The Landscape

ESPN - Special Olympics Partnership / Athletes with Disabilities / Diversity & Inclusion

August 16, 2020 Naveh Eldar / Wokie Daboh / Kate Jackson / John Papa Season 1 Episode 13
The Landscape
ESPN - Special Olympics Partnership / Athletes with Disabilities / Diversity & Inclusion
Show Notes Transcript

This episode explores the partnership between ESPN and the Special Olympics, including broadcasting the games, creating year-round content and Inclusive Sports. We also have an in-depth conversation on the importance of Diversity and Inclusion at ESPN as a company.

Guests Include:

Kate Jackson - Emmy Award Winning Coordinating Producer, Special Events. Her primary responsibilities include oversight of the ESPYs, NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship, The Heisman Trophy Presentation, Sports Humanitarian Awards and other special events, Special Olympics and Formula 1 Racing.

John Papa - VP, Programming & Acquisitions, overseeing the cross-platform business strategies and partnerships for numerous sport categories, including the NBA, tennis (including the Australian Open, Wimbledon, US Open and the ATP), golf (including the Masters), motorsports (including IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One), boxing (including Top Rank) and the Special Olympics.

Wokie Daboh - Director of Diversity & Inclusion

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Speaker 1:

Welcome to the landscape of podcast to shed light on the people, programs and businesses that are changing the landscape for individuals with any type of disability. I'm your host and avail. Dar the show is right in the middle of its celebration of sports in the Olympics. If you haven't heard the previous episodes in the series, make sure to check out the episode with Paralympic champion and six time medalist Sanchez, as well as the episode with Gary Pate, who is a Paralympic wheelchair, rugby staff member and former president of the U S wheelchair rugby association. But today I'm very excited to sit down with ESPN to speak about their relationship with the special Olympics athletes with disabilities, and also how they work towards diversity and inclusion as a whole. Joining us today will be Kate Jackson, who is the Emmy award winning coordinating producer of special events. John Papa, who is the VP of programming and acquisitions and walkie Dabo, who is the director of diversity and inclusion. All three of the guests are very passionate and invested in their work. As you'll hear in the episode before we get to the interviews, I'd like to thank Olivia Wilson from the ESPN communications team for being such a big help and pulling this episode together. Now this episode starts with Kate Jackson speaking about why it was a gift to produce the special Olympics.

Speaker 2:

I have been at the company in 2015. I had been at the company for 15 years and I'd worked on a variety of things. And it's really rare that you get essentially a blank canvas. They, that your boss has just say to you, we have this really awesome opportunity and it can kind of be whatever we want it to be. So what do you think it should be? I mean, in your career, you don't get a lot of opportunities like that. And so that alone from a production storytelling story, documentation place is a total gift. And that's what we did. I mean, they just were like, what do you think it should be? And we were like , uh, what if we did the opening ceremonies live ? What if we did coverage every single night? What if we live streamed live events? What would that look like? And , and ESPN was just great about yes. And what else? Yes. And what else? Yes. And how do we put it on digital? Yes. And what we do for social? Yes. And how do we get written content? Like it's just, he, ESPN was yes. And how is there more, what is next?

Speaker 1:

So for people who don't know everything that you do for the special Olympics, Kate, I want you to go into that, but before you do , um, I'm also curious

Speaker 3:

If you're aware of the historical significance of what you're doing. Cause I don't, I don't, maybe you do, maybe you don't, but you know, with , with my background in the disability community, it's a history of hiding people, right? It's a history of doing the absolute opposite of what you're doing. And so you're literally changing the narrative around that. So that's a two part question. One is with that blank canvas, what did you do with it? And then two , were you conscious of the impact that you were having on a social level?

Speaker 2:

Okay. So when they came to us as the production team and said, we have this great opportunity, special Olympics, world games, LA Coliseum, great venue, great location, a great opportunity. What should we do? Uh, I luckily had a great partner at the time. I still do , uh , bill burnout and bill has a long history in the Olympics. And so he was also a great partner because he had a long history in covering an event like this. And that's what ESPN does. We looked at it and thought, Oh, okay, it's a special Olympics. So it's the Olympics for athletes with disabilities. Okay. So how do we cover the Olympics? I mean, that was the place that we started from and what's most important. Okay. Well, you certainly have to do the opening ceremony. That's like the coolest part and that launches the week and all the activities and that gets people excited and okay. And then how are we going to cover the events? Like what are the events that will be most easy to document and will resonate most, you know, the sports that most people will understand and follow. And then we just sort of jumped in for they're like, Oh, if we did a highlight show, how many sports could we cover? How many cameras would we need? How many reporters do we need? And we just started to build, okay, if we do 30 minutes a night, if we do an hour a night, if we set up a truck at swimming, if we set up a truck at track and field, what can that get us? And then it just like when you're building a snowman, this snowball just gets bigger and bigger and bigger in terms of, did we understand what we were doing? I think the only answer is no. I mean, I think we were just like, awesome. Here's our assignment and it's an Olympics and this is going to be great and let's get to it. And I don't think anybody who was assigned to the project at the time had any idea that this would like crawl into their soul and make a home. Like, I just think people thought, yeah. Okay. So I'm going to LA, I'm going to work on this project and then I'm going to , and , and there isn't anybody who has worked on this project who hasn't been like, Oh, okay . When, when is the next one? What's the next thing we're doing? When can I sign up? Where is there more, how do I get involved? It just, again, like the snowball, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

Speaker 3:

There are many sports and sporting events that people would love to get on ESPN. Um, so what was it about the special Olympics that made ESPN? Um, one , a former relationship , you know,

Speaker 4:

ESPN has been around for , for some time and we've covered, you know , sports from Australian rules, football to the NBA finals and everything in between. And here we were, we had this opportunity to partner with this special Olympics and bring it to life, not just as events, right . Not just as a and loses who won, but this opportunity to tell stories, to be part of a greater vision , to drive inclusion and to try. And we don't that, and I'm not saying that others or properties partnerships within themselves cause they all do, but partnering with the special Olympics and figuring out together ESPN in terms of how to cover the world games for us to achieve the content in the mission, going three 65 throughout the course of the entire year that got everybody in, not only at ESPN, but at the Walt Disney company and from the first conversation to where the idea was first talked about to the deal, to coming up with all of our plans and the excitement to do something that had never been done before with such a great organization as special Olympics are, and to do it at a time where we were at a point in our evolution of storytelling, it was such a big part of all that we do. It just, it just got us all excited.

Speaker 3:

And Kate , um, if you could talk about like, you guys have already mentioned that this isn't something that you just want to be during the games you want this to be spread out throughout the year , um, kind of disability awareness, disability inclusion. Um, could you tell me a little bit about, you have an initiative called game changers? What exactly is that and where can we find it?

Speaker 2:

Sure. So the , the game changers project was a partnership between ESPN and the special Olympics to celebrate their 50th anniversary. And we wanted to create , uh , stories about athletes, about coaches, about people in the movement who , who changed the game. And we ended up with like 40 stories and really we ended up with, you know, 400 that we wanted to do, but you're, you're quelling it down , um, to try to make sure that you have a good representation of stories from around the globe stories, from different sports stories, from different of people , um , who were facing different things to make sure that your coverage is , is pretty well rounded. And those live on the special Olympics website, they live on the ESPN website. Um , and those are just incredible stories about people who just make the world better. And frankly, right now couldn't, we all use a little of that. Like just people who are making the world better. So if you're like having a hard day and you're like not feeling great about humanity, check it out, I'm pretty sure you're going to feel better when it's all done, you know, lean right into that. And then that'll feel really , um, they'll feel really good. And what was also great is that project was launched with a documentary. We built a, a one hour documentary with a truly incredible director, Rudy Valdez, who's an award winning documentarian. And he basically just took a look at 50 years ago and he looked at our society and our culture and what was happening and why that was the perfect storm for Eunice Kennedy Shriver to create the special Olympics and how it was, it was all the things coming together in the right moment for a huge movement forward and a huge change, cultural shift idea, shift inclusion shift,

Speaker 3:

And continuing on the inclusion pathway, which really is the whole episode. Right. I know you are also over the Espy awards. You have a, which is fantastic and it must be so much fun to do. Um , so can you tell me a little bit about , um, your decision to add the categories for the best athlete with a disability and , um, and how that's impacted the community?

Speaker 2:

Sure. Just sort of the awareness of hold on, it's our job to serve sports fans, not sure we're serving all the sports fans if we're not including athletes with disabilities. Right. And so I think that that is the Genesis of, of what ESPN is, right. We , we are here to document to celebrate, to support the sports community and to bring that to fans. And so it makes a lot of sense that if you're going to tell around story about sports in an award show, like the SPS, and you want to be fully inclusive of the sporting world, it's pretty important to include athletes with disabilities. And I think the thing that people are always sadly surprised by is how incredible these athletes are. I mean, marathon runners, I meet like deadlifters who I just real incredible feats of athleticism and Oh, by the way, they have an intellectual disability. And it really is, Oh, by the way. And I think the more you can include that in all the things that ESPN is doing, whether that's our sports at our coverage, whether that's our digital coverage, our coverage, where the Espy awards, the more inclusive that is of what the actual world of sports is, the better we're doing at our job.

Speaker 3:

And so , uh , another amazing initiative that you guys have is you ha you are belong to the inclusion revolution and you have these unified sports scams . Um, could you speak to that a little bit?

Speaker 2:

Yeah. All of this, I'll just tell you that unified sports is the future. Hard-stop like, that is, that is where real fundamental human change comes from. When you can play on the same team with athletes that have intellectual disabilities and athletes that don't have intellectual disabilities, but you're all still doing the same thing. You're all still going for the same goal. You're still competing to win just all these things break down there just isn't room for them. There's only room for who are we passing the ball to? How do we score again? What are we doing? And, and that's what unified sports is. It's just the opportunity to put people with disabilities, with people without disabilities and have them move in the same direction for a team. And you just Kennedy Shriver was a visionary, a brilliant woman, a personal hero. And she started it right. She did. And 50 years later, this is the next step. This is the next step for everything. And , and I think it expands, which is great. Even beyond sports, you have like unified theater in schools, you have unified choir, you have unified like art classes. Like this is how we understand ourselves as humans. And the responsibility that we have to the rest of humanity is to just get in there and do stuff with people who aren't like you.

Speaker 3:

You're absolutely right. And it's funny. Cause I went to a play of a friend of mine. His daughter was in a play and it was like you said, it was an inclusive, unified play. So there were kids on the stage that had disabilities and it was a wonderful production in itself, but you guys specialize in sports. So again, you don't just specialize in sports. You are the name and sports. So to have you involved in that, so on what level are you involved? Do you, do you show the events? Do you sponsor the events ?

Speaker 2:

Yeah. So ESPN is a full sponsor for a unified for special Olympics. Like we believe like they do that. This is the future of the movement and this is where we can be most supportive. And part of what we do is celebrate schools who have big unified programs with our banner schools, where we come and usually , um , an OnAir personality from ESPN will come. There's a big moment. We celebrate whatever unified they have in their school, which is usually sports. And then, and then what else? Right? These, these champion schools are just like setting the bar, everyone , um , and to celebrate this idea of inclusion and how that makes the world a better place. So we're, we're huge advocates for that and that , and big sponsors and supporters of that also corporately, not just documenting the way we do sports, but supporters of how to, how to implement that in other schools and help that spread across the nation.

Speaker 3:

ESPN services is a global presenting sponsor for the special Olympics unified sports. Um , but you guys have gone above and beyond in that you also have commentators , um , that have intellectual disabilities or disabilities to be a part of your programming. So why was that decision made?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I would tell you this. Um, I'm not sure that we think about it in , I don't know that we thought about it in terms of diversity and inclusion. When we had a special Olympics athletes , uh, as our commentators, I sort of thought about it. Like if I was working on the NFL, I would certainly have a former NFL player talk about it. Right. So like, I feel like I'm working on a special Olympics. Like I kind of feel like I should have special Olympics that like, how can I properly cover this? If I don't have that voice at the table in the broadcast, in the conversation the same way we would with like, you're not going to put somebody on the NBA who hasn't played basketball or it doesn't live in basketball or coach in basketball. And so a lot of that for us is just saying, this is the event that we're covering and you have to have a voice authentic to that. Now I do think we're taking that further. Um , cause we've had this last year, we had an incredible young man, RJ Neelan , um , who came as, was an intern at ESPN, worked on the digital side, has his own blog is a great writer, passionate sports fan. And really, I think had this incredible impact on us at ESPN. And everyone was like, Oh, that's a really good idea. We should do more of that. And how well that worked out. Yeah.

Speaker 3:

So you work very closely. You're the, you're kind of the boots on the ground producer. So when you look at your news page and when you look at the special Olympics news page, but it sounds like it's a partnership more than a business relationship. Like it's almost like a , you speak about each other almost with affection. Right. It's I was wondering, is that an accurate view?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think it's, I think it's hard not to connect with anyone who is involved in special Olympics. And , and I would think that people would say that on the production side too , like, like I mentioned before, there isn't anybody who hasn't worked on a special Olympics assignment, even if it was something really small, like I'm just going to do this one feature who, who doesn't sort of again, crawl into their soul and make a home where it lives forever. And I think a lot of that shows up when we partner with the special Olympics as well. There are certainly moments where our strategies don't fully align. I mean, that's sort of just the nature of business, but it's so much more rare than what you would find with a traditional league partnership. And the special Olympics is honestly just trying to make the world a better place. And we're just here to like sort of help them document and amplify that. Great. So you're related to sports and sports is what we do. How do I just share that with the world? And so I think it's easier to build a very close relationship because 90% of the time you're rowing the boat in the same direction.

Speaker 5:

Right. Right. And so we're going to shift a little bit, John . I know that you're also involved. I want to start talking about ESPN as a company now a little bit, and I know you're involved with an employee resource group that's involved with disabilities. Can you talk a little bit about that? Yeah. So ESPN enabled , um, is our employee resource group at ESPN. And it's run by extremely passionate folks within the ESPN organization that have a full time job that takes up all of their time. Yet they have the, the will and the desire to take part in running ESPN enabled. And you know, our goal is to kind of influence content , um, and engage our employees around opportunities , uh, for individuals with disabilities, whether that's within the workplace, that our employees are part of their lives or within sport. And in working with different folks throughout the company, they're touching anything in this space, whether that be working on content , um, not just with things like special Olympics, but it could be short form storytelling that that we're doing, but being part of that conversation , uh, to making sure that, that we, as a company are telling stories , uh , appropriately and accurately , um, it could be in celebration. October happens to be national disability employment awareness month enabled does a lot of great things for our employees around that month. Uh , it could be partnering with other resource groups, other employee resource groups within , uh , within our company. So as an employee and it doesn't just have to be around disability, it seems like , uh , ESPN is, and we're going to bring on your director of disability and inclusion a little bit later in the episode, but as an employee there, how much , uh , diversity and inclusion do you see in the company and how much has it talked about in the company?

Speaker 2:

Oh , it's talked about all the time all the time. Uh , it's absolutely a fundamental priority for Disney. So it's even bigger than ESPN. That's our parent company and inclusion and equal equality in terms of are the humans who work for us in terms of , um , the diversity you have on each team. And the terms of the storytelling is incredibly important. I think everyone has room to improve. And I think that we can see that by what's happening in our right now,

Speaker 6:

But I know that yes, PN is , uh , incredibly dedicated to this and Disney, especially just in terms of how do we move forward, being the most open and inclusive and safe environment for people to work in.

Speaker 3:

This will be the perfect time to pull in the director of diversity and inclusion, Wilkie , Dabo. Um, I actually wanted to go back and look at something that John had spoken about, which is the ERG working together and collaborating. And I wanted to know if you could address that.

Speaker 6:

Awesome. Yeah. So our employee resource groups, the beauty of them is that they've all been working together for such a long time. And so we kind of call ourselves the ESPN ERG family. And so there are, you know, our energies are always looking for opportunities to work across different intersectionalities, you know, lift the voices of other communities as well. And so we'll find that our energies will often be a lot more proactive in doing that than us having to nudge and say, Hey, there's an opportunity where I see you're focused on, you know , uh , Hispanic, Latino women. Maybe you want to reach out to our ESPN woman a year or June before we haven't even had that conversation. They've already reached out cause they've recognized and identify those synergies. Right? So that happens a lot. We, you know, over the last couple of months, I'd say, especially in this virtual world, we've seen a lot more , uh, co-sponsored events , um, a lot more conversations with our employee resource groups as to, okay, what's happening with your community. How can we serve, how can we support? And then we've , we rolled out something last year, which was an ERG day of service, which all of our nine , nine year GS came together focused on one community and hosted a day of serving across the organization. And so again, we just saw a huge lift in terms of visibility . Again, employees coming together across the nine employee resource groups under one cause. And so we've kind of created a bit of a mantra called one ERG. Right. And so with that, that's kind of the identity. Like we all represent these each dimensions of diversity, but when we interface with the organization where one in one employee resource group, right. And so we pulled , we connect, we share. Right. And so , um, that's the beauty of the work , uh, especially , um , nowadays again, we're all virtual and people are working in silos and our groups have really worked really hard to come together.

Speaker 3:

And so since you're the director of diversity and inclusion, there's so many facets to it. Like you just said, even the employee resource groups, did you say you have nine of them?

Speaker 6:

We have not yet celebrated 10 years last summer.

Speaker 3:

And so what , um, how hard is it for you to make sure that everybody kind of has a voice like the disability community?

Speaker 6:

Yeah. You know, we , um, are very mindful and recognize the nuances of each community and the individual needs of a particular community. Um , you know, what's happening within the dimension of diversity. And so we do a couple of things that are there that really elevate those and elevate the needs of those groups as well as the great work that they do. And so we have what we call our heritage months and observance days. And so if any ERG has an event or anything, they're doing programmatically, it's either going to be in partnership with, or you're going to hold off on that event. Right. And so that is that month that's focused, we're shining the light. Everything we do is focus on that community. Any communication coming out is focused on that community, where we're highlighting employees within that dimension members of the ERG. It's an opportunity for us to stop and pause, okay, this is where we're focused right now. Right. And so , um , that's one way that we do it. I do a deep dive with each year G um , once a quarter, right? So we meet as a collective each, each of my year G co-chairs will meet monthly, but every quarter I spend an hour with the co-chairs of K what is the need of your community? What are the, what are the members saying? What's the gap? What are we not seeing? What , what are we winning it ? Right. What are the things that people are feeling really good about? And then also we've really done a great job to partner a lot more with external organizations to bring that , uh, best practices in terms of thought , uh, thought leadership, you know, what's kind of new author that we should be thinking about engaging into our year G . So there's a lot more connection between our external partnerships with the , with the ERG as well. We send our year gene co-chairs to a lot of the conferences, disability. And I know we talked about that organization in a previous conversation, but we really recognize the unique needs, the unique voices and perspectives and journeys of each of our year GS and, you know, heritage months, one example of that. And also, you know , um , if there's anything unique that's happening within the world, that's affecting that community. We make sure to elevate those voices as well,

Speaker 3:

Disability incomes up in a lot of my episodes when I , when I talk to companies and I actually had somebody that , um, is a consultant for them, that was also did a , did an episode. So, but you're uniquely , um , in a unique position where you can speak to exactly what is that. Cause usually we just glance over it. So ESPN is a corporate sponsor of disability. And so can you explain what is disability and, and why did you decide to be a corporate sponsor?

Speaker 6:

Yeah. Disability in I say is best in class in terms of their, their partnership for a couple of different reasons. I think they've done a really great job with research and , and , and nowadays, you know, DNI practitioners have capacity for only so much. So that really deep, rich knowledge understanding research fact-finding that organizations provide have become really valuable in this work. I think it's also become a place where it's kind of a clearing house and the connection point for a lot of organizations, right? So you don't know, you know, based on industry, based on location, what the work is of organizations around the disability, right. And so what they've done a great job of doing is elevating the work you can benchmark best practices , um , the denigrate job of lifting voices. They've done a great job of pushing us to think about this work differently. They've they reward there's there's submissions that you have to do for best-in-class in terms of programming , uh, media, you know, you name it. And so I think , uh , they become the source of truth for a lot of organizations, right. And I think for us , um, it's also been a great place just to, for our, for our folks to go because , um, you know, we only have about 4,000 plus employees on campus and , and across our other locations and, you know, build community, right. Our employees get a chance once a year to go to the national or national conference in the fall , uh , or actually in the summer and in the fall to connect with other , uh, ERG leaders, other folks that are hitting the pavement for this community. And you don't always get that. And sometimes it just feels good to be amongst folks that are having a shared experiences. So I think that's why, you know, they've been such a strategic strategic partner of ours, I'd say the broader Walt Disney company as well. So we really appreciate the work that they do and , and, you know, are always looking for the best ways for us to lean in, into that work and into that community.

Speaker 3:

Now, in your particular position, are you mostly focused on ESPN internally or do you have a voice for your programming as well? Um, yeah,

Speaker 6:

No, I think it's a great question. What has been surprising to me in the role is the voice and perspective that our team brings to what we produce on air. We are pulled into so many different conversations. Our ear GS are also pulled into many conversations that are really seen as a resource. We actually have a content chair role. So someone on our ERG leadership team that sits in a chair that's focused on content. And so they influence content. They partner with the content organization, they block and tackle. Um, they provide the, the voice, the perspective , uh , best practices for the content organization around their specific dimension of diversity, which we have found to be invaluable. So we're actually expanding that work to , to represent more of a , uh, inclusive content council . That'll cut across all of our groups with some other employees that have interest in bringing that diversity and thought and perspective into our programming, our content, et cetera. Um, and so it is a part of the job , uh , more so now than ever. You know, I think when I first interviewed a lot of the work I was focused on was, would be in house and that would influence, you know, what happens externally and it does, but I think the one, the one in terms of the conversations I have and what I see, you know, on air is pretty quick. So, you know, our leaders truly value our thoughts, our perspective, and our ERG is continue to be a huge resource to our community and in what we do , uh , what our audiences and what are fancy. So it's , uh, it's a big part of the role.

Speaker 3:

Have you had any kind of internal system changes to try to outreach to employees with disabilities?

Speaker 6:

Yeah, no, I think it's a great question. We actually, a couple months ago, as an ERG disability leadership team, we did an audit of what we knew and what we had and what we should go after. And what we use was the DEI disability equality index as provided by disability in . And so we leveraged that as a tool, as a kind of a first place for us. Okay. Let's level set. What , what they're saying is best practice, right. And the gap. And so we did a bit of a , um, an audit, if you will. And in that audit, we found , um , places where we were leading in places where we just hadn't done some work. And in that we recognize a need to be well versed in how we make sure that employees that have any specific needs are asked, have a point of contact within the ERG leadership team. We made sure we identified who that HR business partner was, who kind of owned and managed all of those unique assets that came from new employees, players that have been there for a while , and what the challenges could be from, you know , making those unique or specific asks for resources or support in the workplace. And so, you know, we've worked to, you know, I think a lot of the work has been so focused externally, but to your point, like the content, the prior question that you asked, but we recognize that there's some more work we had to do in house to make sure that we were serving the employees that had the needs , um, and really making sure that, you know, folks weren't didn't have the resources and didn't have the support, didn't know how to ask those tough questions for , um, you know, some assistance, whether it was a different screen for their laptops or different chair, just the nuance things that sometimes we take for granted day to day, that makes a huge difference in whether or not someone feels like they belong and that's our job. And so always working to create a culture of inclusion, diversity inclusion of belonging, but you have to kind of do the work and it's, you know, we spent a lot of time and I'll speak just from a DNI perspective. Not it's not unique to ESPN, but I think in a broader DNI context , like focused on the elephant swipe recruiting and here GS and all important stuff, but it's the ants that we forget, right? It's the little things, it's the I'm new. I didn't put on my resume that I had this need. I'm now here three months, it's starting to become a little bit , I'm starting to become a little uncomfortable. How do I make that? Ask for that request? That shouldn't be an issue you should be able to make that ask. You should be able to disclose that early on. And , and we should be able to accommodate those unique and special asks. So we have, you know, like many organizations is the, it's the little things that we have to get , get really good at

Speaker 3:

W when you have a disability, you're almost programmed to be fearful of being judged or being seen as less. And so it's difficult for a company to create an environment of safety where somebody , like you said, somebody just feels comfortable to go out . You know, I , if I asked for an accommodation , um, they're not going to look at me differently or look me over for a promotion or anything. Um, so we talked a little bit about research , um, especially that comes out of disability and they're connected to a lot of that. What is a business case for not just hiring people with disabilities, but having a diverse workforce in general?

Speaker 6:

I think it drives innovation. It drives best practices. It drives ideation from a recruiting perspective, employee value proposition. We're finding that people want to work for organizations that are diverse. That's what the new is expecting. I think we get our best product when there's diverse voices in rooms for diverse voices and perspectives in the room. I think it provided a level of respect amongst employees. And , um, you know, I think we produce our best work when we value that diversity of thought perspective. We welcome it in the room. It's how we operate. You know, it's , it's, we're being an inclusive and how we even manage our team meetings. So, you know, from a, from a company perspective, I'd say the soul of an organization, it's the best place to be. When you think about the promise of a company, right? It is, does every employee had , are they having the same experience as a promise of the company truly felt by every single person in the organization. That's the goal, right ? That's the end goal of this. But I think, you know, from a business perspective, you know, I feel like sometimes he spent so much time there that's, you know, for a lot of organizations where a lot of DNI practitioners, you had to start with, here's the business proposition. Right. And that's easy, but it's like, what happens if we don't? What's it loss? If we don't move this work forward, what do we lose? What's at stake? Um, we don't innovate. We can't, we're not attractive to the best of the best and brightest talent. We are not producing competitive content. We're missing a whole marketplace . We're missing a culture of diversity of thought and perspective of belonging. Right. So, you know, we're, you know, we talk about it is if it's , um, you know, we should do right. But what if we don't, what happens if we don't what happened to those companies that 10 years ago, didn't value this? Where are they today? Right. And there's not a whole lot of work or studies that's been done on the folks that didn't do it in the folks that did and where they are. But I think for us, I have been asked, I've been posing the question, like, so what's at stake. If we don't, if we don't get this right. Let's think about it like that. Right. And it's a little bit, it's a different approach, but it's a real approach. There's a lot at stake. It's not , we're not just in this cause it feels good. Like there's some things at stake here. So I think I've been able to, I've been able to , to get through to different people with , with that message. Um, they, you know, there's, there's so much to be had with doing this work. Right.

Speaker 3:

I actually love that, that question. What happens if we don't? I think it's a fantastic way. I've never personally thought of it like that. And so, and that's the beauty of diversity in itself. It's like people look at things differently. Like one person may look at it, like what happens if we do? And another person may say what happens if we don't and having that diversity of thought in the room is great. So I really appreciate that. So you , um, I did a little, you know, I was doing a little research before I do my episodes. You are very passionate about diversity and inclusion. So what , what drew you to this particular area?

Speaker 6:

Yeah, you know, I think , um, a couple things, one I'm from Minneapolis, Minnesota , um , and my family landed there at a time. There weren't a lot of people that looked like us. My parents are both West African immigrants. And so, you know, I saw a couple of different things that I felt was disturbing to me. Right. I saw relatives become different people depending on where they were. And I thought to myself at a young age, how heavy is that to go home and eat a different kind of food and speak a different way and then go to work and be totally different. Um, and I thought as I started to become an adult and start working, I thought that that duality was how I had to operate to be successful. And it was taxing and it was heavy and it wasn't me. Right. And so I would also say the work started in high school. I went to high school where there were a handful of African American, black students. And I ended up being the head of the African American culture group, where we meet once a month in a big auditorium and we'd have speakers come. And I fell in love with the work then. And, you know , um, I landed, my first job out of undergrad was at target as a diversity recruiting specialist and fell in love with DNI then. And I was like, Hey , this is a work that I want to do. This is the work that I'm supposed to do. I got a chance to sit in different DNI chairs, different HR chairs as well, and have been on the journey for a long time now. So really proud of, you know, the path , uh, you know, and sometimes I sat in tears . I didn't want to sit in because I, you know, I knew that I had to understand what it meant to be in different chairs to really understand, I'd say the ecosystem of DNI for many organizations, it lives in HR, right? So understanding how HR moves and operates has been helpful. And it's been a great lens to be able to apply to this work. But I think that, you know, black, African American woman, and then also the duality of having parents from West Africa, you know, also played into it. And then, you know, the twin cities is a really interesting place is I think much of America and the world has come to find out over the last couple of months. And so I think that, you know, living in a place where racism and prejudice, you couldn't always grab it. It was squishy sometimes. So it was , so it was passive. It wasn't as overt as it is in some places, but you could always sense it. Right. And, you know, I think you had to be able to read and navigate differently in those places in spaces. And I think that's also something that, you know , pushed me forward into this work.

Speaker 3:

And so I always end with a few personal questions, but before I do, is there anything that you would like to say in general about ESPN and their commitment to the disability community and just the becoming an inclusive employer?

Speaker 6:

You know, a lot of organizations are on a different journey now, probably more aggressive journey than we were before George Floyd, I think , um, for us to sit in these chairs, we have a lot more wind in our sails than we've ever had. I think that, you know, a strong tone at the top is important and we have a leader Jimmy Pitaro, who's incredible who speaks it, he lives it. Um, he is, has zero tolerance for leaders that aren't supportive of it. Right. And so we're seeing it every day. Um, you know, I would never work for an organization and sit in this chair if I didn't believe that they were committed to this work, it's just, we don't have time for it. And you know, this is my life's work and I wouldn't do it if I felt like ESPN and the Walt Disney company was in this to save it, they do it . And it was lip service to have figureheads in the, in the, in the role in the work, my calendars and saying , my colleagues is insane because there's just this poll right now, right. You can be on different sides of this work. You can be knocking down doors, making sure calendar stocking to make sure you're not being excluded for any important HR meetings, right. To make sure the DNI has a seat at the table. And it's been quite the opposite. I mean, we are pulled in so many different directions, which we get that it can look very different. And so we're , we're in the moment, I think the conversation is, you know, five months from now, when this has changed and it looks different, what have we accomplished ? Right. So we're working towards that, like moving and moving. Cause there's a , you know, I think there's a reckoning, not just with, not with ESPN specifically with black employees and , and in this movement with employees in general, you know, folks that sit with it that , that identify with a specific dimension of diversity, you know, what's happened, how will we move this work forward? We're all asking that it's , it's been the launchpad for the African American black experience, but also the other communities, right. For the disability community, like how we move this work forward, what's happened over the last 20 years, right. We just celebrated, you know, the American disability act, right. That was a huge milestone, but what have we done? Right. We have to continue to measure that. So I think we're committed. It's, you know, we have some great work that we're standing up. We have leaders that are leaned in employees that are leaned in and we're going to chart our path. And two, three years from now, we're going to look back to, and really be proud of the work that we've done. And we're creating things that are sustainable. I always say that to the team. Like if we're all to , to decide, we no longer want it to be here anymore. Could someone come and move this work forward and is this sustainable? And can it last it , can it stand the test of time until something new comes? And is it scalable? Right? And is it palatable for all of our employees? So that's, you know, that's what I'm excited about moving forward.

Speaker 3:

Excellent. Very sounds excited . It is an exciting time. I have to say, I worked for a blue cross blue shield of Tennessee, which is the biggest , um, managed care organization in the state. And , um, and , and we have had , uh , we have an amazing , um, vice vice president of , uh , diversity and inclusion, but we've had some major steps, like you said, just in the last couple of months or so. Um, even though we've all , since I've been here, we've always been a very progressive employer on that front. Um, so my personal questions , um, I , I have to, I like to reward people who are supportive of you. So when you look up Waukee Dabo, the university of Minnesota is they are like your biggest cheerleader. They love you. They, they want to feature you in articles and interviews. My goodness. So tell us a little bit about this university because they love you. So you need to give them some love. My mom keeps asking me, are they paying you? I'm

Speaker 6:

Like mom, no, I'm not. I'm not getting paid. I believe that , um, you know, my, my Alma mater, I bleed maroon and gold. I went there kicking and screaming, but my family landed in Minnesota because of the, you , my uncles went there for university . Minnesota had had a really great mining program in the sixties and my uncle , one of the first Liberians to graduate from the U. And so he went there, my, all his kids, my older cousins went there. And so, you know, it's the only school I applied to when I got in, I met my lifelong friends there, you know, I've learned a ton while I was there. I grew so much when I was there. And , um, you know, they've been good to me. And as an alum , uh , it's been interesting. Um, they had me, I was the commencement speaker last year, which I was like, I saw the email three times, like, well , are you sure ? So , um, they, they put me on the side of buses, right. And so, you know, I think it's important to give back. I challenged them though, right? They haven't done their work from a , from a DNI perspective. And I get on calls with the Dean and have some real conversations. I think that the numbers have dropped since I graduated, which was a while ago. Um, but they have work to do right. I love them, but they have work to do when I tell them that. And I, I do try to connect with students, especially those that look like me, because I think you can go to a big 10 school and feel invincible or invisible. Right. And eventually feel invincible because of that experience. But, you know , um , you know , always trying to connect the dots and making sure, I mean, it's, it's , um, it's been a , it was a special place and they've treated me well since I've graduated. They've treated me well so separately . Thank you.

Speaker 3:

Well, I'm glad that , um, you have, you obviously have a strong voice with them and you're using it to try to improve the university. I'm sure they appreciate that too. And then my last question is you founded an amazing nonprofit and I wanted to know, I did. I wanted to know if you could tell us about that.

Speaker 6:

Um, so I, I , um, 2010 went to Liberia for the first time the Liberia had been as civil war. My entire childhood is growing up. And so I went with my mom for the first time when she was turning 60 , um, to her Homeland, her place of birth and fell in love with everything that I saw, but saw a big gap in terms of the environment in which , which kids were learning in which teachers were teaching. And so I launched a nonprofit organization called project Blackboard. Um, and we really focus on rehabilitating the school environment, providing teachers and students with resources, backpacks, books, whatever they need. About two years ago, I built a library in partnership with books for Africa and the , uh , notary in Northbrook, Minnesota. And so we shipped 30,000 books and the students saw, and the students and teachers saw their first library. Many of them had never seen a library at all. We have flipped a bunch of different classrooms, new, new desks, new blackboards , a whole nine. And so I call it project Blackboard because it's the simplest tool an educator needs to educate. And so , um, it's been a passion. It's something that

Speaker 2:

I'm committed to. I , I don't have any children myself, but they call them my kids. And , um, you know, I go to Liberia at least once a year and have people on ground that helps support the work. But, you know , thank you for asking it's, it's a , um, it's a labor of love. It's a labor of love.

Speaker 5:

Alright . Do you have a website or anything?

Speaker 2:

I do a project blackboard.org. I'm overhauling a new website. So I'll send you the one that's going to be launched pretty soon, but , um , it should be up and running probably in about a week.

Speaker 5:

And Kate, I saw that you want a sports Emmy. I want to know how significant was that for you? How much did you enjoy it and where is it at right now?

Speaker 2:

Um, so it lives in my office downstairs. I have a home office , um, which is really funny cause my husband's working from home right now too. And he's an attorney. And so regularly, like on his zoom calls, there's like an Emmy behind him, always a good conversation starter for people. Um, I won that award for , um, the college football playoffs and the mega cast, which was , um , a bunch of different visual , um, accelerations of the national championship for college football, a bunch of different channels of way to experience the national championship. And that's what I wanted for winning. It was great, right? Like it's, it's an incredible award. It's one of the highest honors that we have in sports television, but you certainly can't be defined by it. Right. Because I don't think that that's the most meaningful or most powerful work I've ever done. And sometimes the stuff that's really good that fuels your soul and makes your heart feel good. Doesn't necessarily get you, you know, any hardware as we would say. But , um, but it's always nice to be recognized. I, I certainly hope that I get recognized in a future. This is a longterm plan for me. I'm going to be a producer until I'm done working. Um , and so I hope there's, I hope there's more in my future.

Speaker 5:

So John , a personal question, I know that you're also involved in some charity work in your private time. Um, can you tell us a little bit about what you're involved in and yeah, so I I've had the privilege over the last three years to sit on the board of governors for Make-A-Wish Connecticut , uh, which is a fantastic organization with a really clear mission in helping kids with illness to be granted a wish. And I've been privileged in a number of ways on a personal level, but also ESPN as a company has been very supportive. The Walt Disney company is very involved with Make-A-Wish. So it's rewarding in a lot of different, in a lot of different ways. And I think it plays in nicely also with the work that I'm privileged to be part of with the special Olympics, with the company being the executive champion for our employee resource group with ESPN enabled. I mean, I really think of, you know, those three things that kind of round me out as a person that I really take pride in and really just honored to be a part of. So I'm really enjoy being part of Aiko wish . Okay .

Speaker 1:

And I know you said you had a bunch of kids that were acting wild right now. So can you tell us a little ,

Speaker 5:

Well, unfortunately, unfortunately only one of the four boys out there is mine. The other three happened to be social distancing exactly as fast as they can. They're doing a really good job. Uh , but no, I have, I have two kids. My daughter's going to be a freshman in high school this year. My son's going to be in seventh grade and I , and I will say this, which has been really great is , uh, whether it's the work, you know, I'm part of, for special Olympics or for Make-A-Wish or what have you, they're getting to see, they're getting to see things through that lens as well, which is really important for them, but it's really, really important for , for , for me and my wife. So , um, I take, I take great pride in that

Speaker 1:

And I'm on a end with you guys with this. Um, I have kids that are your age. I have a daughter who's in high school and a son who's going to be a sophomore in college. The experience that they have around disabilities , compare it to what we have is so night and day, right? Like there was like complete separation for me. Then now we're talking about , um, unified sports and , and showing the special Olympics on , uh, on television and all of those good things. So again, ESPN is just a bit, you're a part of that culture shift. Um, and so I just wanna really thank you for what you do , um , especially what you do across the board, cause I'm a big, big sports fan. Um, but especially what you do with the disability. I have added links to content from ESPN on the special Olympics and unified sports into the description of the episode. And you can also find links on my social media pages, where I will have additional content available. During this episode, Kate spoke about RJ Nealon while recording this episode, she had no ideal that when I reached out to the special Olympics about coming on for an episode, they connected me with RJ who was a national medal winning athlete, who is currently a special Olympics, North American communications fellow and athlete reporter. RJ is also an alumni of the university of Alabama. And as you heard a former intern of ESPN, he will speak about the special Olympics, unified sports inclusion and more on my next episode, which will be released at a special time next week. Make sure to tune in to hear this great advocate athlete, reporter, and speaker. See you then.