Diversity. It's a big word. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. At CEFC, support for diversity is baked into the very fabric of our sport community. But sometimes it's important to take a moment and restate important principles. So I'm doing that today here in this blog post, and I'm also going to talk a bit about what are to me the most important parts of it.
It is important to note: DEI discussions are sometimes uncomfortable. They can touch on some subjects we find it difficult to talk about, bring up a lot of emotions that are locked away, and lead to uncomfortable realizations about our own actions and the actions of those around us.
CEFC DEI Statement (revised January 2021)
At Cutting Edge Fencing, we don’t just accept differences — we celebrate, support, and nurture differences for the benefit of all in our community. Our mission is to bring the Olympic Sport of Fencing to as many people as we can in Tarrant County and to serve our members' needs as whole people. To do that well, we have to be committed to including perspectives that vary by a broad set of measures, including but not limited to, race, ethnicity, social background, religion, gender identity, age, disability, sexual orientation, veteran status, educational background, marital and family status, neurodiversity, economic resources, national origin, physical capacity, previous athletic experience, and competitive fencing level.
Cutting Edge Fencing will not tolerate discrimination based upon the above factors, any social identity category, or personal defining characteristic on the part of its staff, members, contractors, venue partners, spectators, or supporters.
Cutting Edge Fencing will allocate resources to fostering equitable and inclusive participation for all athletes as well as growth opportunities for participants from diverse backgrounds.
Put simply, if you want to fence, it doesn’t matter who you are, you have a place with the SabreCats.
What does this mean in practice? How does it really work? What can we point to to say "we mean it?" Why does adopting this statement make our community better? I am glad you asked.
I have always been firmly of the opinion that diversity is another way to say "strength." I'm proud to say that over the years we've had a truly remarkable set of individuals come through our doors. Literally, all shapes, sizes, colors - you name it. Recently though, I've had time to reflect a lot on "What does it mean to be a SabreCat?"
A hallmark and fundamental aspect of the training at CEFC is that EVERYONE trains together. Now, we do have special breakout groups for different types of people. It's important that little kids fence competitively with other little kids for safety's sake. Veteran (age 40 and up) fencers need to fence with other veterans to gain a feel for the timing and speed differences. Highly competitive teenagers making runs for college teams can help motivate and push each other in special ways. Sometimes you also have to give different groups within your community extra attention in order to make sure they are growing as individuals and to foster equity and inclusivity. But we also make these groups work together as well, under the appropriate circumstances. Regularly.
In our Footwork and Targets class, you'll find all of these groups working side by side. And in Partner Drills and Bouting, they have to be paired with each other (and yes, they also have times to work with people at their skill level as well).
This may seem like an approach that hinders the development of our high level fencers, and yet, it doesn't. The question I get asked often is, "You mean you make your teenagers fence the vets on a regular basis?"
Yes. Yes I do. All the time.
Well for starters, there's a lot that those vets can actually teach the teenagers on a technical level. I've seen more than one teenager who can't deal with a vet who doesn't "do it correctly" and ends up attacking to a closed line, or getting caught in a counterattack they weren't expecting. And when they get to a high level tournament, they either get taken apart by a better fencer that can exploit their inability to deal with an off tempo action, or they lose in an early round to a fencer that they "shouldn't."
However, that's not even close to the most important reason that I do it.
Reason #1 - Making everyone feel welcome
Youth sports is supposed to be about teaching kids to be better people. And a huge part of that is accepting other people who are different than them. Now, as coaches, a lot of the time we can't control who walks in to our club. If we aren't in an area with a population that has a lot of people of a certain background, the odds of them being part of our group of students is pretty small. But, that whole part above about "physical capacity, previous athletic experience, and competitive fencing level?"
Yea. We can control that.
And so I firmly believe that if I can't ask a highly competitive teenager to spend time working with a new 10 year old who is struggling to make a parry as a regular part of their activity, then how in the world am I going to ask them to accept a transgender athlete into their midst? Or a fencer of a different cultural background that they don't have a lot of experience being around? If you are witnessed dismissing your club-mates who have obvious differences of athletic ability, how will the ones who need to feel safe because they are different in a non-obvious way ever trust you?
I will commit to making CEFC a welcoming place for any athlete, no matter their background. And I will hold myself and the members of my community accountable for the times we've failed to live up to this standard.
Reason #2 - Demonstrating the ability to be part of something greater than yourself
It's no secret that many of our youth fencers participate because they have hopes of continuing to be able to fence in college. While fencing scholarships are few and far between, fencing can open doors that would be otherwise very difficult to pass through. We have had fencers from our program attend some great universities. And when I talk to college coaches, the question that always comes up is "What kind of teammate is this person?" If I can answer truthfully that the recruit works to make those around them better, the conversation always takes a better turn.
Being part of something greater isn't a role that exclusive to fencing; it should be a feature of all sports. But the dynamics in our sport often times work a little differently because of the individual nature of fencing, the existence of competitive opportunities over a lifetime, and a greater culture that prizes "looking out for #1." Sometimes it is important to step out of the moment and think of the greater picture. In the long run, it will make you a better fencer and a better person.
Ultimately though, the choice comes down to the fencer and their family. I'm asking every member of our community to look deep into themselves and ask some potentially uncomfortable questions. That's part of the accountability I mentioned above.
Our commitment to this process is just as strong as our commitment to other guidelines around how we train, which have also undergone revisions over the years. CEFC fencers are now required to wear full uniform, including knickers - this has changed since we first started practicing together many years ago. Similarly, our commitment to Diversity and Inclusion has undergone revisions. We are serious about our Rules of Training and we are serious about our commitment to Diversity and Inclusion. If you can't commit to abide by all of them, now and in the future, then we invite you to train somewhere else.
So, I'm not going to post a lot of pretty pictures of a rainbow of different colored athletes athletes at CEFC. I'm not going to highlight the LGTBQ, neurodiverse, differently-abled, and economically challenged athletes at CEFC that we've had over the years (for no small part because their stories are their own and need to be told by them, not me).
I'm simply going to post this picture from many years ago, of two SabreCats training with each other. Notice the different sizes. They're a pretty good guide of the respective abilities at the time. I'm proud of the fact that the fencer on the right took the time to train with the fencer on the left. Eventually, the fencer on the left overtook the fencer on the right in any measure of fencing skill you might wish to name. But they continued to fence each other. And they were both better for it.
Post publishing note: This is not the end of our discussion on DEI issues for the SabreCat fencing community, but rather a beginning. It is actionable steps we can start now. There will be more.