Diversity and Inclusion Training at Niagara Takes on Special Meaning

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command

As Air Force Reserve Command’s director of Diversity and Inclusion, Lee Floyd has visited Reserve wings around the country to conduct Diversity 101 training, but he’s never had a visit quite like his recent trip to the 914th Air Refueling Wing, Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, New York.

“It was heart-wrenching. It was draining. It was stressful, but it was much needed and it was extremely productive,” Floyd said of his TDY to Niagara where he led three Diversity 101 classes a day over a four-day period.

Floyd said that the trip to Niagara had been planned for months, but the May 14 shooting at a Tops Friendly Market store in nearby Buffalo where 10 Black people were killed and three others were injured led him to believe these Diversity and Inclusion training sessions would be different than most.

“I talked to my team at Niagara on my way there, and we decided not to commit the entire two hours to this training, but to afford those folks an opportunity to get some things off of their chest,” he said. “In the very first class, I told the attendees that we are going to stray off of the agenda and I want to open the floor to anyone who wants to discuss what transpired. And the flood gates opened.

“Those Citizen Airmen up there had gone through something traumatic. There were members within the unit who were intimately affected by this tragedy. One member, specifically, had an uncle killed and a cousin inside the store when the shooting took place. We had countless members who said they lived within three blocks of this place and had shopped there on a number of occasions.”

First Lt. Ron Fugate, 914th Diversity and Inclusion board member, said it was enlightening to hear from so many of his Reserve brothers and sisters on how the shooting had impacted them.

“I can speak to how the Tops shooting affected my family and me, but I never considered the array of individuals affected on base, how our responders and law enforcement were affected,” he said. “How basically everyone who wears the uniform was affected.”

Floyd said that many Niagara Reservists were having a difficult time processing the fact that the alleged shooter, an 18-year-old white male, would conduct an act of domestic terrorism in their community where his sole stated purpose was to kill as many Black people as possible. Many people said they were still too scared to go shopping or to a movie theater or any other public place.

“The true essence of Reserve Citizen Airmen is that we are part of the communities where we serve and when something like this happens in the community, we need to engage,” Floyd said. “We really need to make sure these people know we’ve got their back and we are here for them. I think that’s a valuable lesson we learned from this shooting in Buffalo.

“I have made a commitment. God forbid that anything like this should ever happen again, but if it does, I am not waiting for an invitation. I am heading to that location. We are going to be there. We have the skillset necessary to facilitate those tough discussions.”

Fugate said he is confident that Team Niagara will continue the discussion on diversity and inclusion in the future.

“After participating in these classes, I’m 100% reenergized in this endeavor because I feel like there are not just some, but a lot of individuals on this base who feel this is a worthwhile endeavor,” he said. “It’s important. It’s needed. So, I’m ready to continue it.”

The 914th Diversity and Inclusion committee formed more than a year ago and is one of the first wing D&I committees established within AFRC. Col. Tom McElhinney, 914th Air Refueling Wing vice commander, chairs the 914th Diversity and Inclusion board and ultimately led the push to invite AFRC's D&I team for this unique training. The 914th Air Refueling Wing commander, Col. Lara Morrison, said she agrees with Fugate's sentiment on the wing's Diversity and Inclusion program being a worthwhile endeavor.

"I applaud the work of Colonel McElhinney, Lieutenant Fugate and our entire 914th Diversity and Inclusion team in bringing this training to Niagara," Morrison said. "They've been working nonstop for over a year through COVID-19 and other delays to bring AFRC's D&I team here. I'm glad we were finally able to host it for our Airmen."

Floyd said he was extremely proud of the 914th Reservists who were courageous enough to share some very intimate thoughts and feelings about the shooting.

“Some people flat out said they didn’t think their leadership cared about what happened or how it was affecting them, but I think these sessions helped them to see that their leadership does indeed care and that the Niagara leadership is committed to ensuring they continue to provide an avenue to the members to continue the dialogue and to evaluate opportunities for partnerships within the community,” he said.

“We experienced tears, frustrations, anger – the gamut of emotions. But at the end of the day, I am confident in saying that the wing came together as one. These sessions were truly heart-wrenching, but I’m confident in saying that they helped make Team Niagara stronger.”