How does West Point continue to lead in the collective effort to develop a haven where future Army leaders from diverse, minority backgrounds can feel welcomed, valued and respected?
To answer this question, pioneers and innovators from different walks of life lend their services to continue in the ever-evolving process of fostering cohesion and team unity within the U.S. Military Academy.
Since May 2014, the Office of the Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity has worked on awareness-raising strategies in collaboration with internal and external assets to develop efficient training regiments that help encourage diverse thinking and cultural acceptance among cadets.
During these seven years, individual staff and faculty members have taken the initiative to push for equal rights in various categories that address cultural, racial and sexual orientation discrimination and allows diverse religious worship to promote and retain diversity within the workforce. Through these actions, they received the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Champion Award for their pioneering strides in inspiring positive change.
This year, Terry Allbritton, the chief diversity officer for the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity, received an award for his diversity and inclusion efforts at West Point during the National Diversity & Leadership Conference becoming part of the 2021 Top 100 diversity officers. Correspondingly, for their commitment to the Corps of Cadets, Col. Jennifer Hicks-McGowan, Col. Winston Williams, Sgt. 1st Class Josephine Pride, Lisa Benitez and Dr. Aundrea Matthews were recognized during the conference as DEI champions on April 21-22 and 28-29.
“I worked very closely with Terry on many endeavors relating to diversity and inclusion,” Williams, an associate professor in the Department of Law, said. “He is a visionary and a pioneer in his approach to seeking support from outside resources. He was creative and strategic in reaching out to corporations like Microsoft, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball to talk to some of their diversity officers and getting a broader perspective on inclusion, but also understanding how we could learn from their perspectives, too.”
Williams proved to be a visionary himself. Back in 2014, he left Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to begin his tenure at West Point and since his arrival, he has been mentoring cadets on the significance of viewing the world from different points of view through the practice of Law.
“What I did at West Point, apart from assisting in minority retention and a variety of diversity programs is in the classroom, we talk about law and how it serves as a good platform for broad discussions and understanding different points of view,” Williams said. “In the classroom, I like fostering conversations that get cadets comfortable with disagreement. Also, I demonstrated as a professor how to make cadets feel comfortable expressing themselves and their views, despite how they look, their cultural background or religious beliefs. Through that method, I think as a leader, you have to be able to reach out to each and every one of your cadets and Soldiers to let them know they matter and that they are always included.”
Diversity and inclusion were concepts that always resonated with Williams since his formative years as a child. He would listen to the stories told by his grandfather about what it was like serving in the Army from 1947-1950 in the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, he said. His grandfather attended Airborne School, which was segregated at the time. Blatant racism and prejudice tainted the armed forces in this period of history, but that didn’t stop his grandfather from becoming a pioneer of diversity and inclusion and creating a legacy for his family that would later inspire Williams to take up arms and follow in his footsteps.
“Growing up, he would tell me stories about how hard it was to endure Airborne School when (most white Americans) don’t want you to be there. His stories prompt me to think about my time at Airborne School, and trust me, it’s hard enough jumping out of an airplane,” Williams explained. “My grandfather said, ‘when you go to Airborne School, don't complain about anything.’ And I remember we’re having this conversation when I was a teenager and those words stuck with me, they had this impact on me ever since.”
Dr. Aundrea Matthews, the Cultural Arts director for the Corps of Cadets, can relate to having a positive figure to emulate. Her grandfather, Sanders Matthews, who always had a passion for serving the community, worked at West Point as a Buffalo Soldier and would later utter the sage advice, “don’t complain” and would finish his statement with, “get out there and do something about it.” With that, Matthews used those words to follow in his footsteps and lend her services to West Point in her own unique way.
“My grandfather taught me, from being a Buffalo Soldier, that whatever organization I worked for, don't ask for inclusion be included and with that advice, I knew that I could use the arts to contribute to the leader development of the Corps,” Matthews said. “I’m approaching my position as the cultural arts director through my artistic and religious background and I just see West Point as one big canvas with a whole bunch of different paints. I got black, I got red, I got yellow and green and I pull all the different colors and cultures, experiences together to create a fine piece of artistic expression in the form of leader development.”
Matthews added creating safe spaces for people to be their authentic self, and inspire others is of the utmost importance. From her observation, no one is having a conversation about race consciousness and how it corresponds with entertainment. Diversity and inclusion are often mentioned in books or seminars and taught in classes or cultural immersion trips. While she feels there is nothing wrong with that method, Matthews offers a new concept to the conversation at West Point.
“Artistic expression can effectively convey the importance of race consciousness, diversity and inclusion,” Matthews said. “I created the annual World Cadet Battleground talent showcase and I brought in people from the music industry like Bruno Mars’ music producer, voice contestants and a variety of artistic innovators from different mediums of art who could come in and engage with cadets and help them unleash their spiritual and creative side.”
Lisa Benitez, USMA Class of 1988 and a Diversity & Inclusion Outreach Program specialist at West Point, understood the importance of minority cadets addressing the need to express themselves. Four years after the first 62 female cadets graduated from West Point in 1980, Benitez expressed her desire to showcase her track and field talents in 1984 and proved Latina women can perform at the elite level in academics and sports.
“I did well in Newburgh Free Academy High School, and I ran cross country and track,” Benitez said. “I reported to West Point, three days after I graduated from NFA in July of 1984 and I say, other than my faith, going to the West Point was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
After her honorable service as a commissioned officer in the Army, Benitez added that she had worked for the West Point Association of Graduates for 23 years. Eventually, she finally decided it was time to follow a new path in service to West Point. She recounted last year in June when Allbritton placed her in charge of outreach. She wasted no time in networking and collaborating with staff and faculty from various departments to enhance the cadet’s experience with cultural engagement, hosting virtual outreach events and making sure minority cadets received benefits that weren’t readily available to Benitez during her cadet experience.
Through Albritton’s mentorship and supervision, Benitez worked closely with all 14 Diversity and Inclusion clubs. Moreover, through her outreach efforts, she works with the Leadership, Ethics and Diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs, she added.
“I would definitely be very remiss in not thanking Terry Allbritton for allowing me this opportunity to join his team, because I learned a lot from him and if I had to pick one aspect of DEI Terry focused on heavily, it would be inclusion,” Benitez said. “He was so focused on inclusion and attributed much of his assistance in growing diversity at West Point to his efforts on building inclusion.”
The numbers of cadets responding to DEI improved as per guidance from the Department of the Army through the determined efforts of ODIEO and Allbritton’s approach in emphasizing inclusion, Benitez added.
“I remember Allbritton saying, ‘Lisa, when you increase diversity but lack inclusion, that's where the problems really begin, because now you’re bringing in more diverse groups together, but the issues arise when certain groups feel they are being understated and other groups are getting more representation.’” Benitez recalled as she received advice from Allbritton. “I believe I was nominated to receive a DEI champion award, possibly by Terry, because he understands how I like to go above and beyond in performing my task.”
While each DEI champion, at some point, crossed paths while working on a multitude of diversity programs, they all individually tackled different elements within West Point to make sure that diversity, equity and inclusion are presented adequately to the forefront. Last year’s Diversity & Leadership Conference theme, “We Stand Together,” inspired Sgt. 1st. Class Josephine Pride, the West Point Public Affairs Office noncommissioned officer, to get creative and visually represent that theme.
“I basically took that theme, and I created a video concept that would show diversity at West Point,” Pride said. “The video embraced diversity and it also showcased why we have this conference every year.”
Video presentations, artistic expression, civilized debates and the proper facilitation of diversity programs can all possibly play a role in cultivating a healthy mindset for future minority leaders. Through these mediums, cadets and Soldiers can theoretically express their feelings on a wide range of subjects. However, Pride believes that if leaders do not make that notion clear to their subordinates, there will be a consistent lack of communication moving forward.
“One thing that I’ve learned (as a Soldier and leader in the Army) is there has to be an element of psychological safety,” Pride said. ”That’s when a (cadet or Soldier) feel they can open up about any of their ideas and they’re not going to feel ostracized just by voicing their opinion. So, the leadership (at West Point) have to make that known. They have to make that (concept) available to cadets.”
Pride received the DEI champion award for her tireless work with cadets as a Public Affairs NCOIC and social media manager. She remembered her initial shock after being recognized by the Diversity & Inclusion Conference. It did not cross her mind that doing her job would garner her the title of DEI Champion. However, it made her realize that it wasn’t merely about doing a job, it was about not settling for less and fully committing to the task at hand.
“I'd say the award was icing on the cake for me because I didn't expect to receive something for doing my job,” Pride said. “However, (receiving the award) does tell me, I am doing my job right. You know I am actually doing what I’m supposed to be doing. So not only am I honored and humbled to receive this award, it’s a reminder that (what we do here at West Point) is important, and I need to keep doing what I'm doing right to make sure that we showcase diversity in our ranks at all times.”
Hicks-McGowan, who is the adjutant general at West Point, shared the sentiment of doing one’s job efficiently and admirably, although she too was very surprised by becoming a DEI Champion awardee and felt personally honored to be recognized.
As a military member, Hicks-McGowan feels DEI issues distract West Point and the Army as a whole from focusing on the mission to “fight and win our nation’s wars.”
Hicks-McGowan added she faithfully supported various efforts across the academy to attract talented and highly-qualified people to work at West Point as part of the staff and faculty.
“I have supported numerous West Point Leadership in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (LEADS) events that work to educate middle and high school students on ethical and moral decision-making while ensuring that they understand the opportunities in the STEM fields are not just about talent but also about working with people of character,” Hicks-McGowan said. “Cadets, staff and faculty should be educating one another on how the military can use the merits of DEI to maximize West Point’s ability as an academic institution to work together in defense of the nation.”
If people are only focused on surface differences of people rather than the humanity of a person, one can miss out on the realization that as human beings, more often than not, we have more in common that could actually unite the people of this nation, Hicks-McGowan added.
“We are one Nation under God, indivisible and seeking liberty and justice for all. I think that treating one another with dignity and respect despite different points of view on race, religion or creed draws us closer together as a fighting force. Our enemies want to see us divided; however, we cannot give into useless divisions,” Hicks-McGowan said. “In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, later U.S. President Lincoln, upon accepting the state of Illinois’s nomination for U.S. Senator quoted the bible in the famous ‘A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand’ speech by referencing Mark 3:25, ‘And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.’ I think that this sentiment is still true today. I also believe that the efforts of people working to use DEI to help people understand each other more will help keep our house together and operating in unity for a shared cause to defend the Nation.”