In 2019, the NCAA passed new legislation that stated every NCAA institution must appoint a diversity and inclusion designee by Aug. 1, 2020. At Occidental, Assistant Director of Operations Cori Vallembois has stepped into that role.
When Vallembois became the diversity and inclusion designee for Occidental athletics, she decided to use the acronym JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) to embody her mission within the department. That included the formation of a JEDI committee — composed of 10 student athletes and Vallembois — who meet bi-weekly throughout the semester. Vallembois said their main goal is to normalize conversations about race in athletics at the administrative and team levels.
“JEDI will focus on the intersectionality of sports, and our personal identity as it revolves around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion,” Vallembois said.
According to Vallembois, the college already had someone overseeing diversity and equity within Occidental Athletics before the NCAA mandate, but they took on a different position at the college last spring. The athletic department was searching for someone already at Occidental to fill the role when Vallembois volunteered for the job.
“My thoughts shifted during that time from, ‘Who in athletics would be best suited to handle equity and inclusion?’ to ‘Why aren’t I handling equity and inclusion?’” Vallembois said.
Along with sports, Vallembois said her other passions include social justice and activism.
“As a woman, as a mixed race woman, and as a woman who has constantly found herself in rooms full of white men, I’ve always been an activist by nature,” Vallembois said.
Vallembois said her experiences as a woman of color have helped prepare her for this role.
“I’m hoping that by using my personal experiences, it will ignite some passion and some urgency within folks, whether that be on the staff level or on the student athlete level,” Vallembois said.
Vallembois said that JEDI’s first mission was to encourage each coach to give a JEDI talk to their teams, addressing the areas of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, specifically within the sports world. Vallembois said she left it up to the coaches to determine how to give their first talk.
“It’s not just about the students. It’s about the overall culture of Oxy Athletics. I think that starts with the staff, and it’s important that coaches actively engage in JEDI conversation with their teams,” Vallembois said.
Clarissa Kiyomura (junior), a point guard for the women’s basketball team and member of the JEDI committee, said her coach showed a TED Talk about racism in sports media to her team. She said it addressed how sports journalists usually talk about the intelligence of white athletes versus the athleticism of black athletes.
According to Kiyomura, JEDI will focus on many issues that athletes face today, including diversity in sports and gender equality between men’s and women’s sports.
“I think that we’re moving in the right direction. The climate of Oxy is that we always say we’re really diverse. We say we’re willing and ready for change. But I feel like we need more of a push to see things actually move and for things to actually get done,” Kiyomura said.
Kiyomura said that because her team is very diverse, her coach had already been facilitating many JEDI-based discussions during the summer surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
Kiyomura said JEDI is still figuring out exactly how to operate online, since they have only had a couple of meetings so far. During those meetings, the JEDI committee shared with each other how comfortable their team felt when talking about racism in sports and sharing some of their own personal experiences.
According to Kiyomura, Vallembois leads their bi-weekly JEDI committee meetings, and she said Vallembois is very organized and straight to the point.
“Cori has been doing a great job of keeping us on track and holding us accountable for the things that we need to get done. We have a lot of work to do but we’re only just getting started,” Kiyomura said.
After their first meeting, Vallembois said that JEDI’s biggest challenge is that they are operating virtually.
“Starting this has been more difficult than I anticipated in a virtual setting. But it hasn’t deterred us at all, we’re still moving forward. I think we can only get better from here,” Vallembois said.
Vallembois said she has loved sports all her life, but had a background in operations and was not specifically looking for a job in athletics. When Vallembois’ aunt-in-law Lynn Mehl — a kinesiology professor and NCAA Faculty Representative at Occidental — recommended she connect with Occidental Athletics, Vallembois’ love of sports became a career.
Mehl said Vallembois was the logical fit to be the NCAA diversity and inclusion designee because of her well-grounded sense of social justice.
“I can best describe her as a dedicated member of the Oxy family. She is committed to social justice and the greater good,” Mehl said via email.
Mehl said Occidental is lucky to have Vallembois lead the new student–athlete program, JEDI.
“Cori is a highly approachable professional with a great sense of humor. She knows her stuff!” Mehl said via email.