“Move your left arm up as high as you can and to the left … a little farther left … there, you got that hold? OK, pull up and at the same time with your right leg reach to the right … no, go a little higher … OK, you’ve got it now.”
With detailed verbal instructions, Rob Cook, biking and special programs coordinator for Cornell Outdoor Education (COE), guided Angela Winfield, Cornell’s director of Inclusion and Workforce Diversity, to the top of the wall at the new Lindseth Climbing Center – twice.
The climbs were no different than the hundreds of others made by Cornell community members – except that Winfield is blind. She had climbed before, so she had little to prove to herself. But Winfield wanted to demonstrate that by thinking creatively, COE staff could expand the reach of their programming within the Cornell community, and that with proper support systems, “staff members – regardless of their background or abilities – can be engaged and involved and participate in the wealth of recreational and cultural benefits available to them,” she said.
“We want staff from all backgrounds to thrive,” Winfield said. “And that means that they not only be able to show up and fully engage in their work, but that if they have an interest in a program Cornell offers to all members of the community, we are willing, within the guidelines of reason and safety, to help make their participation possible.”
Marc Magnus-Sharpe, the Lindseth Director of COE, agreed. “Our mission is developing teamwork, leadership and growth,” he said. “That mission serves everyone, regardless of age or ability, not just the athletic types. We provide team-building to every department and every person, and we believe that through experiential learning, or learning by doing, all members of the Cornell community can set personal challenges that will stretch them toward greater achievement. Our role is to make sure that anyone who participates in our programs feels welcomed and supported.”
In the four years he has led COE, Magnus-Sharpe has worked to make the unit more inclusive. Last year he hired Karel Hilversum as the director of the Cornell Teamwork and Leadership Center, and the center’s new coordinator, Marcus Brooks. “All of COE benefits from the broader experience represented in our leadership team,” Magnus said. He also has begun cross-campus collaborations with Winfield’s department, with LaWanda Cook, principal investigator at Cornell’s Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, and with the Cornell Health Center’s Nature Rx program.
In recognition of his inclusion goals, Magnus-Sharpe received Cornell’s inaugural President’s Award for Innovation in Diversity and Inclusion in November 2016. Also in 2016, COE received the David J. Webb Program Excellence Award from the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education.
To Magnus-Sharpe, Winfield’s climb is a metaphor for the learning that Cornell offers: “Every day we are feeling our way through complex systems, not always sure of our next move. But we can succeed if we find people who can help guide us.”
For Winfield and Cook, those lessons went both ways: “Me climbing with Rob – and us learning from each other – is inclusion in practice,” Winfield says. “It may be a small step, but it is a step in the right direction.”