Institute for Freedom and Community hosts two faculty seminars
In the spirit of open inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues, the St. Olaf College Institute for Freedom and Community convened two seminars for faculty members to examine issues of race and racism. The first, led by Associate Professor of English Joseph Mbele, was titled “Different Cultures, Different Perspectives, Different Conversations,” and the second, led by Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Edmund Santurri, was titled “Ibram X. Kendi and the Discourse on Antiracism.”
The seminar led by Mbele took place on January 8 and included over 50 faculty and staff members. As a Tanzanian who has been teaching at St. Olaf College since 1991, Mbele has long pondered the challenges — both large and small — posed by cultural differences between Africans and Americans. In 2005 he published a book titled Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences in order to communicate his insights and experiences to a wider audience. This book served as the centerpiece of the seminar he led. “While the St Olaf community continues to face challenges which conventional wisdom attributes to racism, I wanted to share how my own African perspectives and experiences on race significantly depart from American understandings,” notes Mbele.
Associate Professor of Computer Science Olaf Hall-Holt participated in the seminar. “Professor Mbele has been helping Americans understand African cultures for decades. His approach is both humorous and forthright, drawing us into a fascinating story of unspoken assumptions,” Hall-Holt says. “One of my key takeaways was the importance of contextualizing the current DEI conversations for different participants, some of whom may have limited background on the American understanding of race. More broadly, he challenged us to more fully engage issues of cultural understanding beyond the borders of this country.”
As a longtime faculty member who has been advising Africa-bound study abroad programs and ELCA congregational partnerships with Africa, Mbele was particularly well-positioned to lead a discussion on this topic. “The St. Olaf community is a multinational and multicultural microcosm of the world,” Mbele noted during the seminar. “And in this world, now a global village, cultural differences have an enormous impact and often cause tensions. St. Olaf is not immune to this reality.”
Associate Professor of English Joseph MbeleThe St. Olaf community is a multinational and multicultural microcosm of the world. And in this world, now a global village, cultural differences have an enormous impact and often cause tensions. St. Olaf is not immune to this reality.
Assistant Professor of Physics Prabal Adhikari, a participant in both Institute seminars this spring, commented on how Mbele presented “not just a unique perspective to life as an African immigrant but a unique African perspective to life as an immigrant in the United States. Dr. Mbele emphasized the difference in perspectives of a central African immigrant as opposed to African Americans, born and raised here, recognizing the implications of not generalizing the experience of African Americans to include all African students, in particular students with little to no understanding or experience with race, color, or racism and the role they play in American society.”
Paul Edwards, associate director of career development and coaching in the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, also participated in the conversation. “The seminar by Dr. Mbele provided a great opportunity to explore the complexities related to culture, communication, diversity, and other topics relevant to the St. Olaf College community,” he says. “It was a very timely and welcome addition to the ongoing conversation on these important topics.”
Partly as a result of the successful discussion that unfolded during Mbele’s seminar and partly in an effort to foster more dialogue around St. Olaf’s commitment to antiracism, the Institute devised a second seminar on the work of Ibram X. Kendi and several of his supporters and critics. Over 30 faculty members representing over 17 disciplines participated in this April 2 conversation. As seminar leader, Santurri explained during his opening remarks, “The term ‘antiracism’ as Kendi employs it is not just a general marker designating a stance against racism where what counts as racism and what to do about it might be subject to debate. Antiracism as Kendi uses the term includes a full-blown theory of what counts as racism and therefore what counts as antiracism. While we are all hopefully inclined to say we are against racism, that doesn’t mean we’re antiracist in Kendi’s sense of the term.”
Professor of Music Justin Merritt participated in the seminar and valued the conversation. “The Kendi seminar was an eye-opening event that challenged all of us that participated to discuss issues of race and discrimination at a more nuanced level than any training or presentation I have attended before,” he says. “I was delighted to find that my discussion group had detailed and thoughtful responses from a variety of perspectives including philosophy, the arts, and mathematics.”
Professor of Music Justin MerrittThe Kendi seminar was an eye-opening event that challenged all of us that participated to discuss issues of race and discrimination at a more nuanced level than any training or presentation I have attended before.
It is, in fact, this distinction of Kendi’s that has brought critical scrutiny to work by prominent scholars and intellectuals, including John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, and the writer, podcaster, and opinion columnist Coleman Hughes. These voices, and others, contributed to much discussion and constructive disagreement among faculty on a very complex topic.
Associate Professor of Practice in Religion Trish Beckman offered the following response to the seminar, Kendi’s book, and his critics: “Everybody seems to be reading and discussing the Kendi book lately. Critics have been eager to pounce on the wildly successful work claiming he is too binary — either we’re antiracist or performatively not racist, which is defacto racist. But I think he is much more nuanced than that, and in a way that a Lutheran college in particular should find valuable. He suggests an unfinished ongoing process of becoming antiracist, personally and structurally. Most of us are at all times both/and. Like with regard to other places of healing (salvation) we are at the same time justified and sinner. It’s the realism and calling to personal account of that confessional moment that made Kendi intriguing to me. And in a false purity culture of ‘in’ or ‘out’ it provoked the kinds of snarly reactions we read in the accompanying pieces and in some parts of our conversation. But in the end, trying his work on presuming best intent and listening to one another fully, I think he spoke to our campus in important ways. I was, as ever, grateful for deep conversation with my colleagues. More of this. Ever more of this.”
Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science David Walmsley had the following appraisal of the seminar: “As people and institutions race to establish antiracism efforts, I was eager to take a step back and discuss what this means and how it should be done. I was not surprised that my colleagues engaged in a critical yet forward-thinking discussion about Kendi’s ideas. I appreciated the materials we read in advance, some of which supported Kendi’s ideas and some of which were critical of Kendi’s ideas. I left the seminar invigorated by the willingness of my colleagues to critically engage a controversial issue, yet I also feel that the entire faculty should engage in these discussions, and such discussions should be sought by the leadership of the college.”
Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of the Writing Program Diane LeBlanc notes that, in her view, “The seminar raised significant questions about how readers, activists, and policy influencers may interpret Ibram X. Kendi’s concept of antiracist policy. We puzzled through these kinds of questions from our different disciplinary perspectives and methods even more than from liberal and conservative positions. At a liberal arts college, naming and disrupting the power of racist disciplinary histories and biases is essential to being antiracist and creating change.”
Similar sentiments were shared by Visiting Assistant Professor of English Amy Bolis, who noted the relevance of the seminar for the classroom: “One of the most important takeaways from the seminar, for me, is the responsibility that instructors have to create equitable course policies. Although I disagree with Kendi’s strict categorization of policies as either racist or antiracist, this seminar got me thinking about the ways in which some of my own course policies might unintentionally disadvantage certain student populations. I also think it’s significant that Kendi frames being antiracist as an active process. It is not enough to perform an antiracist action once and then subsequently consider oneself antiracist. Being antiracist is a choice that individuals make every day, according to Kendi, which is the kind of accountability that I appreciate as a white woman who possesses a substantial amount of privilege. His definition of antiracism forces both institutions and individuals to do more than simply pay lip service to issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion; it is a call to continued action, which is an idea that I think we at St. Olaf should be reminded of often and can ultimately benefit from.”
Visiting Assistant Professor of English Amy BolisOne of the most important takeaways from the seminar, for me, is the responsibility that instructors have to create equitable course policies.
Visiting Assistant Professor Theater Bryan Schmidt also participated in the seminar. “This was my second time engaging with Kendi’s book, but my first time getting to discuss it in a substantive way with colleagues,” he says. “I am still relatively new to St. Olaf, and this was a great chance for me to meet faculty from departments other than my own. What made our conversation especially productive was the fact that so many different disciplines were represented, even in our small group, including humanities folks (like me), as well as people from technical and scientific fields. This allowed a few different ways into the text, but also helped us render our discussion into clear and colloquial terms, as opposed to arcane disciplinary speech — which I think served this book very well. Thus far, the conversations about race-related topics I’ve participated in with the Institute have been among the most fruitful I’ve experienced on campus.”
As St. Olaf College continues to implement its Commitment to Anti-Racism and as the country continues its own conversation about race, faculty members were deeply appreciative of the space to engage in critical conversations on important matters. The Institute for Freedom and Community routinely hosts faculty seminars on a wide range of controversial and important topics.
Established at St. Olaf in 2014, the Institute for Freedom and Community encourages free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues. Through its range of programming for students, faculty, and the general public, the Institute offers a distinctive opportunity to cultivate civil discourse within the context of the liberal arts.
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