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.

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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

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.

Unbought & Unbossed: Writing to Self-Author


Writing is a hard and valuable practice. At the end of the day, what makes it so hard is not the exercises in grammar, the content creation, or the edits. The hardest part is learning to actually own your thoughts. Author & blogger, Allison Vesterfelt, constantly address writing as a practice that is internally healing & challenging. The arts (creative, written, or performance) has a way of exposing our deepest thoughts and truths; in these ways we can physically see our thoughts exposed ‘on paper’. It is about naming and claiming: writing down thoughts and saying, “Yes… I take responsibility. Those are mine.”

Often times, it’s a lot easier to let someone else speak for us. We can hide behind their words, choose the bits we agree with, and criticize / deconstruct the bits that we don’t. But when it’s our work, there is a sense of stepping up to the plate… “Here I am… with my words.”

If you watch Scandal, you’ll remember a particular scene between Papa Pope & Olivia Pope, as he tries to convince her to leave D.C. He spoke the sentiments and realities of many people within marginalized communities: you’ve got to do twice as much, you’ve got to be twice as good… to get half the credit. Papa Pope’s advice was all too familiar. As a Black woman, growing up in Philadelphia, both parents taught me the same lesson, while insisting I master Standard American English and navigate the systems of academia with excellence. I thank them for that, because it’s real. In her book, Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay (2014) cites a similar message in her own upbringing. Research explains:

“Solorzano et al. (2002) found that one response of students who had their abilities doubted was to work doubly hard and show their peers and professors that they belonged. Successful Black students interviewed by Fries-Britt and Turner (2002) shared that they often encountered students who made comments based on stereotypical images of Blacks, and that they felt that they repeatedly engaged in a “proving process” to establish themselves as worthy and academically able both in and outside of the classroom.” (Fries Britt & Griffin, 2007, p. 511-512)

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This phenomena extends past the halls of colleges and universities institutions. It finds me when I sit down to write. There are the all too familiar, “clutch your pearls moment”:
Will what I write be brilliant enough to actually be cited and recognized, especially when a man is interpreting / presenting on my work?
Will what I write be brilliant enough to establish professional status, when I am marginalized by age?
Will what I write be so brilliant that I cannot be denied?
As someone who carries a few marginalized identities… this stuff can get complicated.

And then, dear Allison Vesterfelt tells me that “writing is not an exercise of the mind. It is an exercise of the heart.” (I believe her and I don’t believe her at the same time. I think she’d be alright with that).  In my experience, writing is an exercise in self-authorship. It’s a clarify my thoughts, understand what is important to me, and then stay true in owning that (Baxter-Magolda, 2008). Writing is an exercise that compels me, encourages me: Own your thoughts. Own their brilliance. Own their shadows. Own your story. Unbossed. Unbought. It requires me to be different from even the people that I look up to in a variety of fields. It requires me to be an active participate in my own process.

When I was in graduate school, my professors led me to a similar lesson: Own your work. Defend it. Protect it. Grow from it and grow through it. Learning to freelance is that Lesson 2.0.

Image courtesy of Paul at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2008). Three elements of self-authorship. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 269-284. doi: 10.1353/csd.0.0016

Chisholm, S. (2010). Unbought and unbossed (Exp. 40th anniversary ed.). Washington, D.C.: Take Root Media.

Fries-Britt, Sharon, and Griffin, K. (2007). “The Black box: How high-achieving Blacks resist stereotypes about Black Americans.” Journal of College Student Development 48.5: 509-524.

Fries-Britt, S., & Turner, B. (2002). Uneven stories: Successful Black collegians at a Black and a White campus. The Review of Higher Education, 25(3), 315-330.

Solorzano, D. G., Allen, W. R., & Carroll, G. (2002). Keeping race in place: Racial microaggressions and campus racial climate at the University of California Berkeley. Chicano Latino Law Review, 23(Spring), 15-112.

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Unbossed & Unbought: Writing to Self Author by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

They Said What?! – Navigating Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions can be defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (Wing Sue, 2010).” These subtle snubs can creep up in the work environment in the most unlikely places.

I have both experienced and supported others through the various microaggressions that they may have faced in their work environment, in my process of navigating the workplace as a millenial Black woman. These few come to mind:

  • ideas I contributed being re-directed for attribution to one of the men in the room (either immediately or over time)
  • being called a “girl” as a professional, full time staff member
  • prominent leadership figures subtly attributing career successes to affirmative action efforts
  • assumptions of being “angry” about something when we are professionally critiquing an exclusionary policy, practice, or protocol

Through mutual support systems and networks, colleagues and I have talked about ways to navigate these instances. Do we see it as a teachable moment and a brief lesson in diversity education? Do we call for the organization to establish diversity training sessions? Do we ignore it? Do we speak on it?

Honestly, there are just as many approaches as there are individuals and identities to navigate. Most of the time, understanding what to do comes on a case-by-case basis. However, here are a few things that have helped me in the past, and I hope that they will assist you if you ever have to navigate these murky waters:

Document, document, document!

There are lessons that I’ve learned through graduate school. There are lessons that I’ve learned through professional mentors. Then, there are those ‘common sense’ lessons that I’ve learned from the village that raised me and called me to the work that I do. One of those lessons is documentation. One thing that I know to be true, is that there is a profound difference between individual microaggressions perpetuated by a colleague… and a culture that promotes, implicitly allows, or does not challenge microaggressive behaviors. You typically can “feel in your gut” which one you are dealing with. (The good news is that this gut feeling can also help you to discern which work environments will help you thrive!) If you are feeling that you have landed within a work culture that fosters microaggressive behaviors, documenting things will become absolutely key. Having a timeline allows you to examine the environment and have robust information should you need to chat with a supervisor, administrator, ombudsperson, or HR representative. Keeping this type of documentation is not unnecessary or petty. It is a data set that can inform strategic change within the workplace or organization.

Challenge it. 

I fully understand that not everyone will feel comfortable with this approach. However, as someone who is an educator & student affairs professional, this is an approach that I fall back on quite often. Of course, methods vary as audiences change: the approach is different if I am talking with students about what a microaggression is but I tend to be a little firmer if I am talking with a colleague. Since we’re talking about the workplace, we have to realize that we are all coming in with different backgrounds, experiences, and mind sets. And bias is real. Thus, creating a truly inclusive and affirming environment is a continual process.

In instances where microaggressions arise, the hope is that we can communicate supervisors, administrators, and / or HR representatives that these instances threaten the inclusivity of the environment, and thus, impede overall productivity. This process might include addressing the matter directly, challenging what was said, and offering clarity (i.e. asking my age in a board meeting is inappropriate for the following reasons…).

Though the methods vary, this is an approach that many can use, if it’s their choice. For clarity’s sake, I am, by no means, suggesting that every microaggression is a teachable moment. Here’s why: many times, we ask those within marginalized communities to be the primary teachers and educators on that community. This can take up a lot of cognitive energy that you want to use for the actual work that you are doing (Fries-Britt & Griffin, 2007). While this is a work that I am committed to as a multicultural student affairs professional, I do not blithely suggest that this is something that everyone should take on, if they do not feel comfortable. Please understand that creating these teachable moments with your colleagues or co-workers is something that you are empowered to choose… or not choose.

Sometimes, there just isn’t enough time or energy for a lesson about microaggressions. In those cases, I ask clarifying questions in hopes that these questions will help people to think through what they just said or did. It can be as simple as, “Help me understand what you are really saying,” or, “To me, your statement implies _______. Help me understand how you’re interpreting what you just said”. For example, in instances where my speech choices are attributed to being “a credit to my race”, or “not speaking like” a person of color, I typically ask them to help me understand what they mean: “What made you say that? How are you defining the speech patterns of persons of color? Are these speech patterns all synonymous?” (I won’t lie… I’ve thrown in “I didn’t know you studied sociolinguistics! Will you tell me more about that?” as appropriate). Many times, asking for more information allows people the space to process through their own words, thoughts, and actions… and the implications of it all.

Facilitate meaningful connections within the workplace.

If there were any one approach that I had to stress, this one would be it. The three that are above will be contingent upon your personal circumstances, ideology, and comfort levels. However, facilitating meaningful connections within the workplace is important, regardless of the circumstance. There have been instances where I have experienced microaggressions (and / or just general discrimination) and I have accessed supervisors, colleagues, and co-workers to have those ‘close the door’ conversations. In those spaces, they told me about the organization’s history, who I needed to talk to, and in some cases, what approach I needed to take. These connections came from within my field and outside of my field. They are the people who invested in my success and who believe that workplaces could and should be inclusive and affirming. Start branching out to make those meaningful connections.

Understand that sometimes, self-care trumps all.

It’s no secret: we put in work! And many times, our work requires us to be present and effective for the long term. So, we have to be diligent about paying attention to our own self care when faced with microaggressions in the work place.
The thing about microaggressions is that they subtly challenge the core of your dignity and brilliance, because of your race, ethnicity, and gender. They are not always easy to shrug off, dismiss, or confront with colleagues (and /or especially those who might be in higher leadership positions). So, in those instances, think about the ways in which you can care for yourself, right there, in that moment.

Self-care looks different for everyone. If you need to take some breaths after being the target of a microaggression, do that. If you need to talk it through with one of your connections, do that. If you find that these types of instances keep coming up on a regular and consistent basis, and you can afford to do so without considerable cost to your socioeconomic reality, then self care might also look like facilitating a search for a new work environment. I’ve done this before and trust me, it comes with both the pros & the cons of transitions – as well as the ever-present understanding that microaggressions at the intersections of race & gender are prevalent for Black women in the workplace (Crenshaw, 1993; Harris Perry, 2013).

An older version of this piece has also been posted on the Black Career Women’s Network.
Image courtesy of createherstock.com

Resources (not linked)

Fries-Britt, Sharon, and Kimberly Griffin (2007). “The Black box: How high-achieving Blacks resist stereotypes about Black Americans.” Journal of College Student Development 48.5: 509-524.

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They Said What?! Navigating Microaggressions in the Workplace by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.