A new book, Diversity Matters: Race, Ethnicity, and the Future of Christian Higher Education (Abilene Christian University Press, 2017), features essays from professionals and scholars across the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), including Biola University, Messiah College, and Wheaton College.
Two Wheaton College staff members contributed chapters: Director of the Office of Multicultural Development Rodney K. Sisco ’84 and Dean of Student Care and Graduate Student Life Dr. Allison Ash.
The book was produced at a time when Wheaton, because of its renewed focus upon ethnic diversity, had a unique opportunity to contribute to the CCCU dialogue.
As part of the From the Heart, For the Kingdom capital campaign, donors gave over $8 million to further fund Wheaton College’s strategic priority of deepening ethnic diversity on campus, a campaign priority that began in 2011. The new funds will provide opportunities for students to explore a biblical understanding of diversity in the classroom and will expand Wheaton's ability to offer diversity-focused scholarships and to increase the presence of people of color in the student body, the faculty, and the administration.
Wheaton also recently announced the hire of its first Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer, Dr. Sheila Caldwell, who will begin in June serving on the Senior Administrative Cabinet alongside President Ryken. Dr. Caldwell will work to frame a vision for biblical diversity, racial unity, and intercultural understanding on campus.
To learn more about ethnic diversity and student development at Wheaton, I sat down with Sisco and Ash late in 2017. As Wheaton continues to pursue ethnic diversity and participate in the broader conversation as part of the 180 member CCCU, the following abridged transcript of our discussion provides an inside look at where we are today.
CHARLES AUDINO: WHAT TOPICS DID YOU COVER IN YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS TO DIVERSITY MATTERS?
RODNEY SISCO: The section of the book I contributed to is called, “Why We Stayed: Lessons in Resiliency and Leadership from Long-term CCCU Diversity Professionals.” What’s kept me working in higher education beyond the three-to-four-year average? I love music, so I framed my chapter in terms of “Take 5” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. There’s a consistent section and another section that moves all over. For me, longevity has been about finding that balance of consistency and artistry. Consistency is in the shared sense of responsibility with the institution and me. Artistry is the unique and creative ways we each find to do the work.
ALLISON ASH: My chapter, “Identity, Awareness, and Engagement: Understanding My Whiteness,” is on being a white ally working for justice and racial equity. I wrote about having a sense of righteous anger, and some of the dangers of just jumping in to try to make a change without having an awareness of racial injustice. When I first started talking about race, it was like I was attempting to run a marathon, but I had never trained to be a runner.
CA: YOU HAVE OVER 30 YEARS OF CAMPUS EXPERIENCE BETWEEN YOU. WHAT’S YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH RACIAL AND ETHNIC TENSIONS AT WHEATON?
RS: I remember there was a time when, if an African American chapel speaker went on stage, you would hear a collective groan. Students would get up and leave. When there used to be a “week of diversity” chapel, you would see those being some of the most skipped chapels. And if you were to look at the record of chapel attendance, especially 10 to 15 years ago, you would see this consistently: if it’s a minority speaker, chapel attendance would be lower. There’s a part of me that got frustrated, saying: “Help me understand why you’re leaving chapel just because the speaker isn't white.” And generally the response was something like: “Ah, he or she is going to bash on us and make us feel bad as white people.”And I can't help but wonder: “Where’s that thick skin?” Because we’ve been made to feel bad about who we are for generations.
I’m a big black man, so I’ve gotten used to people making ignorant, racist assumptions about me. I joke about them now—the walk down the street and the lock of the car door as I go by; the women who pull their purses to their sides; the person who crosses the street just because I’m walking in front of them—but for crying out loud, what did I do?
Then you have things that have happened with police. We have a wonderful chief of police now. In the past, though, we’ve had students of color walking across campus when a police cruiser starts following them. Eventually the police will say, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
If the student let us know, we would follow up with the police, but oftentimes students are embarrassed and internalize it.
That’s where Wheaton was, especially in the early years of my tenure. I had a clear sense of, “Be happy you’re welcomed as a guest,” as opposed to, “This is your home as well.” It is the sum of microagressions—a combination of small and subtle things—that is tiring.
But I'm a perpetual optimist so I've never given up. I’ve been fairly consistent all my life—as a peacemaker. How will we work this out together? How do we find that space that we both gain from, that we both learn from?
AA: I believe that my perspective as a white ally doing this work is likely different than a person of color who has experienced racism. If racism is represented by what’s below the surface of an ocean, white people are often in a submarine. They can say, “Oh that’s terrible,” but not actually experience it.
CA: WHAT IS WHEATON'S CURRENT RACIAL CLIMATE?
AA: When Wheaton students of color meet with me and tell me their stories, there’s a uniqueness to what they experience compared to others in the community. As long as we continue to have students of color who say, “Because of my race, it’s hard to be here,” we have work to do.
RS: We’ve come immensely far though, even if we still have a long way to go. Our collective responsibility is to make sure students of color find a community that is a safe place to be.
AA: I think it’s important that we move away from a deficit mindset. Instead of only focusing on supporting students of color because of assumptions about the challenges they may face, it will help to move to a development mindset, focusing on educating the whole community on what racism is, and our country’s history of racism, and continuing to expose our students to the biblical imperative for kingdom justice and ethnic diversity.
RS: Students recognize we’re trying to intentionally wrestle with issues of diversity and move forward. There’s anticipation about the work of the newly created position, Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer, and we’re growing more racially and ethnically diverse as a staff.
At the same time, we have students of color who feel that the only way they can belong is if they talk and act like a white person, if they express themselves in ways that are culturally familiar to white people, maybe at the expense of their own cultural identities. They feel that they have to be good at code-switching so as to make everyone around them feel comfortable. They say things like: “When can I be who I am?”
For many of our students, this is the first time they’re encountering an understanding of themselves as coming from racial and ethnic backgrounds. Not everyone is the same, and they have to figure out what that means and how we live together. We’re helping students think about being global citizens: living with people different from themselves yet finding commonality.
AA: I see the climate here in layers. The first is the formal institutional layer. I’ve seen progress in institutional decisions like the search for a Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer. But when I hear what students are experiencing, that’s still the most challenging. When there’s unawareness, there’s a real possibility of hurting people. For example, when a godly, Christ-centered person says something like, “I love your hair!” and touches an African American woman’s hair. Without an understanding of why that may be offensive, a person may unknowingly hurt someone. That can be problematic, especially if someone has experienced that every day living in a white community. It creates a difficult environment.
Educational research shows that a sense of belonging is one of the most important predictors of being successful in school. One comment hour after hour, day after day creates a climate for students of color to say, “Do I actually belong here?” And that impacts the students’ abilities to thrive.
We’re making progress through developing training programs for student leaders and staff and adding diversity requirements in the curriculum. I am hopeful that we will continue to improve.
CA: DO YOU FEEL A SENSE OF TEAMWORK ON CAMPUS WITH REGARD TO DEEPENING ETHNIC DIVERSITY?
RS: Yes. We are in this together. I want Wheaton to grow, to be a safe place where students of color are challenged and supported and where ethnic majority students are encouraged to engage with diversity. But that’s not going to happen through a single person of color, a person in a student development position, or only Student Development thinking about it. We have to think about it in all of our responsibilities, encouraging each other as we recognize our different cultural backgrounds.
AA: I remember being at a diversity conference in New York representing Wheaton, and Rodney, you said, “I used to be the only person coming to these. And now I have all of my colleagues here with me.”
RS: That’s a shared sense of responsibility. We get to do this together, and there’s something empowering about that. We’ve grown because of that shared responsibility and because we haven’t given up.
AA: I think if someone else wrote your chapter on why they stayed, that person would say the reason we’re doing any of this work is because Rodney stayed and just kept going. God has gifted you to do things not a lot of people could do. And we’re reaping the benefits. We still have a long way to go, but we’re in a different place now than even when I came about five years ago.
CA: HOW DO YOU THINK ABOUT DIVERSITY AND UNITY IN THE CHURCH?
RS: It’s important we understand unique stories and recognize that we see our stories through our own cultural eyes, but I never want to lose sight of the fact that we are still called to unity. In the Book of Revelation, John has the vision where he looks and sees every tribe, every nation together.
AA: Jesus brought reconciliation of power among people groups. In the New Testament, we see that Jews often assumed both religious and ethnic power. But the Gentiles were full members of the body through the work of Christ. We are all unified, but not because we are supposed to be uniform. Our Christian unity is because of the work of the Cross.
That’s why I think this work of reconciliation is foundational to the gospel. When Christians reflect that kind of Christian unity, we see the important and powerful work Jesus did to name the equality of power across ethnicity and race, and the salvation that’s offered to all people. And I think there’s no better place to see this happen and be successful than in Christian higher education.
RS: It is an exciting place for us to be—to wrestle intentionally with how to create a community that is diverse yet holding the high value of unity. Diversity helps us recognize the complexity of our God. Christ prayed that we be one. We’re a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing together and worshipping the Lamb.
For more about diversity at Wheaton, visit wheaton.edu/diversity.
Interview by Charles V. Audino M.A. '16
Edited by Katherine Braden '16