RA diversity and inclusion training creates conversation and controversy

Disruption ensued at Western Carolina University after a Resident Assistant (RA) expressed disapproval of the mandatory inclusion and diversity training given to RA’s.

The RA in question is Katie Sanders, a second-year junior studying health science. Sanders has been an RA since the Fall 2021 semester and she currently works in Judaculla Residence Hall.

Sanders elected to speak on the issue because she felt the inclusion and diversity training misaligned with her religious beliefs.

“I come from a Christian background; I was raised that way. Regardless of everything, I still treat people equally. I still treat them with kindness…’ Sanders said in an interview with The Western Carolinian. ‘I don’t think it should be mandatory because there are RAs that are Christian that don’t agree with that.”

Sanders reached out to Fox News with a statement and included screenshots of examples featured in the training.

‘When I look at you, I don’t see color,’ and ‘America is a melting pot’ were listed as inappropriate phrases for RAs to use, as some students might find them inappropriate.

Sanders also included a screenshot of a graphic depicting a ‘gender unicorn’, from a class titled ‘Rainbow 101’, that is intended to educate about gender identity and expression.

‘Gender Unicorn’ infographic from RA training at WCU.

“The Rainbow 101 class goes against my beliefs, but I have to be in that class, or I could possibly be fired,’ Sanders told Fox News. ‘I’m not allowed to speak against that.”

Sanders was not alone in speaking out against the training.

Christopher Stirewalt, a second-year senior studying marketing, serves as the campus coordinator for the student organization, Turning Point USA. Together with Sanders, Stirewalt spoke about the values upheld by TPUSA and their reason for getting involved in this discussion.

“I see Turning Point as a conservative organization who will give a voice to conservative students on campus,’ he said. ‘It is a group that feels under-represented, not only here but I’d say in most public universities.”

TPUSA has over a million members in the United States, and a chapter can be found at most public universities. According to TPUSA’s website, members work to advocate for freedom, free-market enterprise, fiscal responsibility, and limited government.

“Mandatory training like this is something that completely goes against Turning Point’s values, and that’s the main reason we picked it up…’ Stirewalt said. ‘…I think that if someone doesn’t want to go through with it, they shouldn’t have to.”

WCU’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Programs (EODP) is responsible for implementing programs and policies to promote inclusion and diversity. According to EODP’s website, their vision is to ‘strengthen diversity as an integral component of academic excellence within WCU.’

Ricardo Nazario-Colon has served as WCU’s Chief Diversity Officer since June 2016 and oversees the implementation of Equal Opportunity and Diversity programs on campus.

He believes RAs play a crucial role in the experience of their peers and being well-versed in inclusivity skills through training is vital in helping them navigate the residential environment.

“In higher education, we aim to provide basic human relations skills such as communication, mediation, community building, and empathic listening. We also want them to recognize and respond positively to various differences such as socioeconomic, gender, religious, sexual, racial, political, or other differences,’ Nazario-Colon said. ‘Through research and practical application, we have learned that these skills assist the development and performance of Residential Assistants.”

Nazario-Colon responded to the RA’s criticism of the inclusion training.

“I think there is an opportunity for growth and for mutual learning. We can begin by engaging in honest conversation which will require the use of good communication and mediation and community building and empathic listening,’ he said. ‘I want to remind us to engage in dialogue and let us employ the great critical thinking skills that we have learned at WCU. As an alumnus and employee, I know the value of this great conversation.”

Prior to the public appearance of Sanders and Stirewalt, many speculated whether the RA in question should retain their position in light of the controversy. This led students to start a petition titled “Demote Katie Sanders from Residential Assistant.”

Initially starting with a goal of 100 people, the petition quickly gained traction and the goal increased to 1000. The petition has amassed 775 signees at the time of this publication.

The founder of the petition, Logan Hanf, said “I’m signing to support my non-binary and genderfluid friends.”

On top of the petition, Sanders received a mixture of feedback from the public.

“I expressed my opinion, and people did not agree with that opinion…,” Sanders said. “… I have no issue with them speaking out because I expected backlash. They also have the right to free speech and their opinion, and I respect that.”

Sanders said the backlash primarily came from negative comments left on the initial Fox News article and on Yik Yak, a location-based anonymous social media app. At the same time, positive feedback manifested itself in the form of kind messages and questions left on her door.

“I’ve seen on Yik Yak one about how I should be crucified, but directly to me, there have been no negative comments,” Sanders said. “Everything I have received in person has been positive messages.”

A post made on Yik Yak further illustrated the negativity Sanders received from the student body.

“GOOD MORNING WCU! If you don’t have an 8 a.m. and need someone other than a professor to hate, hate Katie Sanders.”

Sanders’ received feedback in the shape of notes on her door. Mostly anonymous, some messages offered support, while others questioned her ability as an RA.

“I still support them. I never didn’t support them…,” Sanders said. “With these anonymous notes I’ve received, I’ve just been putting notes back on the door answering their questions, saying ‘yes, I am still here for you.’”

Several students were approached by The Western Carolinian to get an outside perspective on the issues presented.

Brandon Moses, a senior studying chemistry and molecular biology, supports TPUSA and condemns many aspects of the inclusion training, especially the ‘gender unicorn’.

“I do support TPUSA, as they are the friendliest campus group I have met – very helpful, genuine students with a purpose,” Moses said.

He said the ‘gender unicorn’ is childish and does not belong in a research university like WCU.

“A person’s gender should be left out of administration,’ Moses said. ‘It’s irrelevant.”

Kyla Anderson, a freshman studying music, disagrees with TPUSA’s sentiments.

“I really think the RA training was great, and I think that it was a really great thing for the university to do,” Anderson said. “When I saw that TPUSA had reacted very negatively to that [inclusion and diversity training], I was like ‘why are they reacting negatively to something that does nobody any harm’…”

“It does more people good; you know, it’s educating. So, I was very upset with the things they were saying because it feels very rooted in hatred.” Anderson said.

On Jan 12, the Student Government Association (SGA) at Western Carolina University issued a joint statement on diversity and inclusivity excellence. The Student Body President Rebecca Hart and Vice President Susannah Lester responded to the controversy involving Sanders and TPUSA.

“We come to Western to learn but to learn we have to be willing to hear new ideas and perspectives. No one expects everyone to agree, but it is expected that everyone is respectful of others and the identities that make them who they are,” said Hart.

According to the subsequent SGA press release put out by the Director of Public Relations and Marketing at WCU, P. Tanner Holland, ‘the statement calls upon the university administration to fulfill several requests including altering the gender and sexuality training resident assistants receive and evaluating the need for an expansion of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Programs, which currently only consists of the Chief Diversity Officer, Nazario-Colon.

The SGA statement urges the university to ‘include the Safe Zone training from Intercultural Affairs in the mandatory training of all Residential Assistants.’

Safe Zone training is an online resource for LGBTQ+ awareness. The statement also suggests a safe environment for RAs to openly discuss the training during and after the process.

TPUSA issued a statement through Stirewalt and TPUSA President Lauren Howes in response to SGA’s statement.

‘The role of the RA is to be respectful and helpful regardless of race, political affiliation, or gender,’ TPUSA stated. ‘What we do not agree with is mandating that RAs be forced to endure post-modernist neo-Marxist gender/race training which teaches that men and women don’t exist, only an ethereal “gender unicorn” and that color blindness is racism.’

On Jan 14, Chancellor Kelli R. Brown sent a message to all WCU students, faculty and staff through an email. The message served to address the conflict on campus.

‘As often happens in the current media and social media environment, the reality of the situation regarding the RA training is more complex and layered than has been portrayed,’ she wrote.

She additionally expressed the need for change concerning inclusion and diversity training.

‘…this moment has provided an opportunity for WCU to continue our ongoing dialogue about how we achieve inclusive excellence in all forms, be it race, gender, ethnicity, identity, or personal and political viewpoints. I charged the Dean of Students and the Chief Diversity Officer to reach out to leaders of student organizations and groups and offer to sit down and discuss these complex issues…,’ Brown wrote.

Chancellor Brown stated she engaged in conversation with professional staff and ‘asked them to ensure training materials for student resident assistants are designed to meet the stated goals: awareness of multiple points of view, recognition that our students have different backgrounds and experiences and techniques to assist them with communication.’

For more information on WCU’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Programs, please click here. For more information on student diversity programs, please click here.


Featured below are screenshots of the email sent out by Chancellor Kelli Brown to all students, faculty and staff.