with more urgency.
“This has been the works for a little bit, but the situation in Minneapolis catapulted us all to look at if we’re doing things the right way,” said Rochester Century AD Mark Kuisle, a past president on the MnIAAA executive committee. “We felt we had underrepresented members, female ADs and our black and brown ADs, who were not being recognized or getting an opportunity to serve within the organization.”
Current MnIAAA President Brent Schimek, the athletic director and football coach at Deer River, reached out to second-year Minneapolis Public Schools Athletic Director Antony Fisher, who is black, to get his input and ask for his help. Fisher, who ran for a position on the executive committee and lost last year, admitted he had doubts about helping at first.
“I asked him point blank if he wanted the watered-down version or the raw and uncut version,” Fisher said. “He said ‘Give it to me straight, Tony.’ I told him I don’t see anyone on the committee who looks like me, who talks like me or has the same background as me. It makes it difficult for me to want to have anything to do with this.”
Fisher cited the more than 50-year history of the MnIAAA, whose executive committee has been mostly male, mostly suburban and rural and all white over that time.
“It’s my understanding that they’ve only had two women on the executive committee, just one person from Minneapolis or St. Paul and never a person of color,” Fisher said.
After giving it some thought, Fisher agreed and last week put together a diversity panel discussion via Zoom, bringing in respected voices from around the state and the nation. Among those who participated were Lanness Robinson, president of the National Interscholastic Athletic Directors Administration (NIAAA) and Lisa Langston, the organization's president-elect. They are the first two black athletic directors to hold those positions in the history of the NIAAA. Others taking part were Minnesota Twins President and CEO Dave St. Peter, Minnesota State High School League Associate Director Lisa Lissimore and Keith Brooks, director of equity and inclusion for Eastern Carver County Schools.
During the discussion, Fisher, who came to Minneapolis from Orlando in September 2018, laid out a seven-phase plan to increase diversity and give black and female ADs a better opportunity to serve in leadership positions.
Currently, executive committee members are elected for four-year terms. When a position opens, an election is held between representatives from two high school league administrative regions (i.e., Region 1 vs. Region 2) that have been previously paired.
One of Fisher’s primary complaints was that the results were more heavily weighted toward outstate Minnesota, diminishing the possibility for ADs from metro-area schools, which tend to have more diversity within their ranks.
“The outstate schools have an advantage,” Fisher said. “I could have all the metro schools vote for me and still lose.”
Fisher and Kuisle agreed that the discussion panel was effective in moving the dialogue forward and providing the momentum needed to effect change.
“How does someone from Blue Earth identify with these issues if it’s not presented to them?” Fisher said “I think it helped open people’s eyes. I truly feel they are open to change.”
Sad Kuisle: “We’re happy that Tony opened a dialogue, not just in Minnesota but nationally. We said ‘Whoa, let’s look at this thing again.’ We’ve had minority candidates try to get elected, but they’re up against somebody else and they lose. Same thing for female candidates. This really helps us get to where need to be.”
There is still a long way to go before significant change is implemented. Last week’s discussion was just Phase 2 of Fisher’s seven-step plan. The next step is what he calls the “education phase,” in which voting members of the MnIAAA learn the reasons for any potential changes that lie ahead and decide for themselves.
Determining steps to be taken is as of yet unclear. One point of emphasis is avoiding tokenism and making sure any changes made have impact.
“Can we change the executive format and have people in positions where they don’t feel like a token? We need to make sure they are valued, have votes and are treated as equals,” Kuisle said. “We’re looking at our constitution and the possibility of blowing up the whole thing.”
Giving strong, respected diverse voices an opportunity to be in a positions of influence, Fisher said, is the ultimate goal.
“It would be nice to to have leadership roles for people to aspire to for people the look like me,” Fisher said. “I just want to open those doors.”