PSR works to advance racial justice

Russell Schoch

Candlelight vigil to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.
Conveners and presenters at a candlelight vigil to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., held in the chapel on April 3, included (left to right) Joellynn Monahan, John Davis, Sonsiris Tamayo, Marlene Henderson, Monica Quick, Dante Quick, Andrea Davidson, Maureen Maloney, Jay Johnson, and Bill McKinney.

Several achievements this academic year highlight PSR’s commitment to advancing racial justice: Last fall’s entering class was the most diverse in the school’s history; the first woman of color was granted faculty tenure in October; and the first program director for dismantling racism was appointed in November. In April, the first “Advancing Racial Justice Month” was held on campus, featuring a series of events and celebrations, opening with a candlelight vigil honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The concern about racial justice and dismantling racism has been on this campus for a long time,” says President Bill McKinney, “and PSR from time to time has had a fairly diverse student body, staff, and faculty. But it has often ignored the alienation that many people experienced while on campus. We need for all of our students to experience a shared atmosphere of respect and recognition of diverse gifts and diverse people, and that’s the goal we’re working toward.”

McKinney views the elevation of concern about dismantling racism to its status as one of the four goals of the seminary’s Strategic Plan (2005) as a milestone in that effort.” It signaled that PSR, an historically white institution, was finally ready to deal with the pain that we have caused persons of color who have been part of our life,” he says.

Diversity among the faculty has increased since its all-white days. The president points to the conscious decision in 1975 by his predecessor Davie Napier to hire Archie Smith, the first African American to receive tenure at PSR. Last fall, the first woman of color, Boyung Lee, was granted tenure. In between those two appointments, McKinney says, “the faculty and the administration realized that serving the churches of the West and the Pacific Rim required PSR to have a faculty that wasn’t just made up of white men, and so there was a systematic attempt to begin to diversify the faculty. Today, it is almost half women and almost half persons of color.”

This year’s entering class of students is the most diverse in the school’s history: Of those listing their racial/ethnic identity, 54.17% are students of color (including international students). Another goal of the Strategic Plan was to diversify the Board of Trustees: currently, one-third of board members are persons of color.

Speaking more generally of PSR’s efforts, McKinney says that “What we’ve tried to do is recent years is to create a mechanism through the Dismantling Racism Committee (DRC), a volunteer group of staff, students, trustees, and faculty, that helps every part of the institution understand that confronting racism is all of our business.

“You don’t attack racism or build social justice by just assigning the task to one person or one office and saying: ‘This is your job.’ Nevertheless, it’s clear that we have needed someone in a staff position to help move us to the next level. And, finally, in this academic year’s budget we were able to fund a half-time position. We would like to be able to increase that commitment, and we’re looking for additional resources to help us do so.”

Marquita Chamblee

The seminary’s first director of the Dismantling Racism Program, Marquita Chamblee, PhD, may have a half-time job but she has been pursuing it with full-time energy since her appointment last November. She prefers the phrase “advancing racial justice” to “dismantling racism.” “Let’s keep dismantling racism, but let’s move forward and advance racial justice,” she says.

“Most of my work experience over the past 25 years has been in some form connected to diversity work,” says Marquita (pronounced “Mar-kweeta”). “This includes recruitment, retention, programming, and working with students from high school through doctoral programs.” She was born in Indiana and received her BS at Purdue and an MS and PhD at Penn State. She served as director of the Office of Diversity and Pluralism at Michigan State University until 2005, when she moved to the West Coast.

Chamblee is a consultant and life coach in Berkeley and is currently collaborating on a book, “Tools for Understanding White Privilege,” with Frances E. Kendall. “The book is about creating tools that people can use to introduce conversations about race on campuses and in organizations, about how we begin to talk about race in an open and transparent way,” Marquita says of the book project.

Discussing her new job as director of the Dismantling Racism Program, Chamblee says, “My first few months have been devoted to listening and learning. In my conversations with PSR people, I’m hearing that there is pain and a certain lack of trust, but also the acknowledgment that the seminary is putting things out there and is trying. Based on the work I’ve done in the past, I believe that PSR has the potential to leap ahead in the areas of dismantling racism and advancing racial justice.”

In March, Chamblee and the Dismantling Racism Committee came up with a set of priorities for the coming year: Chief among them is the development of a Racial Justice Ombudsgroup that will use a pastoral approach to resolve situations involving racial complaints or grievances. The DRC will also ask departments, units, and individuals to assess the progress they’ve made in achieving objectives identified in the Strategic Plan and/or the 2004 Racial Audit made by the United Methodist Church Commission on Race.

“My overall priority,” says Chamblee, “is for the entire campus, at all levels, to engage in compassionate and meaningful discourse, dialogue, and conversation about what it means to live, learn, and work in a racially just community.”

“As DRC program director, Marquita Chamblee of course has program responsibilities,” says President McKinney. “But she also has what I call ‘nudging’ responsibilities — her job is to nudge all parts of the seminary to make sure that this issue is front and center in all of our work.”

This is important, McKinney says, because “For this generation of students, the concern for racial justice is one of the most important legacies we will leave with them. We expect our students, when they graduate, to be agents of change in communities around the Bay Area and beyond. We want them to understand that they are being called by God to take whatever steps they can in order to make this a better and more just world. Therefore, what we do on campus in terms of advancing racial justice will have an impact on our students’ understanding of what it means to be a leader in the 21st century, whether in a congregation or a social movement.”