Mennonite Institutions & A Call for Costly Allyship

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These past few weeks, I have been deliberating over Glen Guyton’s call and challenge to the Mennonite community to be transformative peacekeepers (his original piece can be read here: https://bit.ly/2Bl2C7O).

Like Glen – and likely many of you – I find myself deeply troubled by systems of oppression, the legacy of white supremacy, and the very real inequities and inequalities these systems create. And, perhaps, like you – I join in the call to lament.

However, I also join the call to lament, perhaps as on par for me, with a challenge. A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter to my Mennonite alma mater asking for seven specific actions. As someone that cares deeply about semantics, I used the term ‘ask’ because I believe that too often when Black and Brown people use the words “we suggest, encourage, or invite you to consider…” in relation to specific actions regarding anti-racism, it often ends up doing (in my lived experience) two things:

1. Minimizes the urgency of the need and the required action because it relies on respectability politics as a conversational gateway AND

2. Results in a conversation that often yields continued committees, red tape, and little sustainable change.

These two results specifically impact, in this situation, BIPOC students. And, I would go so far as to suggest that these outcomes may even result in poorer institutional race relations.

Here is why: when institutions refuse to put in place sustainable anti-racist measures, the implication is that having anti-racism accountability mechanisms is not critical or fundamental to the success of creating a learning environment conducive for caring for the whole student.

Perhaps a good argument here is to suggest that sustainable policies take a long time to create, etc., I agree. And yet, I urge that perhaps the renewed sense of urgency around these events at this particular moment in time will provide space for new accountability measures which will in turn protect ALL students.

Growing up in a historical peace church, I lament the fact that I learned more about how my spaghetti straps made me impure (purely problematic result of purity culture and is discussed in length on a post on my website) than how white supremacy is a sin.

I lament the fact that I learned more in Sunday School about why drugs are bad than how to engage in anti-racism.

I lament that many, I would argue, of our Sunday School teachers are not equipped on how to teach anti-racism because we have not built measures or systems into place which would provide them with the tools to do this well.

In fact, throughout my history in the Mennonite organizations, I have cannot recall one single time where anti-racism was a required discussion. Often, it would come up in reaction to something rather than pro-actively.

As a member of the Mennonite church, I join Glen’s call for lament, AND I also join his call for action. The letter my classmate and I wrote to my alma mater had seven specific actionable steps. I felt confident and comfortable sharing that letter publicly because I had asked for each of those specific items when I was a student at that institution.

My general philosophy is to keep things private unless they need to be made public. While the letter had been shared (and I still have received zero responses) privately with the current president, we felt it was important to also share it publicly.

A practice that the Mennonite church has is a baby dedication where congregations affirm their commitment to provide holistic and lifelong care for each child. I struggle immensely with this affirmation because I have been overwhelmingly dismayed that perhaps this affirmation, when made in Predominately White Institutions(PWIs) and without the support of anti-racist measures, only affirms the life of, and creates a holistic environment for white children.

In the past few weeks, I have seen countless Black students come forward about their experience in Mennonite institutions – many of these Mennonite institutions are institutions I know and love, and some are institutions where I also have been a student. I remain proud of each of these student’s courage to write their experiences and to share it so that they could demand better for future generations. And, hearing their pain, I lament my own silence and my inaction. To that end, I wanted to offer these non-exhaustive actionable steps as some possible implementations (some of which were presented to my alma mater):

1. Hire a full-time Director of Diversity and Inclusion. This person must be included in executive level and board member events and meetings, and we believe strongly should be a person of color.

2. Specifically name and claim antiracism as a core value.

3. Require anti-racist training prior to any outreach opportunities and require partnership with already established BIPOC organizations doing the specific work you would like to do.

4. Formal formation of a Diversity Council. Members should be multi-generational and span leadership positions.

5. Support local anti-racism organizations.

6. Provide required anti-racism workshops. These workshops should be facilitated by an outside organization and should be integrated into things like Sunday School, Employee Onboarding, Learning Retreats, etc.,

7. Include BIPOC speakers for more opportunities than just Black History Month. Identifiy and interrogate if you are currently BIPOC by tokenizing them when you need their help with “BIPOC things.”

8. Identify and interrogate your spaces: what customs, cultures, and norms are upheld? What systems are in place which continue those norms?

Thanks for hearing my heart. I welcome your responses in the comments or in my DMs. Upward & onward together.

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