The death of a young black man at the hands of the police has galvanized the conversation: what can and must we do better to celebrate diversity, on the one hand, and actively address – in our speaking and in our actions, our behaviour – the expressions of bias that subtly exist within our institutional culture. What we are learning is that that we cannot simply say that we are not racists and that we affirm diversity and that therefore there is no reason to be proactive. What has emerged is the realization that we have to be intentional in our response.
I am writing these words on Juneteenth, in anticipation of this Sunday, June 21, which is National Indigenous Peoples Day here in Canada. And earlier today I sent out the final draft of a posting that will go on our website at the university where I serve as the president: a list of four commitments that we are making as a leadership team. It is, I hope, a step in the right direction.
I highlight this as part of being in conversation with other institutions leaders like yourselves – to ask: how can we be learning together what it means to be institutions that are genuinely committed to celebrating diversity and affirming the dignity of black, indigenous and all peoples of any visible minority? Here is what we are learning; I would value any comment you might add from your experience within your situation.
That we need to legitimize the conversation and this means telling stories. Ask who within your institution or organization would perhaps have a story to tell of their own experience of racial bias. I need to quickly note that some would not want to be called out; they would find the very question a problem in that they just want to be part of the community. But still, we need to err on the side of hearing the stories. We listen by being attentive to the narrative of those who are willing to tell us about their experience of racial injustice, including subtle forms of racial and ethnic bias.
That we need to ask if our communities – our institutions, organizations and churches – are truly inclusive and hospitable to those who do not look like the majority when it comes to race and ethnicity. Look at the composition of your governing board and the makeup of the leadership team. They are a good indicator if there is genuine hospitality and inclusiveness.
That in our public statements – the ways that we communicate – we regularly highlighting the importance of working towards systems that are just for all. In our churches and the chapel events at our colleges and universities: is there a consistent messaging about matters of racial and social justice? We cannot make it something we take for granted; reading the Old Testament prophets is a constant reminder that this has to be a regular theme. It also means that we highlight key days: Juneteenth. National Indigenous Peoples Day. Orange Shirt Day. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Thus I suggest three things. First, listening . . . that those who have stories to tell are able to be heard. Second, being intentional to celebrate diversity and work towards being more inclusive. And third, our messaging: are we speaking – the narrative, the rhetoric, that shapes our common lines.