I See You Are (ICUR): Building intercultural competence and undoing racism at AMBS

Published: March 9, 2017

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — How can institutions work at increasing intercultural competence and undoing racism with tangible results?

While Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) began to work at intentionally increasing intercultural competence as an institution in the 1990s, the seminary’s approach to the priority has become more systematic in the last eight or nine years, said Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, who serves as Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism (ICUR) coordinator in addition to her work as graphic designer and web specialist.

“It doesn’t matter what ministry you’re in; you can’t go anywhere without needing to know how to work with similarities and differences, especially if you’re going to be a leader,” she said. “We think that we should know how to act, but it isn’t enough to say ‘yes’ to Jesus to transform our relationships. We actually have to learn these skills and develop and practice them in order for them to be part of our Christian character.”

Alexis is part of AMBS’s eight-member Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism Team, which consists of administrators, teaching faculty, staff and students. Two team members are qualified administrators of the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), a tool to aid the seminary in its strategic plan of building intercultural competence and undoing racism throughout the institution.

The team has adopted a three-fold approach to working for institutional change at the seminary and creating a learning community where all voices and experiences are valued: structural — addressing how the learning community is organized at the level of policy and practice; educational — examining what is taught and how it is taught at the curriculum level; and relational — coordinating experiences to deepen understanding and strengthen interactions with others around these issues.

“We see intercultural competence and undoing racism as working in concert together,” Alexis said.

Structural transformation

An example of a structural change is that the ICUR team recently rewrote the seminary’s grievance policy, which had not adequately accounted for different cultural values in relation to conflict, or issues of power imbalances.  The new pol­icy is more flexible, allowing those bringing grievances to enter the process at different levels, de­pending on the situation, instead of fol­lowing a strictly linear approach. The team also called for the formation of a stand­ing grievance team to assist with conflict as needed. Members represent differ­ent departments and have been trained in conflict mediation by the Center for Community Justice in Elkhart.

The ICUR team also participates in faculty and administrator search processes, and student employment practices have been changed to ensure greater fairness in hiring for campus jobs, Alexis said.

Educational transformation

At the curriculum level, ICUR discussions now take place during the orientation courses that all incoming students take at the seminary, said Andy Brubacher Kaethler, assistant professor of Christian formation and culture and a member of the ICUR team.

“As a teacher I’ve noticed that since we’ve been intentional about talking about intercultural competence and racism during orientation, the fruit of that work comes out in classes many times over,” he said. “We are better at listening to each other and being curious. Instead of jumping to conclusions, we are better at extending grace and considering others’ intentions. We are more aware that people have different styles of interaction and processing.”

“I see how this work affects our conversations immediately and in the long term as well,” he continued, adding that even though the contexts where students eventually serve may look different than AMBS’s context, they will still be able to apply their learnings and their “way of paying attention.”

Since AMBS serves students from countries around the world in addition to the U.S., people from many different backgrounds benefit from the ICUR work. Brubacher Kaethler, who is originally from Ontario, Canada, said it can be easy for Canadians to feel that they’re “off the hook” because they don’t have the same history as the U.S. does.

“Through my journey with the ICUR team, I’ve become much more open and receptive to seeing ways in which I participate in racist systems and benefit from white privilege,” he said, pointing to issues of injustice that First Nations people in particular have experienced in Canada. “Canadians can’t be complacent.”

Jen Shenk, a Master of Arts in Christian Formation student from Goshen, Indiana, said that she’s found many opportunities to grow in intercultural awareness since her orientation in June 2016.

“I don’t typically engage in political agenda on social media, but I felt compelled to do so in several instances as a matter of solidarity and integrity,” she said, noting that she posted on topics such as the Syrian refugee crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement. She also contacted government and law enforcement officials about their treatment of Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.

“I think my orientation class was a wonderful starting point, and had I not participated in the IDI, I’m not sure I would have been emboldened to take action,” she said. “Prior to this year, I had always felt those things were wrong, but I was overwhelmed and paralyzed, not knowing if anything I could do would make a difference.”

Shenk said she and her husband, Jeff, also began discussing issues of injustice, discrimination, white privilege and power with their children. They recently saw the movie Hidden Figures as a family and noticed together how some white leaders used their power as allies in the fight against racial and gender inequality, while others were comfortable maintaining the status quo in their favor. They have been praying together both for those in power and those who are marginalized and oppressed

“Even though the needs still seem so massive and overwhelming, I feel like I am taking important small steps to go beyond awareness and take action within my realm of influence,” she said.

Brubacher Kaethler noted that he appreciates the faculty’s ongoing conversations about ICUR.

“We’re all learning together and growing together,” he said. “Ultimately, teachers want to facilitate students learning in their context. It can be hard work, but in the long-term, it is life-giving and reorienting.”

“I’m grateful for faculty members who are beginning to figure out what this means for their teaching strategies and their courses,” Alexis added. “How to systematize it is how the difference is sustained.”

Relational transformation

Relationally, the ICUR team organizes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events every other year, with an increasing emphasis on making these events accessible to and relevant for people in the wider community. The team also hosts Race and Media Discussion Circles for the AMBS community that provide healthy spaces for dialogue around intercultural and race-related issues.

Alexis and Brubacher Kaethler noted the importance of being grounded in one’s ICUR work and not losing focus; finding people to collaborate with; setting short- and long-term goals; and celebrating all progress, even small steps.

“Growth in ICUR is do-able,” Alexis added. “It’s not mysterious to the point that we can’t make tangible and concrete changes to move forward.”

Learn more about AMBS’s ICUR team.

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