Hot topics: Five spring semester discussion groups focus on faith, race, and gender

EMU’s campus community entered into a wave of critical discussions about faith, race, and gender this semester. Three book clubs emerged independently, while yet another reading group and a film series came from projects in a graduate counseling course focusing on multiculturalism.

Faculty, staff, and student participants have wrestled with questions about how race, racism, faith, gender, and sexism influence power, theological formation, campus life, and beyond. 

These book studies are making visible normative structures in our community that limit our capacity to experience one another in all of our complexities. That is good work. We cannot correct that which we cannot, or refuse, to see. I think we are awakening to realities of the ways anti-blackness functions on our campus. 

Professor David Evans

Deep reading, deep listening

Eastern Mennonite Seminary supported 10 faculty and staff with copies of After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Willie James Jennings. Seminary instructor Sarah Bixler and Professor David Evans facilitated.

As part of the 2021 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, Evans and co-facilitator Ezrionna Prioleau ’17 led more than 20 faculty members and students in studying How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.

Supported by the Center for Interfaith Engagement, a group of faculty and staff read three books on the themes of race, faith, and justice, contributing towards an action plan to develop and deepen commitment to and competency in interfaith engagement and racial justice. (Read more specifics below.) Facilitators were Tala Bautista, adjunct faculty for Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, and Mikayla Waters-Crittenton, associate director for student accountability and restorative justice.

Two groups of graduate students in Professor Jennifer Cline’s two-semester multicultural counseling course series created and co-facilitated community advocacy projects within the EMU community: 

  • Sarah Morehouse, Mary Rebekah Cox and Richard Grosse led 10 undergraduate and graduate students and staff members in studying Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit.
  • A larger group of 11 graduate students facilitated a semester-long series “Somethin’ to Talk About: A Film and Discussion Series Around Race.” The three-part series included viewings of films “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” (California Newsreel); “The Color of Fear” by director Lee Mun Wah; and a pre-recorded open discussion on race and its personal impact between four of EMU’s graduate counseling students: two women of color and two white women. The events were open to the campus community.

‘A deep interest and hunger’

“There is a deep interest and hunger among students, staff, and faculty to engage in a process of reckoning and reform related to racial, sexual, and gender equality, as well as other identities,” said Morehouse, a student in the master’s in counseling program.

Men Explain Things to Me focuses “on how power is wielded in society and the resulting inequalities, and … the relationship between gendered language, the silencing of women and those with non-binary identities, disbelief in their experiences, and gender-based violence,” Morehouse said.

She and co-hosts Cox and Grosse were “impressed and heartened by the way that members engaged with the material and each other in a sensitive and impassioned way, recognizing the need for change at the individual, institutional, and cultural levels.”

Graduate student Helen Momoh went into the book club with measured expectations. However, “words cannot express the profound experience during the times we met,” Momoh said. “It was empowering, refreshing, and healing for me to be able to share within this space. I guess the space was such that it gave me comfort. Everyone was ready to listen, even when some of us just met for the first time.”

The interfaith group read Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, by angel Kyodo Rev. Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah; Forever Suspect: Racialized Surveillance of Muslim Americans in the War on Terror, by Saher Selod, and Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, by Felipe Hinojosa. 

In addition to personal engagement with Selod, a colloquium speaker this semester, the group also learned from guest speaker Dr. Cathy Campbell, associate professor in the nursing department and chair of acute and speciality care at University of Virginia. Campbel is an ordained Buddhist chaplain, according to group participant Trina Trotter Nussbaum, associate director at CIE. “Dr. Campbell spoke with us from these vantage points while we were reading the Radical Dharma book and it was a huge privilege,” she said. (On a side note, Hinojosa visited campus in 2018).

More than 20 faculty members and students have been meeting over Zoom to discuss How to Be an Antiracist. The group is a long-term project linked to EMU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. The size of the group can be challenging for Evans and co-facilitator Prioleau.

“That said, I experience the group as open to new ideas and interested in growth,” Evans said. “We’ve wrestled with the strength of Kendi’s argument that one cannot take a neutral stance on racism, you are either acting in racist or antiracist ways. We’ve also wrestled with some concerns we have over Kendi’s analysis of power that seems to equate anti-blackness with anti-whiteness. These are crucial conversations for our learning community.”

After Whiteness has also sparked critical questions for the 10 faculty and staff studying it. Jennings explores how theological formation, when rooted in values of white, self-sufficient masculinity, shapes people for possession, control, and mastery; rather than connection with God, self, and others.

“We are digging deep to analyze how we educate theologically, interact as a community, and operate as an institution,” said Bixler, a co-facilitator. “We are imagining new ways of being and doing that move us toward holistic and life-giving formation that subverts the distorted formation Jennings describes.”

Evans acknowledged that book studies alone cannot heal communities, or ensure everyone feels seen and heard within them. But perhaps they can plant a seed. 

“These book studies are making visible normative structures in our community that limit our capacity to experience one another in all of our complexities. That is good work,” he said. “We cannot correct that which we cannot, or refuse, to see. I think we are awakening to realities of the ways anti-blackness functions on our campus. We are also growing in our awareness of the ways we are seduced into valuing whiteness in our assessments of students and our presentation of ourselves.”