So You Want to Be “More Diverse”: An Open Letter to Campus Ministries

It is not often that I read an open letter that is not dripping with sarcasm and nice-nastiness. So, you should know that as I write this, I’m drinking my Turmeric tea blend, and channeling all the Zen in my tone that I can muster. Yet I cannot promise that it will be as easy to swallow what needs to be said. In that respect, I invite you to get comfortable, take a breath, and if you were here, I’d offer you a cup of tea for goodwill.

For the past few years, I’ve done work within higher education & student affairs, within the realm of diversity / multicultural initiatives. Yet, I have also spent a considerable amount of time interfacing with ministries in formal / informal ways that have asked me for feedback on their campus ministry “diversity initiatives”. As a woman of color, this feedback comes from both lived experience and professional understanding. I write this open letter with those two facets in mind and invite you to explore them with me:

Most of the campus ministries I have seen (and informally advised) are predominantly White. I think it’s important to put that out early on in the letter, without yet placing value or judgement on that fact. The first time I was approached by a college ministry, I was only a first year student. I was still transitioning in my own faith & discernment processes, had written a list of campus ministries that I wanted to check out, and showed up only to feel incredibly marginalized. I attended a predominantly White institution so I was prepared for that experience in the classroom. Somehow, my adolescent mind had not connected this would be the case in campus ministry settings, as well. The metaphors were not the same. The collective understanding was vastly different. Efforts for my inclusion in the space were well-meaning, but crass, at best: would I sing them some Gospel? Would I be interested in leading the Gospel segment? Would I like to plan their diversity dinner? How should they talk to Black people? How can they include more “diverse people”? It took me a month to decide to disengage completely.

Over the years, the questions have gotten more refined, but it seems that we are collectively no less confused as to how we model diversity and inclusion within campus ministry settings. I saw this confusion as many campus ministers stood aghast, bewildered, and / or completely ignorant regarding cases like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown. I heard the shy and tentative questions for explanations (and sometimes all-out fear) regarding the responses they saw from their colleagues of color.

The issue is this: When we make diversity & inclusion our outcome without first developing multicultural competence, everyone loses. 

Seeking to increase structural diversity (i.e. the people who are participants in the campus ministry) without seeking to increase multicultural competence to honor them once they GET there will always betray a lack of forethought & process. There has to be a continual process of critical assessment & reflection, not on our numbers, but on the WAYS we think about diversity & multiculturalism. The point of this open letter is to assist in that reflection.

I. A person is not diverse. 

The initial thing that we have to understand is that diversity is not a person. One, singular person, can not be “diverse”. To ascribe to that thinking is to imply, “Everyone else is diverse except for me because my identity, presence, and culture should be, will be, and has always been primary, normal, and assumed.” Again, I say, a person (singular) is not diverse. Hurtado et al. (1999) talk about diversity in terms of a climate with different aspects which make up that climate. Those aspects are:

  • Structural – Who is there and who is represented? (Often times, many campus ministries stop there when they talk about diversity)
  • Historical Legacy of Exclusion or Exclusion – What is our history, as it pertains to integration? Who is this particular ministry set up for regarding the policies, doctrinal statements, practices, and mission?
  • Behavioral – What do our behaviors say about our lens on inclusion? What do our social interactions say about us? Who is involved? Who is not? Why?
  • Psychological – What are the (subtle and explicit) attitudes of leadership & key stakeholders that reduce and / or perpetuate stereotype, bias, and / or discrimination? What are the attitudes of our participants?

Attending to these different aspects, asking questions, critically reflecting, and making changes as needed is what allows true diversity & inclusion to take place. It is not just a matter of getting “diverse people” to your Bible study group.

II. Including a person of color on a panel about race does not necessarily show inclusion.

There’s this thing that happens when we want to “show diversity” within a setting. It’s when you see that one brown person on the cover of admissions brochures and that is supposed to represent “diversity”. It’s that one person of color they asked to be in the movie with a predominantly White cast, so we could all point and say, “See! There’s diversity here!” In campus ministries, it’s that one active participant who is either a person of color or is racially ambiguous to you, that you ask to lead the Gospel music worship segment, participate on panels about race / social justice / equity, etc. That is not appreciation for diversity. That is tokenism.

Tokenism is all about setting up an image of diversity, without considering marginalized or underrepresented voices in:

  • Shaping, crafting, and steering an overall vision for campus ministry
  • Decision-making on how campus ministry practices are run, what texts are read, what lenses influence the interpretation of sacred texts
  • Asking students of color to unpack their understandings / thoughts on the structural, psychological, behavioral, and historical aspects of diversity in your ministry

Tokenism is about taking an “out”: not learning enough about the Black lives matter to speak on it as an ally. Rather, allocating the task to a person of color to do the “heavy lifting”.  It’s rehearsing one Gospel music song or a few songs in different languages, without studying the true dynamics & nature of worship experiences in cross-cultural settings. It is a well-intentioned afterthought.

I get it. People mean well, and I get that. However, we can only address tokenism in campus ministries when we change the perspective from intent to impact. We must consider a question that columnist Jamie Utt poses in such instances: “what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?”

III. You can have structural diversity, and still be a predominantly White organization.

This is the one that takes many by surprise. In other words, you can look around the room and see people with different racial / ethnic backgrounds, but still function as a predominantly White campus ministry. This is about the distribution of power and engagement. If you look around and see representation that you think is diverse within your campus ministry students, but only have White leadership (that is unfamiliar with multicultural competence), then at its core, it is still a predominantly White organization. College ministries may do well with structural representation. However, if all of the books we are reading are from White theologians, all of the songs we sing are from White musicians, all of the social events that we plan appeal to a broader White audience, all of the ministry movie nights feature White actors, then… well… it’s still a predominantly White organization. Acknowledging this is not to bash predominantly White campus ministries. However, it is to admonish us to stand in truth and “call a thing, a thing” without charade or pretense. Being able to work through discomfort, in order to “call a thing, a thing” is absolutely essential IF your campus ministry wants to be “more diverse”. In other words, if we are taking diversity seriously in our campus ministry setting, there is no way to get around grace-filled truth telling.

In the close of this letter, I ask you to sit with whatever discomfort you may be feeling and take a deep breath. I encourage you to locate one thing within this post that sparks you toward action, reflection, or dialogue. I encourage you to reflect on what your campus ministry is doing as it pertains to this post. I encourage you to reflect on what your campus ministry is not doing as pertains to this post. Finally, I ask what stops you from doing that thing? Allow this open letter to spark dialogue and further understanding in your journey to bring your campus ministry toward authentic inclusion.

Creative Commons License
So You Want to Be “More Diverse”: An Open Letter to Campus Ministries by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Image courtesy of Chaloemphan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Resources
Hurtado, S., Milem, J., Clayton-Pedersen, A., & Allen, W. (1999). Enacting Diverse Learning Environments: Improving the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education. ERIC Digest.

3 comments

  1. I was just reading yesterday about the, “captivity of the white church” in a book by Soong-Chan Rah. He was talking about the perceived diversity of organizations like seminaries. Rah cites his own alma mater as having a meager 12% minority instructor representation, despite having over 30% of the student body consisting of non-white students. His point was this: ask the question if the ministry matches the kingdom in representstion, but also in theology.

    Jade, I appreciate you calling the Body to a more holistic perspective of diversity. Thanks for your accountability.

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    1. Whoa! That quote was everything “matches the kingdom in representation… ALSO in theology”. That last part is something to really do some reflecting on. Thanks for sharing it and for sharing your thoughts!

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