Leaning into Discomfort: Campus Initiative Gets Tough Exploring Racial Dialogue

Friday, June 04, 2021

Inclusion and Diversity Learning Development Specialist Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith has been putting her “skin in the game” her entire career. In spring 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd, she invited all self-identified women on campus to join her in an open dialogue about race, not knowing at the time how timely this move would be.

Approximately 50 women responded to the call and the campus initiative Skin in the Game was created. Since then participants have been “leaning into the discomfort” of open racial dialogue. McLaughlin-Smith said there are now about 30 in the group because the conversations do get intense.

While the focus of the collective is race, SIG founder McLaughlin-Smith says the group’s name is more reflective of investing time and effort, going beyond the superficial and getting skin-deep. “How deep are you in the day? How much skin are you putting in the game? Are you afraid to scrape your knee or the knee of another SIG sister?” are the questions posed to explore the issues.

"If I don’t do anything else in my career as a diversity professional, I’ve done this,” McLaughlin-Smith said of establishing SIG. “This is legacy material. Based on the hard work and commitment of the SIG Collective this group can live well beyond me and my time here. It's the perfect vessel for my work as a DEI practitioner and for the great minds of the UNCW employees who work so hard to give this initiative life on our campus.”

The epiphany moment for SIG member Monica Chase, student success advisor in the College of Health and Human Services, occurred with the question “When was the first time you had a teacher who was the same race as you?”

“I’ve never thought of that because I’ve always had white teachers,” she said. “Then hearing people of color’s experience that it wasn’t until their sophomore year of college. I’m sure there are so many more things I don’t think about.”

Chase’s and other member’s reflective collections will be shared through a video at NCORE 2021, a comprehensive national forum on issues of race and ethnicity in American higher education that will take place in virtual format June 7-11.

UNCW graduate assistant Christopher Bailey '23 is working with McLaughlin-Smith to facilitate a men's SIG program in the fall. “We are preparing to have similar results that the women’s cohort has produced by using their successful blueprint, which is built upon in-depth discussions on ‘race’ in an effort to become more engaged and understanding humans for the UNCW campus,” he said.

In addition, Jess Gorgas, residence coordinator (Housing and Residence Life), Naamah Noble, student records coordinator (Office of the Registrar), Chase and former university colleague Mel Newcity are working to bring the SIG model to the UNCW student population in the form of “ThirsTEA: Let’s Steep Together.” The goal is to gather a collective to engage in conversations around trust, microaggressions, intersectionality, allyship and other topics related to racial equity.

“SIG became a place to land where we could all feel comfortable enough to be authentic even in the ongoing challenges of this past year,” said Gorgas. "Our hope is that this experience fosters a sense of solidarity, racial healing and community with cross-cultural and cross-racial connections among students.”

-- Caroline Cropp