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Hot topics: Five spring semester discussion groups focus on faith, race, and gender



EMU’s campus community entered into a wave of critical discussions about faith, race, and gender this semester. Three book clubs emerged independently, while yet another reading group and a film series came from projects in a graduate counseling course focusing on multiculturalism.

Faculty, staff, and student participants have wrestled with questions about how race, racism, faith, gender, and sexism influence power, theological formation, campus life, and beyond. 

These book studies are making visible normative structures in our community that limit our capacity to experience one another in all of our complexities. That is good work. We cannot correct that which we cannot, or refuse, to see. I think we are awakening to realities of the ways anti-blackness functions on our campus. 

Professor David Evans

Deep reading, deep listening

Eastern Mennonite Seminary supported 10 faculty and staff with copies of After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Willie James Jennings. Seminary instructor Sarah Bixler and Professor David Evans facilitated.

As part of the 2021 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, Evans and co-facilitator Ezrionna Prioleau ’17 led more than 20 faculty members and students in studying How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.

Supported by the Center for Interfaith Engagement, a group of faculty and staff read three books on the themes of race, faith, and justice, contributing towards an action plan to develop and deepen commitment to and competency in interfaith engagement and racial justice. (Read more specifics below.) Facilitators were Tala Bautista, adjunct faculty for Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, and Mikayla Waters-Crittenton, associate director for student accountability and restorative justice.

Two groups of graduate students in Professor Jennifer Cline’s two-semester multicultural counseling course series created and co-facilitated community advocacy projects within the EMU community: 

  • Sarah Morehouse, Mary Rebekah Cox and Richard Grosse led 10 undergraduate and graduate students and staff members in studying Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit.
  • A larger group of 11 graduate students facilitated a semester-long series “Somethin’ to Talk About: A Film and Discussion Series Around Race.” The three-part series included viewings of films “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” (California Newsreel); “The Color of Fear” by director Lee Mun Wah; and a pre-recorded open discussion on race and its personal impact between four of EMU’s graduate counseling students: two women of color and two white women. The events were open to the campus community.

‘A deep interest and hunger’

“There is a deep interest and hunger among students, staff, and faculty to engage in a process of reckoning and reform related to racial, sexual, and gender equality, as well as other identities,” said Morehouse, a student in the master’s in counseling program.

Men Explain Things to Me focuses “on how power is wielded in society and the resulting inequalities, and … the relationship between gendered language, the silencing of women and those with non-binary identities, disbelief in their experiences, and gender-based violence,” Morehouse said.

She and co-hosts Cox and Grosse were “impressed and heartened by the way that members engaged with the material and each other in a sensitive and impassioned way, recognizing the need for change at the individual, institutional, and cultural levels.”

Graduate student Helen Momoh went into the book club with measured expectations. However, “words cannot express the profound experience during the times we met,” Momoh said. “It was empowering, refreshing, and healing for me to be able to share within this space. I guess the space was such that it gave me comfort. Everyone was ready to listen, even when some of us just met for the first time.”

The interfaith group read Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, by angel Kyodo Rev. Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah; Forever Suspect: Racialized Surveillance of Muslim Americans in the War on Terror, by Saher Selod, and Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, by Felipe Hinojosa. 

In addition to personal engagement with Selod, a colloquium speaker this semester, the group also learned from guest speaker Dr. Cathy Campbell, associate professor in the nursing department and chair of acute and speciality care at University of Virginia. Campbel is an ordained Buddhist chaplain, according to group participant Trina Trotter Nussbaum, associate director at CIE. “Dr. Campbell spoke with us from these vantage points while we were reading the Radical Dharma book and it was a huge privilege,” she said. (On a side note, Hinojosa visited campus in 2018).

More than 20 faculty members and students have been meeting over Zoom to discuss How to Be an Antiracist. The group is a long-term project linked to EMU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. The size of the group can be challenging for Evans and co-facilitator Prioleau.

“That said, I experience the group as open to new ideas and interested in growth,” Evans said. “We’ve wrestled with the strength of Kendi’s argument that one cannot take a neutral stance on racism, you are either acting in racist or antiracist ways. We’ve also wrestled with some concerns we have over Kendi’s analysis of power that seems to equate anti-blackness with anti-whiteness. These are crucial conversations for our learning community.”

After Whiteness has also sparked critical questions for the 10 faculty and staff studying it. Jennings explores how theological formation, when rooted in values of white, self-sufficient masculinity, shapes people for possession, control, and mastery; rather than connection with God, self, and others.

“We are digging deep to analyze how we educate theologically, interact as a community, and operate as an institution,” said Bixler, a co-facilitator. “We are imagining new ways of being and doing that move us toward holistic and life-giving formation that subverts the distorted formation Jennings describes.”

Evans acknowledged that book studies alone cannot heal communities, or ensure everyone feels seen and heard within them. But perhaps they can plant a seed. 

“These book studies are making visible normative structures in our community that limit our capacity to experience one another in all of our complexities. That is good work,” he said. “We cannot correct that which we cannot, or refuse, to see. I think we are awakening to realities of the ways anti-blackness functions on our campus. We are also growing in our awareness of the ways we are seduced into valuing whiteness in our assessments of students and our presentation of ourselves.”

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Student-scientists receive 2021 summer research grants




Seven EMU students heading to careers in science and medicine have earned funding for summer research, provided by the Kauffman-Miller Research Awards and the CT Assist Summer Experiential Learning Program.

“We are pleased that we can work with such a large group of students this summer, since these opportunities were so limited last summer.” said Stephen Cessna, a biochemistry professor who holds the Daniel B. Suter Endowed Chair. 

* Erin Clayton and Graciella Odelia  will work with Professor Jeff Copeland to measure gene activity in a Parkinson’s disease model in the fruitfly. 

* Hannah Giagnocavo and Cheyenne Suamatae’a-Te’o will work with Professor Kristopher Schmidt, solving the many puzzles of roundworm development.

Students working on a summer research project pose for a photo in 2017. From left: Amanda Williams, Bekah Mongold, Hannah Daley. (EMU file photo)

* Theo Yoder and Nicole Miller will travel to Hawaii with Professor Matt Siderhurst to develop and assess new methods of tropical agricultural pest control.

* Rebekah Amstutz will work with Professor Jim Yoder on an investigation of the possibility of institutional nitrogen tracking.

The Kauffman-Miller Research Awards are named for emeritus professors Glenn Kauffman (chemistry) and Roman Miller (biology), each of whom were “champions of undergraduate involvement in authentic scientific research at EMU,” said Cessna. “These awards from the Daniel B. Suter Endowment Fund provide opportunities for biology, chemistry and environmental science students to build the key skills of scientific inquiry from writing the proposal to presenting and potentially publishing their findings.”

Over their 30-plus year tenures, Kauffman and Miller each worked with more than 40 undergraduates on research projects ranging in topics from organic blueberry production to the synthesis of new cyclic organic compounds.

Xavier McCants gives a child medication in Peru. His 2018 travels were funded by the CT Assist Health Experiential Learning Program.

The CT Assist Health Experiential Learning Program awards funds to pre-professional health science students at EMU to support clinical experiences that help prepare students for professional health programs. CT Assist is a Harrisonburg-based healthcare staffing business owned by two alumni. 

Traditionally, funds from CT Assist’s program have supported overseas clinical experiences [read about 2018 and 2019]. As that priority is limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s award supplements the research project and clinical shadowing experiences of awardee Erin Clayton.

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Vaccines in the Valley: EMU’s nursing students volunteer at clinics serving community and fellow students




 As Virginia’s vaccine rollout spreads into the Shenandoah Valley, Eastern Mennonite University students are participating at both ends of the needle: both giving and getting the shot.

And in some cases, they’ve giving the shot to fellow students and EMU employees. According to an informal count kept by EMU Health Services, 110 students and 135 employees have received the full course of vaccines as of April 14. These numbers are based on copies of vaccination cards provided to Health Services (through [email protected]).

Micah Shristi, director of international student services at EMU, gets a vaccination from EMU student Natalie Stoltzfus at a clinic in the Convocation Center at James Madison University. (Photo by Kate Clark)

Senior nursing students in Professor Kate Clark’s community health course and associated clinical rotation this semester have been giving vaccines and aiding with processing at clinics up and down the Shenandoah Valley: in Lexington, at Augusta Health in Fishersville, the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, and Sentara RMH, the city jail and city community center in Harrisonburg. A recent afternoon saw a small group among the volunteer nurses, physicians, and other health professionals staffing a clinic in the convocation center at James Madison University.

While other rotations like shadowing in the emergency department and the ICU unit may be more exciting, Natalie Stoltzfus has enjoyed the hands-on work and the chance to contribute in an historic public health effort. 

“These have been my favorite clinicals,” says Stoltzfus, who will work at Penn State Hospital Hershey after graduation. “Once you get the routine down, it’s pretty simple. Six hours goes by fast.”

According to Clark, EMU’s smaller program and long relationship with the local district of the Virginia Department of Health has contributed to unique opportunities to work small and large clinics and to interact with many different populations, including healthcare professionals, incarcerated individuals and senior citizens. [Read about spring 2020 clinical experiences and how the Class of 2020 nursing graduates finished their semester.]

Nursing student Katy Wessel confers with Professor Kate Clark before beginning her shift administering vaccines at a Virginia Department of Health clinic. (Photo by Rachel Holderman)

Nursing students provide Q & A at campus info sessions

The knowledge students have gained as vaccinators and in the public health context has also benefited their fellow students and campus community. In mid-March, EMU Director of Health Services Irene Kniss contacted the nursing department about hosting a Q & A session.

“We knew students had lots of questions and a need for information related to the vaccines,” Kniss said. “We encourage everyone to educate themselves and our nursing students and professors could be an important and trusted resource in that process.”

On Wednesday, April 7, students in the community health nursing class, with Clark and nursing instructor Lisa Burkholder, hosted a virtual information session about COVID vaccines. Questions from the attendees ranged from possible health impacts of the vaccines, the testing process and efficacy of each type of vaccine, and the biotechnology that has been developed.

In recent weeks, Kniss, along with other area health officials, has been in near-daily communication with VDH representatives for updates about the status of vaccines arriving in the Valley. An application to host an on-campus clinic had been made in January.

EMU students now eligible for the vaccine

On April 9, students were emailed about opportunities to sign up at several local clinics hosted by the Virginia Department of Health within the Central Shenandoah Health District. The campus’s COVID Response Team has provided transportation if needed.

“Getting the covid vaccine is an act of care for the entire community,” Kniss said, adding that the more fully vaccinated the population is, the more vulnerable populations will be protected and  “the sooner we can move towards sharing spaces and seeing faces again.” 

Students (and faculty and staff as well) sharing a copy of their vaccination card will no longer need to fill out the daily symptom tracker, one of several measures instituted this year to help track individual and community health.

While some universities are requiring proof of vaccination in the fall, EMU officials are still collecting information and exploring options. 

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EMU After the Verdict: Where We Go From Here




On Tuesday evening, just a short time after the verdict was announced, I sent a message  to our campus community. I named the value of a cathartic, collective exhale on the swift verdict, and our shared witness around a faith-informed justice on the occasion of this historic moment. Indeed, the trial was a long-awaited step towards repair in our country’s long and awful legacy of racialized violence. 

I also expressed support of deep listening and bold collaborative action: We especially surround our BIPOC students, faculty and staff tonight with care and compassion. We commit ourselves to continuing to hear their voices, to stand with them, and to do the hard and necessary work to extend the movement to expand racial justice and equity in our nation, our community, and on our own campus. We will work together to make our community of learners more and more fair and equitable inside and outside the classroom. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has taught me many things. Saying the names of our black citizens senselessly killed or injured at a shockingly disproportionate rate at the hands of law enforcement is a powerful reminder of my own white privilege. And so again I say his name: George Perry Floyd Junior, to remind myself this is not an ending at all.

As educators, we still have much work to do. Here is a brief summary of some tangible steps our university has taken recently on issues of racial and social justice, with special attention to diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels of our community of learning:

  • Diversity objectives are featured in the President’s Annual Report and EMU’s 2020-25 Strategic Plan.
  • A new fund to support DEI training and related initiatives benefited from nearly $93,763 in current and pledged donor support this spring.
  •  EMU’s Board of Trustees is led by Manuel A. Nuñez, professor and faculty director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Villanova Business School. The board remains deeply committed in specific ways to diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes in learning objectives, campus climate, and representation.  
  • More than 10 newly established endowed scholarships and direct grants to increase access and opportunities for BIPOC undergraduate and graduate students have been cultivated just this year.
  • We continue supporting, building relationships, listening to and learning from leaders of our student organizations, including Black Student Alliance, Latino Student Alliance, International Student Organization, SafeSpace, and the newly established Asian Pacific Islander Student Association.

And finally, we are delighted with an important addition to our team: Dr. Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán. She started as our executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion just a few weeks ago, and has already made connections with our Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, and among our student groups and their leaders. We look forward to her leadership as we make our actions toward racial and social justice more concrete. 

Below, Dr. Font-Guzmán shares a short reflection on the verdict. Continue on to read reflections from our student leaders, and leaders of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. 

No one person can enact the kind of dramatic change our schools, communities, and country needs. We must listen together and lead together. Each member of our university has a contribution to make. We welcome your support and your prayers on the journey ahead.

From Dr. Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán, executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion

The murder conviction in the case of Mr. George Perry Floyd Jr. has been unprecedented in many ways. It is a rare event in the history of the United States that a White policeman is found guilty of murdering a Black man. 

At the personal level, I have mixed feelings about the verdict. Although I felt encouraged by it because it held the perpetrator accountable, justice did not triumph. True justice requires giving each person their due. Mr. Floyd should be alive today. 

And yet, I do not despair. I am hopeful that this verdict can move us to take the needed crucial steps towards transforming – and when necessary – dismantling the systems that allow for this violence to continue. There is no better act of subversion than building relationships and communities. This verdict was possible thanks to all the organizers, peaceful protesters, students, and people willing to – as John Lewis said– “Get in trouble, good trouble.”

Here at EMU, we are committed to peace, social justice, and community. We will continue to work together with love and compassion to create an environment where everyone can be their true selves, belong, and be safe. 

A joint statement from two leaders of the Student Government and Black Student Alliance

Ma’Khia could have been any of us. In the span of two hours, our collective conversation had shifted from a tense relief that Derek Chauvin had been found guilty in the murder of George Floyd, to the overwhelming grief and anger that we know so intimately. 

After George Floyd’s murder this summer, the Student Government Association sent an email affirming protests and demonstrations being carried out in the name of justice. We also named that many of our clubs that serve as affinity groups for marginalized voices unfairly bear the burden of providing programming aimed at educating our broader campus community. Weeks later, the Black Student Alliance presented a list of demands, calling our campus community to live more fully into our self-proclaimed values of justice and peace. 

Now, after the verdict has been read, we as student leaders continue to commit ourselves to standing alongside those who fiercely speak truth to power, uprooting systems which cause harm, including those within our university. We will rage until LGBTQ+ communities feel safe, until ICE is abolished and the prison industrial complex is destroyed, until families are no longer torn apart on the border, and the ongoing Indigenous genocide is stopped.

We know that there is much work to be done. We envision a community that rejects notions of scarcity,  where justice is abundant and freedom is genuine. This is a vision that EMU says it shares, and so we call EMU to answer, to act: 

To create and hold spaces for BIPOC students, faculty and staff. To offer tangible support through meals and offer extensions on deadlines. To compensate the unpaid labor of those who have consistently borne the brunt of liberation work within EMU. To show up for your students in the classroom, at our events, in this nation and this world. Show up for your marginalized  students in the ways we’ve been asking of you. This is how we live into our mission. 

Anisa Leonard, co-president of Student Government Association; Maya Dula, secretary and past co-president of Black Student Alliance

Eastern Mennonite Seminary

In the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, we believe that the mutual flourishing of relationships is essential for faith. We belong to one another as members of the human family. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). When one person, family and community suffers injustice, the harm impacts us all. 

A verdict from our national justice system may provide some clarity, but that alone cannot restore human dignity and wholeness. We commit fully and collectively to this restorative work: to practicing justice in compassionate relationships as a learning community and in the communities in which we participate throughout the world.

Learning how, within our own faith communities and our university community, we can truly resist the systemic racism made so visible in this moment impels us to deeper prayer and richer action. We thank God for leaders in many communities of color in the United States, and some of our own community members, who have long modeled the discipleship of work for justice.

Dr. Sue Cockley, dean; Dr. Nancy Heisey, associate dean; Rev. Dr. Sarah Bixler, incoming associate dean.

The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding

The United States was built on a mixed message – all men are created equal and only white men who own property count as full citizens. The territory of the United States was created through displacement, genocide, and war against indigenous peoples and a neighboring country, Mexico. Wealth was amassed by white men who exploited enslaved peoples from Africa and violently suppressed attempts to organize for labor rights. As a country, we have struggled with these tensions since our founding. Our history cannot be ignored in our move toward a different future.

Rooting out and transforming the original sin built into the United States is a long, hard, slow process and once again we are being challenged. Do we settle for order masquerading as peace or do we demand justice that supports authentic peace, healing, and equity? As the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, we have answered that question. Now, we must actualize it in our current context. As a predominantly white institution, this work is deeply personal for each of us and for CJP and EMU as organizations. Thankfully, the jury in Minnesota has held Derek Chauvin accountable for his actions. Let us continue our work to grow justice with humility and integrity. That means listening to and following leaders who have experienced the violence and injustices of our current systems.  

Dr. Jayne Docherty, executive director

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