LISTEN: One Step Towards Racial Righteousness

Amy Barnard

"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." ~ Micah 6:8

Early on a frigid Tuesday morning, before classes start and as students are just starting to filter into the building to start their day, the campus room is buzzing. Students rearrange tables and chairs, creating spaces that are socially distanced but still close enough to hold discussions. Diversity Director Paulita Todhunter steps to the front of the room, picking up the lone microphone. After introducing herself, she shares that in light of the intense season around race issues experienced in the Twin Cities this year, the Diversity Interns had been discussing ways to help students process the many questions rolling just beneath the surface of open conversation.

"These days we tend to get our information in silos," Ms. Todhunter shares, "and we don't often talk to people who have different views. Not necessarily to agree with them, but to hear other sides...other perspectives. So the Diversity Interns thought it would be great to offer a race forum: an opportunity to get more information about how race affects our lives and to have a discussion around those areas."

Students present on various topics ranging from why we as Christians are called to engage in hearing and responding to the needs of our brothers and sisters of color to the concept of cultural appropriation and ways that individuals at times unknowingly disrespect those of other cultures. The presentations are brief but well planned, with statistics and easy to understand examples. Initially students in the audience seem hesitant to ask questions.

"Is there anything you would like to hear more about?" Ms. Todhunter asks the room.

This is where the conversation starts rolling a bit more. Students were surprised to hear that those in more diverse classrooms perform better on achievement tests than those in homogenous classrooms. They were alarmed by historical maltreatment of people of color in the healthcare system.

"Are we going to be doing more of these events?" a student asks. 

Are we going to be doing more of these events?

- Student question, at the close of the Race Forum.

This forum, student-led and offered by the Diversity Club, is just one outflow not only of recent events but also of the school's theme verse for the year: Micah 6:8 (see above). Across campus students are engaging with the question: What does it look like to walk out justice, mercy, and humility in practical ways, every day?

How then does this verse guide us in our pursuit of Racial Righteousness? What does it mean to honor God by faithfully loving our neighbor across lines of racial and ethnic differences? How do we build bridges for deeper fellowship with people we disagree with or don't understand well? How do we, as the church, maintain the unity God calls us to when it seems as if at times we are speaking different languages? While these questions have been part of an ongoing discussion about race on campus for some time, in recent years they have taken a more intentional, elevated role in the community. Following is a glimpse into the journey we at Minnehaha Academy are taking and its practical implications.

Image of Director of Diversity Paulita Toddhunter with seven Diversity Club interns presenting at a Race Forum for student.

1. The Imago Dei

Why Are We Doing This? Don't We Already Get Along Pretty Well on Campus?

If you have the opportunity to ask, and then to sit and listen quietly to MA students, faculty, and alumni of color, you will find that many of them emphatically confirm their experience with the school as one of feeling welcomed.

"[I appreciate] how everyone cares for one another at this school," says junior Prince Aligbe.

Sarina Baker '11, who transferred in as a senior and joined the basketball team shared:

"The community really welcomed me...I felt really embraced by the students and the parents of the other players."

The community really welcomed me.

- Sarina Baker, '11

Isaac Takushi '11 (who used to trade Thai leftovers with other students for more traditional American fare) says: "I...felt that I was loved and welcomed, not just accepted, [but] welcomed for my inherent value as a human being."

Sounds pretty good, right? In fact, over the course of numerous interviews with students, faculty, alumni, and staff of color the most common word that came up was "welcomed."

However, welcomed was not the only common thread.

Various individuals offered examples of moments they felt uncomfortable because of certain wide-sweeping, insensitive, or even racist statements made by peers. Some of these individuals spoke up and let the person who made the comment know how they felt, others held back.

"Sometimes it's hard to navigate around whether someone is being intentionally bigoted, or enjoying the anger they are getting from people in the room when they say these things, or if it's actually ignorance," says senior Jupiter Brodie.

Sometimes it's hard to navigate around whether someone is being intentionally bigoted, or enjoying the anger they are getting from people in the room when they say these things, or if it's actually ignorance.

Jupiter Brodie, senior

Another student offered frustration that some of his classmates didn't seem interested in taking the time to understand the tensions across "color lines" or put in the time to work together towards healing.

With nearly 1,000 students across three schools representing 27 denominational affiliations, 95 zip codes, and dozens of ethnic backgrounds it perhaps isn't surprising that not all interactions between students have been ideal. Some students arrive at Minnehaha from a predominantly homogenous background and genuinely don't realize the insensitive nature of their comments. Others feel put off or tired of a conversation they see fundamentally differently than many of their peers, and this frustration comes out during classroom conversations or at the lunch table. 

Our community is 32% students of color, represents 27 denominations, and includes students from 95 zip codes.

Over the years students and alumni have pointed to another area they would like to see our community grow in: drawing out the history and stories of the people of color who helped to make our nation what is today, from their influences on Christianity and the Constitution to their role in creating the technological powerhouse that the US has become.

Students are curious: Are there people like me who impact history and culture in significant ways? People who design buildings, write laws, build bridges with other nations, and go to outer space?

Most majority culture (white) students, know the answer is yes, there are.

But without seeing and hearing the stories of individuals who share their culture accomplishing these feats, students of color at times feel uncertain. Likewise, without these stories, white students may harbor subconscious beliefs about the potential for their BIPOC (bi-racial/indigenous people of color) classmates to achieve these goals.

So where then, do we start? As with a surprising number of issues, for the Christian, the answer begins in Genesis 1.

"So God created human beings in His own image. In the image of God He created them." – Genesis 1:27, ESV

There lies in each individual an inherent worth and beauty that comes from the fact that this individual bears the image of God, is infinitely loved by God, and demonstrates to us aspects of God's nature. 

This image bearing is ultimately a work of grace. We do nothing to earn it, and it can be granted by God alone.

Rev. Dr. Donna Harris points out that as image bearers, God calls us to a ministry of reconciliation: in drawing others to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18) and in being reconciled to each other (Matthew 5: 23-24).

So then, for the believer, reconciliation is not simply a nice idea, but a command.

For the believer, reconciliation is not simply a nice idea, but a command.

Interestingly, in the Matthew 5 scripture Jesus actually says that reconciliation with our brothers and sisters comes first, before we enter into worship.

"Minnehaha's mission intersects with God's reconciling work in the world," explains Rev. Dr. Harris. "So in partnership with parents, this work begins by demonstrating to each child that they are created in the image of God, possessing inherent honor and dignity as a unique individual.

"When this inherent honor and dignity permeates deeply within the soul and spirit of each child, we gain fertile soil to nurture love for God and neighbors," she explains.

And so, recognizing that becoming a truly welcoming community that honors the image of God in each person is a work in progress, the administration, faculty, staff, student, and parent groups have spent the past few years examining, discussing, questioning, and praying over just what that looks like on our campus, asking how we can better serve our community for growth in the hard work of walking in racial righteousness.

So often, the first step both in deeper relationships and in acknowledging the dignity of  another person is the same: Listening.

We hear their stories. We seek to understand differing perspectives. We recognize how God might be using this individual to challenge our own cherished (but at times faulty) assumptions.

The following pages offer windows into a few (not all) of the ways the Minnehaha community is currently working to listen better. We pray that deeper listening leads to deeper understanding, mutual respect, and honoring God as we honor each other.

Definition of Racial Righteousness laid out as a dictionary entry with pronunciation and notation

3. Opening Spaces for Diverse Voices

 Who will we be listening to? Where will we make space for these voices?

Four images from chapels and assemblies, including an Ojibwe jingle dance, a student and her father, an author, and parents.

A handful of students cheer while others groan as Sita Baker reads the second Kahoot* answer for the packed auditorium: When were Native Americans considered citizens of the United States? 1924. 

This is one of the last student-led assemblies pre-COVID. Before a tumultuous political season revealed just how divided we as a nation are. It's a normal day at MA, and today Upper School students walk out of assembly better understanding the history behind the conflicted emotions their American Indian classmates experience when others refer to "us Americans."   

Sita, her younger sister, Grace, and Nora Thomey (all members of the school's Diversity Club) planned and led this school assembly. For Sita and Grace (who are Dakota, Lakota, and Ojibwe and grew up surrounded by the American Indian community) this was a chance to share their culture and the history of the peoples they came from with their classmates. In spite of the school's location situated just five minutes from the hub of American Indian life in the Twin Cities, many MA students have never held a face-to-face conversation about culture and history with an American Indian student. For Nora (white American) it was a chance to support her friends and also to challenge her classmates to do the thing she is most passionate about right now: Listen to and learn from those who are unlike herself. 

"Minnehaha is situated physically in such a diverse area, and we are in a diverse world, so [I would like to see us as a community] listen to other perspectives and not dismiss them. You don't have to agree with everyone's opinion, but do listen with respect," she says. For Grace's part, she felt encouraged at the warm student response to the assembly, sharing that she felt heard by her peers. 

I felt heard...people were actually paying attention and not just sitting there and tuning out.

- Grace Baker, junior

Assemblies and chapels are just one arena where the school wants to open more spaces for diverse voices. Those voices might be students with unique personal experiences to share; ministers, authors, faculty, and business people of color; or alumni who resonate with the struggle of wanting to feel heard. 

Looking forward, both Grace and Nora see room for growth but also see signs of increased positive student engagement: "There's a lot more conversation [happening]," Grace says, explaining that she's seen discussions about issues related to race and ethnic identity or struggles trickle out of the classroom and into personal conversations. Nora also sees signs of increased student curiosity and willingness to talk. "There's been a huge uptick in people starting these conversations....[When] Diversity Interns put out resources people were also looking at them. That's been super inspiring, coming into this school year."

*Kahoot is a game-based learning platform that allowed the girls to turn ten questions about their history into a game the entire Upper School could play during the assembly using their cell phones.

1: Grace Baker shares a traditional Ojibwe jingle dance to close out the Indigenous Peoples' Day assembly.

2: Dani Robinson '20 and her father Rev. Paul Robinson address the Upper School on the topic of living intentionally.

3: Author Linda Miller read from her book Isaiah's Sunglasses, a story that encourages intercultural competence and intelligence.

4: Parents Redae and Eden Habtes spoke to Middle School students about immigrating to the US and how their faith has given  them strength to fight discrimination and opportunities to love their neighbors.
 

4. Windows & Mirrors

Helping students see themselves and others in the curriculum.

Ms. Lutgen explains a piece of music to ten boys in a Middle School boy's choir at Minnehaha Academy.

Mirrors (stories that reflect a student's culture and experience back to them, building identity) and windows (stories or resources that offer a view into another person's experience) help students listen more empathetically. 

Here are just a few of the windows and mirrors, with more to come in the future:

Second Grade: Sharing Traditions
"We are sharing and writing about celebrations and traditions in our writing unit." – Ms. Peterson

Fourth Grade: Books & Unlikely Visitors
"We feature different authors through our mentor texts and our read alouds. This allows us to read from a variety of ethnicities and paves a path for good classroom conversations. Pre-COVID, we have had visitors come talk to students, including a Holocaust survivor, a Tuskegee airman, Black authors, and artists through the VocalEssence Witness Program." – Mr. Christiansen

Seventh Grade Geography: Looking Inward
"We began by first looking inward at the components of our own identities...In order to better empathize with people from around the world, we first need to understand how we have been shaped by our own backgrounds, including the race and ethnic group(s) with which we identify." – Ms. Gross 

Eighth Grade History: Figures From the Past
"People such as Phillis Wheatley, Peter Salem, James Armistead, Nanye'hi, and Joseph Savary are celebrated for their contributions to American History. We take a deep dive into who they are, what influence they have had, and how their lives changed as a result of their actions."
– Mr. Zimmerman

Upper School Choral: Choosing Artists
I try to pay attention to the composers and arrangers of the music we sing. I want to make sure we are singing the music of artists of color and I make a point to discuss those artists in class. – Ms. Lutgen

 

5. Opportunities for Difficult Conversations

Where will we practice listening in the context of conversation? How will we learn to handle these conversations well? A select list.

Five Middle School students of various ethnicities sit in a circle for a discussion.

Upper School: Race Conversation Pathways

This year, two dozen students are engaging in a series of conversations modeled after group discussions currently happening among Covenant Church pastors. Students engage with resources related to racial righteousness over seven weeks. In three sessions, white and BIPOC students are separate and in three they are together. The goal is to open spaces for students to process difficult topics and walk out racial reconciliation together.

Middle School: Sacred Studies Break Out Rooms

All three Middle School Sacred Studies teachers share that their classes tend to be rich environments for difficult topics and conversations. At times in Mr. Zimmer's class he will separate students into small groups to dialogue about a tough topic, checking in to guide discussions as needed. He sees this a chance for students practice "being the church." "I get to facilitate some really honest conversations," he shares. 

Lower School: Morning Meetings

While morning meetings at the Lower School cover a wide range of topics, at various times throughout the years teachers share stories of individuals who sought justice (e.g., Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks) and then open the floor for students to ask questions and discuss what they learned. This is a time for teachers to introduce the reality of injustice as well as set the stage for having healthy and productive conversations with respect.

All School: Organic Moments

Across campus, teachers work to be aware of unplanned moments in the midst of class where there is room for discussion. "In 8th grade Life Skills we talked about stress and stressors. This created a very natural environment for students to share their experiences. One class had a beautiful conversation about what it is like to be a person of color in America. The group shared stories and listened respectfully, they asked questions and apologized for misunderstandings. It was the most beautiful hour that was completely spontaneous, but oh so fruitful," shares Ms. DuBord.

Upper School: Diversity Club Events

The school's Diversity Club offers a variety of venues for students to grow in listening and discussing each other's ideas and experiences. From a club meetings and a social media account to a student forum entitled "Why Does Race Matter," the Diversity Club actively works to get students talking.

Middle School: Advisory SES Discussions

Each week Middle School students engage with a specific topic in advisory as part of their Social-Emotional-Spiritual Learning (SES). During their unit on empathy students spent time listening to each other's stories, at times playing a game where they shared experiences and found ways their stories connected. This was followed up by a unit on justice seeking, where students spent time journaling their thoughts and feelings about the resources they encountered.

 

6. Early Conversation Starters

Preparing our youngest to be bridge builders and peace makers. A moment with Ms. Van Gordon's 4PreK class.

Ms. Van Gordon is on her knees next to a little girl who is painting, with a boy on her other side.

Today we had a rich, meaningful conversation about the different shades of our skin. We talked about how God is an amazing artist who loves to create people with different shades. We put our arms in the circle and looked at similarities and differences. We noticed that everyone has some rosy pink on the palm of their hands and we noticed that some children have brown skin, light brown skin, peach skin, and light tan skin. The children said that everyone's skin was so beautiful!

I shared with them that there are some people who unfortunately think that lighter skin is better than darker skin. They were shocked and very saddened by this! I asked them what they thought we should do about this. They shared that we should tell people that all colors of skin are beautiful and that God makes everyone's skin beautiful. We should love everyone. I shared with them that this was what a justice seeker would do and that God invites us to treat people fairly and with kindness. I see this love, kindness, acceptance, and fairness in your children. They fill my heart with joy and hope!!

I see this love, kindness, acceptance, and fairness in your children. They filled my heart with joy and hope.

- Ms. Van Gordon

I also shared that it's sad because brown and black skinned people are sometimes left out of books. Thankfully, more and more books are being published to represent different skin colors and cultures! We talked about how we don't want to leave people out. That everyone matters. I asked them if they would like to hear a story about brown and black skinned people who made our world a better place by making inventions. They gleefully said, "yes!" We watched and talked about a great book called "Have You Thanked An Inventor Today?" I'm so thankful for the valuable contributions of brown and black men and women.

– Ms. Van Gordon

Note: Ms. Van Gordon included links to resources in this message she sent to parents but space prohibits listing them here. 

7. Voices From the Front

What voices are leading and nurturing our children? How are we working to diversify those influences on campus?

Images of six new faculty of color, two asian women, one Hispanic woman, on African American man, two African American women

In Minnesota, 95% of teachers are white, while 34% of students are students of color. Studies clearly show that having even a few teachers of color during their school years improves overall academic outcomes for students of color. We also recognize that teachers and staff from diverse backgrounds bring fresh insight into the classroom and to school discussions around learning. We are so honored that this year six faculty of color decided to join our community! They are:

  • Ms. Li, US Chinese

  • Ms. Anderson, MS Sacred Studies

  • Mr. Ayers, LS Dean

  • Ms. Felton, US English 10 & 11

  • Ms. Comer, 3 Day 4PreK

  • Ms. Eaton, LS Third Grade

 

8. A Question of History

How will we get deeper than slavery and Martin Luther King, Jr.? And who is Cesar Chávez again?

Picture of freshman Jennica Suggs in a jacket standing outside and smiling.

Jennica Suggs shares that on the one hand she herself felt very welcomed when coming into the MA community, but on the other hand she would like to see faculty work on integrating a wider range of African Americans and those of other backgrounds in history.

Ask students of color across the nation (especially older students) what frustrates them about how Black History and the contributions of individuals of color are taught and you will likely hear—multiple times—that they wish teachers would dig further than slavery and civil rights, and that they would explore important leaders and innovators beyond Martin Luther King, Jr.

"There are so many others who have helped shape this country," shared freshman Jennica Suggs in a speech she gave for Mr. Freeman's class. "It's not about only celebrating Black culture either. It’s about making sure that no matter what ethnicity or race you are, you feel welcomed here."

It’s about making sure that no matter what ethnicity or race you are, you feel welcomed here.

- Jennica Suggs, freshman

AP United States History instructor Mr. Quinn agrees. "I don't think you can tell the story of American history without looking at the Native experience and the African American experience...Black History is more than just slavery...it's people like Frederick Douglas and how he shaped America’s involvement in the Civil War and helped us reinterpret the declaration of independence, people like [congresswoman from New York and presidential candidate] Shirley Chisholm and [scholar and activist] W.E.B. DuBois."

In recent years drawing out the stories of these individuals has received increased focus on campus, although faculty affirm that this is a work in progress. 

As teachers from PreK to 12th grade continue to explore the depth of our collective history, the goal is that the historical impact of people of color will not live in a single month, but instead be threads woven throughout our teaching of history. As students learn about people like Cesar Chávez [businessman and activist; father of eight, awardee of the 1994 Presidential Medal of Freedom], and Mary McLeod Bethune [founder of one of the first colleges that allowed African American women to attend] they get to celebrate both where we have come from and orient their compasses to where we might go from here.

 

9. The Parents, Too. What is happening to Mosaic?

Changes are coming to Mosaic with school-wide impact. What does it mean?

Image of the Mosaic Logo which is capital letters with the "A" switched out for the Minnehaha Academy beams logo.

If you've ever attended a diversity-related book club, community conversation night, or a worship service on campus it was most likely an event sponsored by the parent group, Mosaic.

Launched in 2013, this group enhances the understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity throughout the school, and to serve as a bridge between students, parents, administrators, and faculty on diversity issues.

The school's desire is to seize the opportunity to impact the larger community we serve, equipping students to live intentionally in our diverse global community.

What will this look like? Moving forward, "Mosaic" will be the umbrella organization for two areas of focus on campus. While "Parent Mosaic" will continue working to inform, engage, and create dialogue within our school community around issues relating to diversity, the broader school-based initiative (led by administrators, staff, and faculty) will focus on goals such as:

  • building a healthy Christian culture of listening, learning, and growing;
  • supporting students in the exploration of their heritage;
  • enriching the curriculum by integrating resources that apply a racial equity lens.

Minnehaha's Board of Trustees is also committed to be part of the learning, growing, and supporting the work of this broader initiative. We look forward to sharing more with you about this initiative as we collaboratively discern our goals and the associated plans.

 

10. Final Thoughts

Where do we go from here?

Two Middle School students hold red phones and pretend to speak to each other, with a third leaning in to listen.

Scripture calls on us to "rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." For so long both the rejoicing and weeping of brothers and sisters of color has either been absent or given token spaces in schools across the nation.

We as a school have a chance to honor the 1/3 of our student population who are students of color by rejoicing with them over the accomplishments and moments of beauty in their stories as well as to weep with them over the pain they have experienced.

We want to create an atmosphere where every student feels heard, and points of disagreement are not swept under the rug but instead taken out and examined respectfully and carefully.

We want to celebrate the joy of the many cultural nuances that make up the family of God, and take these as an opportunity to learn more about God himself. 

Finally, we strive for the humility that continually brings us back to the table when we see areas that need growth.

"What continues to draw me is the ability to be honest that we are still trying to figure this out, and we will never arrive because we are constantly on this journey," says parent and leader of Mosaic's parent group Jesse Ross.

We will never arrive because we are constantly on this journey.

- Jesse Ross, parent

As believers, the journey towards deeper fellowship is not just a choice, but a calling. For Minnehaha Academy, listening is the first step. May we continue on together.

 

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