President’s Speech: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Spring convocation message, delivered by Dr. Rebecca Stoltzfus, President of Goshen College, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, in the Goshen College Church-Chapel (as prepared for delivery)

Good morning! And happy new year! Welcome back to campus—I am so glad to see you.

This morning I want to speak to you about our commitments and ongoing work with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion.

I am convinced that we—Goshen College—cannot achieve our mission without our collective and conscious work toward diversity, equity and inclusion.

Why would I say that? What is our mission?

We are in the last stages of adopting a new mission statement. After several rounds of input from employees and a discussion with the Student Senate, here is the near-final version:

Goshen College transforms local and global communities through courageous, creative and compassionate leaders. We integrate academic excellence with real-world experience and active love for God and neighbor shaped by the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.

Goshen College transforms local and global communities through courageous, creative and compassionate leaders. Through you, now and as you become alumni. Through us, individually and together.

The thesis of my talk this morning is that to transform communities, we must become capable of embracing diversity and working toward equity and inclusion. That is what courageous, creative and compassionate leaders do.

But let us begin with clarifying what we are talking about.

One year ago, in January 2018, I announced the formation of a task force on diversity, equity and inclusion. I asked Beth Martin Birky, professor of English, and Dominique Burgunder-Johnson, director of marketing, to co-chair the task force. The thirteen members of the task force—who are roughly half students and half faculty and staff—were selected last semester through a multi-stage transparent nomination process.

The task force was charged to work for two academic years on these three tasks:

  1. Communicate and make visible Goshen College’s ongoing work in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.
  2. Identify what GC is currently doing to promote an inclusive and equitable campus experience for all members of our community—and how well we are doing so.
  3. Propose ways to improve our effectiveness in being a more inclusive and equitable campus, including identification of what new resources and changes should be considered.

When I conclude, the task force will update you on their work thus far—midway through their first of two years.

So what do we mean by these words: diversity, equity and inclusion? Through consultation with the co-chairs, faculty experts and discussions of the full task force, we have agreed upon these working definitions.

Diversity is the sum of the ways that people are both different and similar. Diversity has many dimensions that intersect in a wide variety of ways; these dimensions include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, immigration status, and others.

Equity entails an intentional focus to reduce disparities in opportunities, experiences and outcomes for all members of the campus community.  Equity is expressed in a commitment to address historical and current manifestations of social bias and exclusion, including the ways in which social arrangements disadvantage some groups and legitimate others.

Inclusion means belonging to a campus environment in which people are welcomed, accepted and connected to one another. Community members come together in friendly, caring, and authentic ways, and have opportunities to participate in community life and its ongoing evolution.

Next week we will celebrate “Dr. Martin Luther King, the Man, the Motive and the Movement.”

Fifty-one years ago Dr. King described the modern situation as ‘a great “world house” in which [we are] . . . unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest.’ . . . .

He continued: “Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to re-establish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice.”

Personal character: It’s about each of us as individual people; our moral qualities and how we behave.

And social justice: the fairness of the organizational structures and social arrangements that we create.

Let’s use Dr. King’s metaphor of a house. What are the foundation and cornerstones of the house we want to build at Goshen College?

Let me first acknowledge my position in speaking about this. Most fundamentally, I am speaking to you today as a fellow human being.

When we talk about diversity, we are talking about ourselves. And so it is useful to state from the outset that we all bring our positions and viewpoints and life experiences to this topic. Humans are highly subjective. Myself included.

So let’s acknowledge that I am white, female, straight and married. I was painfully shy as a child and am an introvert. I am highly educated and am upper middle class. I am a U.S. citizen, and a native speaker of English. I have a pretty normally abled body. I am Christian, and have lived equal parts of my life as United Methodist and as Mennonite. I am 57 years old, which means that I was born at the tail end of the baby boomers. I am culturally a Midwesterner and a small-town kind of person.

In our society, I enjoy many unearned privileges because of these characteristics.

I am also speaking to you this morning as the president of this college. And as president, I have a particular responsibility to articulate the vision for our house.

I am going to speak about the foundation for our house, and propose four cornerstones for the world house that I believe we must build. I cannot build the house alone. In fact, you all might have to help me adjust or modify the cornerstones a bit. I am open to that. But here we go.

The foundation of this house is the inherent goodness and dignity of each one of us.

In the scientific story, we are here because life has evolved over the last 3.5 billion years and it gradually selected us!

The author Mary Pipher wrote in a recent essay about joyful aging: “I am alive today only because thousands of generations of resilient homo sapiens managed to procreate and raise their children. I come from, we all come from, resilient stock, or we wouldn’t be here.”

Life chose you. Life chose me. Here I am. Here you are, you magnificent and unlikely life forms!

In the Judeo-Christian story, God took soil and breathed life into it, and created us from God’s own life. God knitted us together in our mothers’ wombs. Our breath is sacred because it comes from God. When we are weary or injured, God wants to restore our souls because they come from God. This sacred breath is a living thread that connects us to God, through which we feel the pull of God, the inner voice of God in our sacred selves. As long as we are alive, we have breath—this built-in sacred connection to God.

This foundation—that we are created in the image of God—makes every one of us deeply beloved and unspeakably precious.

This foundation is absolutely fundamental to our house. If we do not speak about it and be reminded of it in our words and rituals and social arrangements, we know what happens. In every time and culture, people who are not grounded in universal human sacredness regress toward bias and discrimination and in the extreme, genocide. There are genocides ongoing today. Humans have a tremendous propensity for bias toward ourselves. Our need for affirmation, our hunger for worthiness, is so profound, that without healthy religion or some other way to stay grounded on this foundation, we create a false worthiness by thinking that people like us—whatever that might mean to us, citizenship, skin color, ethnicity—are more worthy than others.

So we must always tend to this foundation, remind ourselves and each other in many and various ways that we share an inherent original goodness, human dignity, souls that come from God.

Upon this foundation, I want to place four cornerstones that further define the nature and motivations of our world house.

President Stoltzfus places a cornerstone onto its foundation during her speech on Jan. 16, 2019.

The first cornerstone is truth seeking.

Because of our biases and our highly subjective nature as humans, approaching a question or an event or a thing from multiple viewpoints is the most effective way for us to seek the truth.

Few of the truths that really matter are static facts that endure over time. Parker Palmer describes truth as “an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline. . . .” The academic disciplines, teach us sets of practices and standards for making inferences and holding conversations about truth. Mathematicians have their ways. Historians have their ways. Scientists have their ways. At Goshen College, our classrooms and laboratories, our study groups and the commuter lounge and our residence halls are places where we learn and practice these disciplines.

At its best, our truth-seeking conversations include diversities of experience, intelligence, identity and academic discipline. And the conversations advance our understanding through creative conflict, not competition or dominance. Conflict is often required to correct our biases and to make us see our prejudices. Research shows us that diverse groups make better decisions than groups that are less diverse.

So a motivation for our work around diversity is that we need it to find the truth about things.

The second cornerstone is social mobility and economic thriving.

Goshen College transforms communities, and that means enabling all families and citizens to enter the social economy. Education is the most effective way to get people into better careers and thus better lives. The lifetime wage difference of someone with a bachelor’s degree compared to someone with a high school diploma is around $1 million. College education is a strong predictor of well-being and happiness. And there is a massive gap in access. Only one in three American adults has a college education.

Here at Goshen, 58 percent of our traditional undergraduate students are relatively low-income, defined by eligibility for Federal Pell or Stafford Loans. Thirty percent of our incoming students are first-generation students in college.

In addition, our Goshen city community includes many immigrant families. Our diversity, equity and inclusion is an engine for social mobility and economic opportunity—for our students while on campus and ultimately for the many communities where they will live, work and serve.

The third cornerstone is the sheer joy of human connection.

The greatest source of happiness in life is human relationships and connection. Inclusion means belonging to a campus environment in which people are welcomed, accepted by and connected to one another. If we are increasingly able to be open to one another, to connect and belong to one another, we will be more joyful.

In a welcoming community, diversity is a source of surprise, wonder, and discovery. To use the mystical language of the monk Thomas Merton: “We all become doors and windows through which God shines back into God’s own house.” What fun!

The fourth cornerstone is justice.

While it is true that we crave self-worth and self-affirmation, it is also true that we long for justice. We know in our bones and in our hearts that the injustices in our society are wrong, and they hurt us all. The human suffering caused by domination, exclusion and inequalities is simply too great. We are called to be a college where injustice is revealed and remedied.

Our vision is to seek inclusive community and transformative justice in all that we do.

And to do that we need to teach and learn about historical and present forces that perpetuate injustice, as well as creative social movements and action that dismantle oppression.

And here in the United States of America we must name the particular injustice of racism. Patricia St. Onge is a Mohawk leader whose writing on cultural competence has been particularly influential to me. She writes: “Race has been at the heart of the taking and growing of this country. From the first landing of Europeans, through conquest, slavery, exclusion laws, internment, ongoing disparities, and internalized oppression, the largest crack in the fabric of our society is located in race.”

This work is not easy. And it is not comfortable. We will make mistakes. And so we will learn and we will do better. And it will be highly rewarding, both personally and collectively.

So what are we going to do? While the task force is working methodically toward their charge, we are leading and acting and responding to the requests and good ideas that are coming forth from you.

I am grateful to the Intercultural Coalition of Goshen College (ICGC) students who spoke out last March about their experiences of bias and exclusion and the unfinished work of dismantling racism on our campus. They brought to my office nine resolutions, and we are in the process of meeting all nine of them.

I am grateful to the alumni of the women’s soccer program who brought to our attention the unacceptable environment that characterized their experience in 2012. They have helped catalyze substantial improvements and expansions to our Title IX trainings, anti-racism trainings and increased attention to the climate of our athletic programs.

I am grateful to the students who have been in conversation with us about the needs of our commuter students and who helped us conceive the new commuter spaces in Coffman Hall, opened this month.

I am grateful to our Student Senate, who are actively leading on new initiatives to make residence life more inclusive and equitable for all of our students, regardless of gender and gender expression.

I am grateful to all of you, known or unknown to me, who in your own courageous, creative and compassionate ways are acting and speaking out on behalf of diversity, equity and inclusion on our campus and in our community.

These examples speak to organizational actions. But let us remember that Dr. King said that this was about personal character as well as social justice.

I want to conclude by stating aloud to you some of the practices that I commit to, as we work to bring this about. I invite you also to think about your personal commitments, and I will be eager to have conversations with you about these matters.

Here are seven things that I commit to:

  1. I will remember that we are all in this together. In the words of Desmond Tutu: We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths.
  2. I commit to see differences and similarities as always present. We are rarely if ever in rooms or organizations or communities that are truly homogeneous. I will try to be alert and aware and curious about diversity so that I can be more effective as a leader, and more genuine as a friend.
  3. I commit to regularly take stock of the privileges that I enjoy, unearned, by virtue of who I am, and to extend privileges to others who have less.
  4. I will reach out to develop friendships with people different from me. I commit to go beyond superficial acquaintance and stretch myself.
  5. I commit to practice centered listening: listening to all of you about your experiences without taking it personally.
  6. I commit to keeping the new mission and vision of Goshen College at the center of my work, and not to cling to what has been the dominant and historical White culture of Goshen College and the culture of my own identity.
  7. I commit to speaking up when I see opportunities to seek inclusive community and transformative justice in all that we do.

Thank you for your courage, creativity and compassion. Let’s build this house together.