Alumna is “planting the seeds” for inclusion in collegiate athletics
Sheridan Blanford ‘15 was recently named the inaugural associate athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Washington, making her one of a handful of administrators in collegiate athletics across the country to work exclusively in the area of DEI. The appointment marked the culmination of a full-circle journey that has seen Blanford go from being a NCAA Division III student-athlete to now impacting the lives of countless student-athletes, staff members, and community members in her career.
Blanford grew up as part of a self-proclaimed sports family in Aurora, CO, but did not start playing AAU basketball until going into her junior year of high school. During her senior year, she was being recruited by a handful of schools, including a couple of NCAA Division II programs in Colorado, but wanted to go out of state for her collegiate experience.
At that time, the coaching staff at St. Olaf College reached out to her and eventually came out to visit her in Colorado, encouraging her to visit campus. Blanford had come to Minnesota for the first time to visit another Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) institution earlier that year, but came to St. Olaf on what she describes as the “coldest weekend of the year.”
Despite the cold, something just felt right to Blanford when she visited St. Olaf.
When I got back home, I just thought ‘I’m going to jump two feet into St. Olaf.’Sheridan Blanford ‘15
“There was snow everywhere and it was negative however-many degrees, but it was one of those moments where it just felt right at the time,” she said. “I had a gut feeling that I connected really well with the campus, the people, and the coach at the time. When I got back home, I just thought ‘I’m going to jump two feet into St. Olaf.’”
Blanford played four years of basketball at St. Olaf from 2011 to 2015, but injuries (four knee surgeries and a herniated disc in her back) meant that her basketball career did not pan out as she hoped.
Even though the on-court part of her basketball experience at St. Olaf did not go as planned, being part of the team, coupled with her academic and extracurricular activities, went a long way in helping Blanford discover her eventual career path.
“I came in thinking I knew who I was but left a completely different person,” she said. “I had some great, fun, wonderful memories and then some challenging ones. From a personal perspective, I was one of, if not the only, woman of color on my basketball team for four years, which prompted me to figure out what I wanted to do in my life.”
Blanford came to St. Olaf with plans to major in exercise science and pursue a career as a physical therapist but quickly discovered that that was not for her. She eventually settled on designing her own major titled “Activities and Sports Administration,” which primarily included courses from education, race and ethnic studies, and management, as well as concentrations in education and race and ethnic studies.
“Although my athletic career didn’t end up exactly how I wanted it to be, it opened the door for me to do lots of other things,” she said. “[Designing my own major] really allowed me to start to enjoy school because I was able to pursue the things that brought me joy and got me excited. Like a true Division III student-athlete, I sang in Agnes A Capella and I was part of the TRIO McNair Scholars Program, which was life-changing to me.”
The TRIO McNair Scholars Program prepares students for graduate school and aims to increase the number of low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students who participate in undergraduate research, graduate with a B.A., and immediately enter and complete graduate school, with a specific focus on obtaining a Ph.D.
“I am incredibly grateful for Janis Johnson and Melissa Melger, who took the chance to invest in me and helped me realize my potential outside of basketball,” Blanford said of the program.
As part of the program, students complete an internship and conduct research during their undergraduate experience. Going into her junior year, Blanford interned with her aunt, Rhonda Blanford Green, who is the commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association — the first and only African American woman to oversee an entire state high school athletic association. As a senior, Blanford focused her research on Title IX as it relates to intersectionality and women of color and eventually researched the minority female student-athlete experience at the Division III level for her senior thesis for her individual major.
It was very validating to know that I wasn’t the only one that had those experiences. Then that started to trigger my mind to say, well, we don’t want people to have those experiences, so what can I do about it?Sheridan Blanford ‘15
“I had all these experiences and I wanted to reach out to see if other people had these experiences as well,” she said about her senior thesis. “It was kind of surprising to me because I did feel a little isolated, but it was very validating to know that I wasn’t the only one that had those experiences. Then that started to trigger my mind to say, well, we don’t want people to have those experiences, so what can I do about it?”
Some of her key findings revealed that female student-athletes of color lacked belonging, did not have adequate access to peers, mentors, or professors who looked like them, struggled with identity and “being the only one,” and shared multiple examples of microaggressions and racial epithets given by peers, coaches, and administrators. This prompted her to begin to ponder what she could do with information to ensure that those that looked like her did not have these experiences.
With her interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion, Blanford decided to attend graduate school at the University of Washington and earned her master’s degree at UW’s Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership program the following year. After completing that program, Blanford was hit with the question of what to do next.
“When I was ready to graduate from grad school, it was different than it is now because there were only three or four departments in all of college athletics that had a person focused on diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said. “The opportunities just weren’t there.”
Blanford decided to return to Minnesota to work as the assistant director for the MIAC, where she oversaw the conference’s strategic plan, worked with the gender, equity, diversity, and inclusion subcommittee, and was the advisor for the conference’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), among other duties.
“That was a really cool full-circle moment because I got to do everything under the sun,” Blanford said of her time at the MIAC office. “I was able to have all these great experiences and was able to start implementing action to combat some of the challenges that I found through my undergraduate research about the experiences of women of color.”
While attending the NCAA Inclusion Forum in 2017, Blanford connected with the then director of inclusion and engagement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison due to her title and scope of work. As it turned out, Wisconsin was hiring a coordinator position, so Blanford applied and ended up getting the job.
One year into her tenure at Wisconsin, Blanford’s predecessor left for another position and Blanford was elevated to oversee all the diversity, equity, and inclusion for the department. Her work in the area led Blanford to being named one of Wisconsin’s 49 Most Influential Black Leaders by Madison 365 in 2019 and a Rising Star Award winner by Women Leaders in College Sports in 2018.
After two-and-a-half years at Wisconsin, the University of Washington posted the position for an associate athletic director for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and Blanford received calls from people she had connected with during graduate school who encouraged her to apply. After a lengthy process, Blanford was offered the job, which she started in January 2021.
Although positions like Blanford’s are becoming more common in collegiate athletics, there are still relatively few across the country, meaning Blanford is among a small group of administrators who are charting the course of the field as they go.
“I’ve come to realize that DEI as an acronym, or diversity, equity, and inclusion, have become buzzwords and people don’t really know what they mean — nonetheless how to attain them,” she said. “So that’s my goal, first of all, to help people understand the importance of it and why it is important to them as an individual. Then to equip and provide a perspective that prepares them to have an impact in advancing social justice, equity, and inclusion. If everyone does their part, then the challenges we are facing begin to shift.”
In her day-to-day work, Blanford works with a wide variety of people — from marketing, to student-athletes, to campus partners, to community leaders — to try and make sure that everybody who is part of or engages with Washington athletics feels valued, heard, respected, and supported.
While my goal is to empower, advance, and equip our underrepresented students, that’s only part of my job. We then have to make sure that the environments that they’re in are equipped to create inclusion and equity, not as an afterthought, but as part of their goals, missions, and values. So I am the bridge to make sure all these people feel connected, valued, and respected.
“While my goal is to empower, advance, and equip our underrepresented students, that’s only part of my job,” she said. “We then have to make sure that the environments that they’re in are equipped to create inclusion and equity, not as an afterthought, but as part of their goals, missions, and values. So I am the bridge to make sure all these people feel connected, valued, and respected.”
As someone at the forefront of DEI in collegiate athletics, Blanford recently was a co-founder of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Council of Excellence (DIECE), an organization of diversity and inclusion professionals dedicated to discussing, evaluating, and creating tangible solutions to drive increased diversity and inclusive excellence in collegiate athletics.
“We recognized that because this area is so new, it can be overwhelming, difficult, and that people might not have the resources they need,” Blanford said of DIECE. “We wanted to make sure people found community and that they had the resources and people to lean on as we lay the framework for what DEI and college athletics look like across the board.”
In August of 2020, the NCAA announced that each athletic department and conference office would be required to name an Athletics Diversity and Inclusion Designee (ADID) to receive and distribute information around inclusive programs and emerging diversity issues. Blanford hopes the DIECE group can help that group of designees in their roles.
We want to utilize the momentum of this designation, along with the momentum of the sheer focus on equity, inclusion, Black Lives Matter, and social injustice to really create meaning around diversity, equity, and inclusion in sport.Sheridan Blanford ‘15
“That was one of the reasons we wanted to create the DIECE group,” she said. “We knew all these people would be getting these designations and wanted to make sure they felt equipped to do their role. We want to utilize the momentum of this designation, along with the momentum of the sheer focus on equity, inclusion, Black Lives Matter, and social injustice to really create meaning around diversity, equity, and inclusion in sport.”
As she and others continue this work, Blanford is optimistic that sport can provide a meaningful context for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Sport has so much power because it is quite literally a model of all of these people with all of these differences, skills, and talents coming together and working towards a common goal,” she said. “But we have to dig deep to understand the challenges that we’ve had up to this point related to social injustice, inequity, and exclusion in our spaces and make sure that we’re bringing all these great, diverse people to these spaces and that they can succeed by just being them.”
While Blanford acknowledges that the work is difficult and a lot remains to be done, she is focused on the impact that she hopes to make in the push for change.
“You continue to speak up because you don’t know who is going to walk into a room after you,” she said.
Blanford roots her work and practice in the quote by Tarana Burke, activist and founder of the #MeToo Movement who says, “You may not always be able to enjoy the shade of the trees that you plant. But plant the seed anyway.”