Published: November 11, 2020
I am many things. A husband and a father. An entrepreneur and a scholar. A man of faith and conviction. All of which I am immensely proud. I am also a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. I am proud of my VMI lineage and hold the totality of my VMI experience close to my heart.
I owe a debt of gratitude to VMI. As a dual sport athlete in high school and with multiple avenues for my future, I decided upon VMI and a path less traveled. I chose to attend a school which I had never heard of until that point in my life. I subsequently became the first person in my college educated family to receive an athletic scholarship, to attend a senior military college, and most interestingly, attend a predominantly white institution. Both my parents and two sisters attended historically Black colleges or universities which gave me a unique perspective on my time at VMI as a minority and now as a seasoned alumnus.
During my tenure at VMI, my indoctrination to equity came in the form of serving on one of the many class system organizations as a member of the Officer of the Guard Association, which was singularly responsible for addressing complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment, and other conduct unbecoming of cadets. This appointment came at the behest of my classmates who entrusted me with a moral and empathetic responsibility to look out for my fellow brother (and sister) rats no matter their race, gender, or origin.
Upon graduating and finding my own footing in the world, I believed it was best to give back to the place which had instilled so much in me. Namely, commitment to a common goal, honor above all else, and duty to others. These principles were sharpened within me without regard to Confederate homage and/or recognition of statues of men who at one time oppressed my ancestors. I was aware of these symbols from the time I set foot on post. However, after recounting my own experiences both pleasant and otherwise, I do not recall a significant instance of racism and/or discrimination directed toward me, to my teammates, or to anyone else for that matter. Alas, this was only my experience and does not discount the very real and life altering experiences of cadets before and/or after me. Does racism exist in the world and in our country? Undoubtedly. Does racism exist at VMI? Most likely. It is also undoubted that racism in any form is abhorrent and that the many leaders serving VMI on the front lines and those that support them feel the same and will mount the charge against this ethereal enemy the same they would a physical one, both foreign and domestic, who attempts to degrade and destroy the moral values which VMI was founded upon and still holds as its foundation.
This commitment to recognizing and addressing the fixed mindset of a few who do not represent the whole is why I have dedicated myself to utilizing the tools and resources at my disposal to repair the reputation of my alma mater which over the past few weeks has been bombarded with accounts of systemic and blatant racism. In my role as Director-at-Large for Training and Diversity on the VMI Alumni Association board of directors, and as the chairperson of the inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee of the same governing body, I and nine dedicated individuals have been working collectively under the purview and with the full support of the VMI administration to educate, enlighten, and empower the over 20,000 documented alums to encourage and promote minority representation and participation with the goal of making all cadets and alumni feel welcomed, respected, and celebrated.
This work began much longer than mere weeks ago, before a media onslaught and before the launch of a state investigation. The Diversity and Inclusion Committee is made up of a diverse group of experienced alums and recent graduates from all walks of life. These compatriots fought the same fight I did as a cadet. They persevered through the Rat Line, proudly slipped on the ring, and ultimately earned a degree and the right to be called an alum. Now we find ourselves again pursuing a collective goal, albeit on a different proving ground. This time, not for ourselves, but for those to come after us so that they might not be oppressed or ridiculed, but that they might be uplifted and encouraged during their time at VMI and after. I am proud to lead these noble men and women in this fight.
As a lifelong football player, I understand the disappointment and anguish of a fumble. Sometimes teams drop the ball. VMI is no different. But just like on the gridiron, the first step to reparations after fumbling is to recover. Once you recover, you can fight another day. I believe VMI will recover. I believe VMI will pick up the ball and continue marching toward the goal line. I’m proud to be part of the solution. I’m proud to be leading the way. I’m proud to be a VMI graduate.
Rah Virginia Mil!
Grant T. Harris ’06
Note: This op-ed first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch Nov. 15, 2020. Reprinted here with permission of Grant Harris ’06.
Grant Harris '06 VMI Alumni Association Training and Diversity Director-at-Large