Christian Colleges and Universities Implement Changes to Support Students of Color

At Cleveland, Tennessee’s Lee University, Mykah Smith stands inside a silent, candlelit circle of peers, professors, and administrators. A Bahamian graduate student, she relays her own pain to the group: “I was not black until I came to America.” Smith is one of three students of color speaking at Lee’s Vigil for Racial Solidarity.

Several months after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a small group of Lee professors planned the vigil as way of inviting members of the university community to stand together in solidarity against racism with their brothers and sisters of color.

Over 700 attendees sang along with a gospel choir and listened to administrators advocate for inclusion. Theology student Franco Crosby, one of the event’s speakers, described being followed by local police officers one evening after a resident reported him for looking suspicious as he walked across campus in his hoodie. The event had a profound effect: In the days following the vigil, speaker Charity Parris said she found herself “in more racially conscious conversations with professors and students of all backgrounds.”

Making progress on racial issues is a challenging process—one to which faculty and staff must remain faithfully committed. For instance, Lee has a racial justice advocacy group and hosts various events to educate students about diversity and anti-racism work, but if that work is not ongoing and evolving, it cannot be effective. At these institutions the largest strides are usually taken after the photographer packs up and the event is over; consistency and commitment cannot be overvalued. As with most institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the students of color at Lee are a minority group faced with the challenge of negotiating a predominantly white space.

When faculty and staff are sensitive to the challenges faced by students of color, they contribute to the greater goal of creating communities that honor the image of God in his diverse creation. Institutions like Calvin College and Azusa Pacific University have long embraced these aims as part of their comprehensive mission. But no matter the institution’s history, much work is still ahead of us—especially if the fight for racial reconciliation is to become more than a trend, but rather a good faith effort to right past wrongs and to shape a new culture of genuine diversity. According to Jacque Fields, former assistant dean of multicultural student development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when we are dealing with racial and cultural bias and even outright injustice, “You never stop. It’s like your grass. You cut it, and it grows back. People think it is over. It’s never over.”

Thankfully, though, several colleges have identified places to start.

Becoming Students Again

Unlearn Week. Fields, along with Dean Michelle Lloyd-Paige, founded this week-long program at Calvin College. “Making the invisible visible,” the slogan for Calvin’s multicultural student advisory board, threads the events together. It is also a way Fields brings to light the underlying reality of racial bias: “It’s like The Matrix. You are operating in a system that is invisible to you, and you are feeding it energy completely unbeknownst to you. Once I can show you how the matrix is at work, you see it everywhere.”

While at Calvin, Fields became especially passionate about equipping “all offices on campus to think about what it means to reflect the Kingdom of God in our student body and faculty body.” By serving on almost every committee and sharing her perspective as a woman of color, Fields undertook a mass educational effort for faculty, staff, the president, and the president’s cabinet. Unlearn Week now continues under the guidance of Dr. Christina Edmondson, dean for intercultural student development.

Unlearn Week encourages participants to identify preexisting patterns and presuppositions while seeking accurate information to unseat these assumptions. Showcasing this value, Azusa Pacific University (APU) in Azusa, California, has a growing center dedicated to training faculty and staff on diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence as they strive to enrich “the cultural proficiency of faculty, staff, and students to ensure that every member of the APU community is respected, successful, and thrives.” While APU’s center could begin and end with theory, it prioritizes practice. “As a Christian university, we have a moral imperative for inclusion and for equipping students to live in a diverse world,” Dr. Richard Martinez, executive director of the center, explains. “If we don’t do this, it’s the Lord’s kingdom that suffers.” APU’s center provides a diversity ambassador program that first began with 13 faculty and staff but now trains over 80 people. APU is investing in the education of their students by investing in their educators, teaching through a narrative curriculum how to create to a campus culture that is more creative, inclusive, flexible, and respectful.

These efforts to train faculty and staff were already in place, according to Warren, but they gained traction after a group of student activists staged a protest, walking out during the APU president’s chapel address. The protestors, who called themselves Activate, had three demands: 1) faculty and staff diversity training, 2) a clear bias incident reporting system, and 3) sufficient financial support for ethnic organizations. Feedback later collected from student surveys revealed a deep need for the very changes the protesters were wanting; they were a mouthpiece for the concerns of many. The administration listened to the protestors and student body, and now APU has one of the most extensive diversity training programs in the CCCU.

When faculty and administrators listen to the concerns of students of color, as was done at APU, campuses—and hope—thrive. Lee student Indyasia Fowler felt isolated and unheard during a class discussion on the Confederate flag when her professor argued that taking down the flag was unnecessary because it was simply a symbol of family pride and heritage. Days before, the same professor had mentioned he felt anxious and afraid when driving through predominantly black low-income areas. Seeing her opportunity to make a connection, Fowler commented in class that her professor’s feeling of fear in driving through those neighborhoods was exactly how she felt when encountering the flag, but her argument did not elicit much response. Several weeks later, Fowler’s professor approached her, apologizing for his remarks in class. After watching Selma and seeing Martin Luther King, Jr. lead a march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge while it was framed by Confederate flags, the professor said he now understood why his words were so hurtful. Fowler was comforted by his confession: “I felt really hopeful.”

Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today