In 2021, Graceland formed two SUSTAINABLE SOCIAL JUSTICE COMMITTEES (SSJC) to strive for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in thought and action.
These action-oriented committees — one comprised of faculty, staff, and students, and the other consisting of members of the board of trustees — focus on culture change within the university. They are committed to the long-term and consistent work of evaluation, exploration, and transformation to ensure that Graceland becomes a university thoroughly permeated by a culture and climate of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). The Board of Trustees Sustainable Social Justice Committee Chair Ryan Watson ’77 sat down with Zac Harmon-McLaughlin, DMin, ’08, Dean of the Community of Christ Seminary and member of the faculty, staff, and student Sustainable Social Justice Committee, to discuss the significance of these two committees.
WATSON: Often, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives are stimulated by an event. A specific event did not initiate Graceland’s SSJC, but President Draves pushing the University to have a strong diversity statement. So, the committee was formed at a board level to help each member understand their role in JEDI to make the diversity mission statement come alive. The sustainability part might be the most crucial piece; this will be a continuous part of the University’s operation.
HARMON-MCLAUGHLIN: I call this the soul work of the University. A lot of what we do as an organization is about production; we create degrees, programs, and courses. This is about cultivating a soul and the University’s consciousness. So much of our culture is focused on doing. What you do and accomplish is how you add value to the world.
This work of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, which ultimately equals justice, is focused on ‘being:’ our behavior, the way we think, and the way we see the world. I prefer to think of ourselves as ambassadors instead of a committee because this work is for everyone, not just the committee. We want to integrate every aspect of the campus community because this is a way of ‘being,’ not just something we do.
So often, we see diversity as just talking about racism, but the University’s stance on making JEDI sustainable is that we are taking an intersectional approach to all the ‘ism’s in our community. Not just racism but also phobias regarding human sexuality, gender identity, or just the human condition from our social-economic status or housing status. All the things that create barriers between belonging.
As I understand it, that’s the heart of this work. To cultivate and nurture a soul of Graceland that aligns with harmony and the core mission of the University.
WATSON: I think it’s important to have congruency and alignment where things are headed. It’s clear that there’s a lot of understanding of why justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are essential. So, I’m glad that you used the word soul because I think the objective is that this is real and tangible and not just something we present to the world.
HARMON-MCLAUGHLIN: I think that’s another critical aspect of this work because, from the board level to the faculty, staff, and student level, this indicates to the world that Graceland is shifting focus from an explicit behavior to an implicit behavior. We’re looking at our implicit biases and complacency. You know we’ve had a beautiful mission of belonging and inclusion — so explicitly, we have always been a place where all are welcome. Implicitly, that has not been true, and we have had many issues of inclusion and belonging based on various factors of our human experience.
So, this is about us getting serious about saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want a virtue signal anymore. We are serious about this, and not only do we want to talk about it, but we want to actively deconstruct systems so that our work reflects our values in a deliberate and embedded way.’ We want it to be incarnational, which means to embody it fully.
WATSON: I also think it’s significant that there’s a willingness to do the hard work at all levels. It’s not where it should or could be, but the response, support, and sincerity around this work has been substantial. Internally there’s a lot of scar tissue and issues Graceland has to work through, which will take some time to heal. But there’s a willingness to do the hard work to move the needle, so when new students come, they immediately feel a sense of belonging.
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