Under the Microscope: Reconciliation

April 17, 2014 | 11 a.m.

Bethel's core value examined after key leadership changes

Focus | Jenny Hudalla

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Reconciliation studies professor Curtiss DeYoung poses with his successor, social psychologist Christena Cleveland. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Curtiss DeYoung

There’s not a soul on campus that hasn’t heard the word reconciliation. For some, all the talk is overkill. For others, it’s just empty words.

Either way, the topic has returned to the limelight with the departure of Curtiss DeYoung, co-chair of the anthropology, sociology and reconciliation studies department. Along with the resignation of Chief Diversity Officer Leon Rodrigues and several other cuts made in the department, students and faculty alike are wondering about the future of diversity and reconciliation at Bethel.

According to senior Johnny Yang, little has changed over the last four years.

“This campus is still not safe for people who don’t belong to the dominant culture,” he said. “There’s still a lack of proactivity when it comes to diversity and inclusion. And even as new faces bring us the hope of a fresh start and new ideas, the leaders who are leaving will be greatly missed.”

DeYoung, who was first hired as an adjunct in 1990, campaigned for the reconciliation studies program until it made its debut in the fall of 2003 as a minor within the anthropology and sociology department. Since then, nearly 200 students have graduated with reconciliation studies majors or minors, and 20 percent of them have been students of color.  

After finishing out the school year, DeYoung will assume his new role as executive director of a faith-based, nonprofit organization in Chicago that focuses on racial and economic injustice. He said he has nothing but confidence in his successor, social psychologist Christena Cleveland.

“She and I think alike in terms of what is central to the work of reconciliation, so it should be a seamless change,” DeYoung said. “Christena is a force to be reckoned with, and because she’s one of the rising stars in this field, she’s in high demand.”

Cleveland, who taught one of DeYoung’s senior seminar classes in early March, already seems to be well-liked and respected by reconciliation students. Her contract with Bethel expires at the end of the 2014-2015 school year, when she will likely be considered in a national search for a permanent replacement.

Although a chief diversity officer has not been hired to replace Rodrigues, the Barnes administration has been conducting listening sessions for students and faculty to express their desires for the new CDO position. During one of the sessions, a group of students submitted a 17-point list detailing their expectations for the new CDO. Of the 15 students who participated, nine requested that the new hire be a person of color, 14 believed he or she should have a Christ-centered approach to diversity and all 15 agreed the CDO should have formal training in reconciliation.

“It’s so important that the person who fills this position has institutional support,” said Conor Rasmusen, one of the students who compiled the list. “Bethel gives a lot of lip service to issues of diversity, and this is a huge opportunity for the community to right the wrongs that have happened.”

History professor Ruben Rivera, who is serving as the interim CDO, identified one of the most pressing issues surrounding the position: it isn’t a job for one person. Rivera’s interim duties include working with human resources, the president’s cabinet and executive committee, and the diversity leadership committee, in addition to being the point person for racial and ethnic harassment. And he isn’t even full time.
According to biblical and theological studies professor Karen McKinney, the distribution of reconciliation-related work has long been a necessity.

“I would like to see Bethel underwrite its commitment to diversity with sufficient faculty and funding,” McKinney said. “Leon was spread a mile wide and half an inch deep. Diversity, if you’re really embracing it, is everywhere, and it needs to be everyone’s responsibility.”

Coming from a multiracial background, Rivera is well aware of the “two separate camps” that operate within Bethel. While one camp beats the drums for change, the other covers its ears and longs for a lull in the exhausting campaign for diversity. Rivera said he wants to value and include people on both sides of the issue, but he isn’t offering anyone an escape clause when it comes to the biblical mandate of reconciliation.

“Reconciliation has to be seen as the heart of the Gospel,” he said. “Through Christ, we’ve been reconciled to God and given that same ministry. If you’re a Christian, you’re a reconciler. Plain and simple.”

Throughout her 18 years at Bethel, McKinney has noticed the cyclical nature of the university’s interaction with diversity. Although Bethel began to organize reconciliation chapels and cultural orientations for faculty in the early 2000s, McKinney said the community took a few steps backward after the election of President Obama.

“A lot of resistance came from dominant culture students who felt we were always talking about reconciliation,” she said. “They lacked understanding of the systemic nature of these issues and probably felt blamed or shamed. People were fatigued, and the pendulum swung backwards.”

Both Rivera and McKinney said the university is still on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to diversity competency, and the situation’s increasing precariousness has not escaped students dedicated to the cause.

“I feel fearful, because a lot of the leading voices for social justice are gone,” said freshman Kiersti Phenow, a member of United Cultures of Bethel. “But I also feel hopeful, because there is power in students’ voices who desire change. I hope that when those leaders leave, their hard work and legacy don’t leave with them.”

McKinney said the new leadership is an opportunity to move forward, but stressed that the approach to diversity needs to be more strategic to include introductory curriculum on the subject and faculty development programs.

“We have Z-tags and U-tags, but it’s ultimately left up to individuals whether they will engage with the topic,” she said. “If faculty can infuse it into the classroom, we can ensure that students truly encounter issues of race, gender and class.”

Both Rasmusen and Yang, who are Mexican-American and Hmong-American, respectively, have experienced firsthand the dehumanizing consequences of the community’s collective complacency with its homogenous culture.

“I get a lot of invitations to Taco Bell, and professors often single me out to give my perspective as a student of color,” Rasmusen said.

“People have even sent emails requesting that I be mentored because I might have a rough time here.”

“I feel like I’m an outsider, not welcomed or fully embraced,” Yang added. “The target audience always seems to be white, suburban, nuclear families. I can’t resonate with that. That’s not my reality. And I just want other students to feel that and say, ‘Hey, I care.’”

According to UCB Director Zak Robinson, a systemic approach to issues of diversity can’t be restricted to the classroom – it also needs to permeate the walls of Benson Great Hall during chapel time.

“Revelation tells us that every nation, tribe and tongue will band together under the one name of Jesus Christ,” she said. “Bethel students have to start praying with each other, focusing on what unites them instead of what divides them, because the world looks different outside of these four walls.”

In fact, things might begin to look different inside Bethel’s walls as well. As the university struggles with low enrollment, DeYoung pointed out, the demographics of the United States are rapidly changing. According to the 2010 census, non-Hispanic whites are expected to be a minority by 2043, underscoring the importance of education in diversity and reconciliation.

“It’s all about action,” Robinson said of the challenges Bethel faces. “You can’t complain about your conditions if you’re going to live in them, and you can’t complain about what someone’s doing if you’re not doing anything to stop it.”

Indeed, although the new voices that have joined Bethel’s ranks have generated much anticipation and excitement, those who live on the margins of the community are still waiting for the rhetoric to become reality.

“This isn’t just about understanding words or recognizing that a problem exists,” Phenow said. “These issues have faces and names. And until we can fully recognize people as human and stop turning our heads the other way, we can’t make steps toward pursuing Christ’s work of reconciliation. If you want to stop hearing about it, start doing something about it.”

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