Andrews Works to Keep Systemic Racism at Bay

Question: You have been appointed the first vice president for diversity and inclusion at Andrews University. What does that mean?

Answer: As it pertains to my general function, the vice president for diversity and inclusion is the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) of Andrews University, and provides spiritual, administrative and academic leadership for the equity and diversity vision, resources, and programs across the University.

Within the context of the mission and values of Andrews University and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the vice president promotes and implements the equity and diversity strategic direction set for the university and reaffirms and fosters a university community and campus climate that values and actively supports equity and diversity. I report directly to the university president and serve as a member of her cabinet.

What is your primary job?

Things will start to take more shape as time goes on, but one of the main things I am doing right now is helping to restructure and empower Andrews University’s Diversity Council, which has been advocating for this position for over a decade. I am working closely with the council to analyze and assess what things have been working, what hasn’t been working, and what things we need to do going forward in order to realize what I like to call our collaborative vision. We want to centralize the diversity and inclusion efforts that have been operating under different umbrellas thus far.

When did you take up the role? What has taken up most of your time so far? What do you when you go to work every day?

I started in this role during the first week of August. I can honestly say that every week has been different. Since I started so close to the beginning of the school year, much of my time was geared towards getting prepared for the “festivities” that kick off our school year.

I think the thing that has taken up most of my time thus far has been meetings. I will say that I have been able to spend a considerable amount of time speaking to folks all across campus. I have had some great conversations with students, faculty, staff, and administrators as I strive to get a feel for what their experience is like on campus. The president and I have talked about these initial three to six months being spent assessing where things are and going on a bit of a listening tour to see how we can best approach equity and inclusion across our campus.

Andrews University president Andrea Luxton promised to create this role at the university last spring, after a campaign from students calling on Andrews to “apologize for the systemic racism it has perpetuated on its campus.” You grew up in the Andrews community. Would you characterize the campus as "systemically racist?"

Before I answer the meat of the question, I want to make it clear that while the campaign you are referencing was definitely the final catalyst to help push the university forward in making some substantive changes on campus, it was not the only reason why this new position was created. I say that to make sure that we do not overlook the advocacy of members of the Diversity Council, including Dr. Walter Douglas who co-founded the Council back in 2003-2004. It was a part of his overall vision for a Multi-Cultural Institute on AU campus – and that vision also included his request that a vice president for diversity head up that institute. This has been a long road for our university, and this new position is built upon the foundation of all of that work -- not just the prophetic courage of the It Is Time participants.

I attended Ruth Murdoch Elementary School in Berrien Springs, and Andrews Academy and then finished my college degree at Andrews (I spent one year at Antillean Adventist University in Puerto Rico & one year at Oakwood University in Huntsville). I think that it is important to define words like "racism," whether interpersonal, systemic, or institutional. I would describe systemic racism as policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups. Systemic racism does not require individual intent or prejudice to occur.

In comments that she reiterated after the It Is Time Dialogue, President Luxton pointed out that “[a]s an organization we have been guilty of racial bias, or making African-American employees and students feel ‘less than.’ We have not listened well. We have not been sensitive and have not taken action when action should have been taken. For that I am profoundly sorry.” I would simply say that I resonate with her description of how Andrews has operated historically. Her comments were the first acknowledgement of these realities in the long history of this institution. "Systemic racism" is not about individual intent or personal bigotry -- it is about inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions.

What was your experience like as a black student at Andrews?

My time at Andrews was good. I was actually on campus at an interesting time (2007-2009). 2007 was of course at the beginning of the Obama campaign. As a political science major, we had a lot of discussions about race and politics in the classroom. I was part of a multicultural group of students who were politically engaged that worked to get folks registered to vote in neighboring Benton Harbor. “What a time to be alive,” as they say. I was also hearing some voices on the “other side” of various discussions that alarmed me…but not to a large degree at the time. I was so caught up in the euphoria of truly believing that I could do or be anything I put my mind to in this country. My time at Andrews University was a great opportunity to come into my own in a diverse setting.

What else is Andrews doing to ensure that it really is a place of inclusion and diversity?

I can tell you that our president and provost have made equity and inclusion true points of emphasis for our institution at large. My appointment has just been one piece of that.

Dr. Carole Woolford-Hunt has created and began to implement a Diversity & Inclusion training program that has been rolled out over the past couple of years and will help students, faculty, staff, and administrators become better equipped to not only operate better in a diverse setting, but also gain the tools to cultivate those settings after they leave Andrews. The university is also committing to the “Connected Through Our Stories” initiative. Andrews Stories started last year under the direction of Becky St. Clair in our Integrated Media & Communications department and it has gone a long way in making us all feel more connected on campus. The more we dialogue with one another and value each other’s story and perspective, the better foundation we will have for more sensitive/difficult dialogue.

Do you see this problem on other Adventist university campuses?

I think that all of our campuses could benefit from emphasizing diversity, equity & inclusion. I have not been to all of our campuses, but I do know that we have been blessed at Andrews with a large variety of representational ethnic and international diversity. The key for us now is to figure out how to seize the potential that diversity gives us to truly transform our campus for the better. In a country that is become more increasingly diverse, it is important for all of our campuses to become more inclusive of folks from all different backgrounds, religions, ideologies, and perspectives. We can no longer assume that everyone on our campus thinks the same way, or speaks the same cultural language that most Adventist’s do. We can no longer say to the world “yes…you can come and join us…but it has to be on our terms.” We have to do better.

You studied law after graduating. What is it like to now come back to Andrews as an employee of the university, and part of the administration?

I have told most people that I am treating my return as if I have never been here before. In many ways, this is all brand new to me. You get to see and analyze things from a completely different perspective.

But I also don’t want to forget my previous experiences on campus as I try to connect and resonate with our current campus community.

I loved my time working as an attorney in New York. I was able to do some highly gratifying work at the Fair Housing Justice Center where we worked to combat housing discrimination in New York City. I will use that experience as an advocate for people at the foundational level of housing to help me as I try to advocate for the various members of our campus community in this new role.

I am here for everyone, and it is my goal and wish to help everyone feel like Andrews is their place. If there are any systems or structures that are standing in the way of that, they must be removed.

Academic freedom has been another hot topic on some North American Adventist campuses. Invitations to controversial outside speakers has caused sparks at PUC, and Andrews. How do you balance the freedom to explore diverse ideas and beliefs and the need to respect opposing beliefs and protect the ethos of the institution?

The president recently created a committee to address this very issue. After our first meeting I will be able to tell you more. Stay tuned on this one!

What do you in your free time?

I like to spend time with my family, listen to music, and watch sports. Other than that, I also try to commit some hours each week to helping to grow a non-profit I co-founded with Ty Gibson called Against The Wall. It is our hope to spark a movement of Christ followers who are motivated to speak with passionate clarity against walls of racial separation and injustice across the globe, both inside and outside of the Adventist Church.

Against the Wall doubles as a metaphor to communicate that we are opposed to wall of racial separation and that we stand in solidarity with those who find themselves oppressed by walls of racism. Right now, we are mainly doing that through releasing blog articles, but we are also planning to have our first public event during the first weekend of February here at Andrews. More details in regards to that will be released on our website soon, but we are hoping that it is a weekend like no other that has been seen in our church’s history! Be sure to come join us!

What books have shaped your beliefs and ideals?

Disunity in Christ by Dr. Christena Cleveland

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Messiah (Desire of Ages) by EGW

Why Jesus? by William Willimon

True Self, False Self by Richard Rohr

A God Named Desire by Ty Gibson

The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

As often the case, talks of diversity and in/exclusion means “black and white”. I’m curious about the composition of the Diversity Council.

This sounds like the equivalent of our President naming Mr. Kushner, his son in law, to multiple tasks that he cannot possibly succeed in. If Mr. Nixon hopes to accomplish anything to counter racism at Andrews I would suggest strongly that he inform himself more on the subject. Enlarge your reading list to include books that will help you to guide and inspire you as well as impact the current status quo of apathy and ignorance on this subject of racism within our church. Here is a partial list of books dealing with racism and diversity in institutions that you can start with:
Barndt, Joseph. Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America. Fortress Press: 2007.
Traces the history of racism, revealing its personal, institutional, and cultural forms and offering specific ways in which people in all walks, including churches, can work to bring racism to an end. Includes analytical charts, definitions, bibliography, and exercises for readers.
Butler, Lee H. Black Church, Black Theology, and the Politics of Religion in America: A Reflection on the Theology-Race Controversy. The Center for the Study of Black Faith & Life, Chicago Theological Seminary: 2008.
Dr. Butler examines the mis-perceptions and misinformation that informed and influenced the controversy surrounding Dr. Jeremiah Wright and his ministry at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago during Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for President. Dr. Butler invites the readers to move beyond sound bites to explore the historical and theological context of Dr. Wright’s 36 years of ministry at Trinity.
Harvey Jennifer et al, eds. Disrupting White Supremacy From Within: White People on What We Need To Do. Pilgrim Press, 2004.
The contributors to this anthology are white theologians, ethicists, teachers, ministers, and activists. They examine the nature of race, racism, and white supremacy, acknowledging its devastating effects on people of color and exploring ways to disrupt and dismantle it.
Kivel, Paul. Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. New Society Publishers, 2002.
A book written to help white people understand the dynamics of racism in society, institutions, and daily life. It shares stories, suggestions, advice, exercises, and approaches for working with people of color and other white allies to confront racism.
Law, Eric C. F. Inclusion: Making Room for Grace. Chalice Press: 2000.
In this resource for ministers and lay leaders, Law provides models, theories, and strategies that are both practical and theologically sound for moving faith communities toward greater inclusion.
Law, Eric C. F. Sacred Acts, Holy Change: Faithful Diversity and Practical Transformation… Chalice Press: 2002.
Eric Law offers practical guidelines for change and transformation. Sacred Acts applies the techniques and theories from his previous books to spell out the processes for achieving genuine transformation.
Living the Faith: A Guide for Strengthening Multicultural Relationships. Augsberg Fortress, 2000.
A compilation of stories, advice, and reflections for individuals and congregations who seek to create and nurture multicultural relationships. Presented in five sections, it is particularly well suited for adult forums or other groups that meet regularly. Includes exercises that sheds light on the ways our faith in Christ can be the foundation for developing and strengthening relationships across cultural differences.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Basic Books, 1997.
Explores why it remains so difficult for Americans, this applies to many SDA’s worldwide) to talk about race. Tatum, who is President of Spellman College, is nationally known for her groundbreaking work in racial identity development and helping educators find ways to break the silence surrounding race and racism.

one would imagine that an inquiry to Nixon’s office should yield the necessary ethnic breakdown to satisfy such curiousity

While the creation of this office is a tremendous step forward for AU and a laudable example for other SDA institutions; I find it regrettable that the first incumbent of the office more or less restricted his overview of his mandate [ at least in so far as we can tell from the article here ] to a focus on the U.S. white/black “racial” divide. While it is more than understandable that this social issue should be the preeminent one which will occupy the new VP’s time [ I certainly recall as an AU student for 6 years in the late 60s & early 70s that the “2 solitudes” of black and white American students was a prominent feature of campus life; & it would seem that little has changed in that respect in the ensuing 43 years since I departed ] beyond this major focus, there are certainly other dimensions to diversity on campus which I hope will garner the office’s attention and sympathy. Two examples which were of concern to me in my student days and which remain so, are cultural diversity - the comparatively large number of international students on campus, and certainly the reality of sexual & gender diversity as we become increasingly conscious of how the church and its institutions have historically failed its LGBT young people and older members.

In my opinion, his focus is not primarily on the black/white racial divide. When asked about his mission and focus, he speaks in general, wide reaching terms. The times in which he talks about African Americans and racism is when he is directly asked about his own experiences, how the position grew out of the student lead campaign, which he clarifies is not completely accurate, and when he quotes the president of the university, again when answering a direct question about his experiences as an African American man on campus. When he talks about his position, the council, and the diversity training, he speaks very broadly which , to me, he appears to be doing so as to not just focus on black/white issues. Simply references his personal experiences does not mean that is going to be his primary focus. He has been in the position just over two months and appears to be trying to take a cautious, open approach to assessing the current climate, policies, etc…, before he implements changes. I appreciate that approach and will be praying for his success and for that of the university.