That I May See: Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs Kenneth Russell on JusticeBy Dave Emerson on November 19, 2018
For many, the word "justice" fits within very specific confines: often tied to a court of law or an explicit people group.
We think of justice as arbitration—"these people are guilty." Or, "this child is innocent."
We don't think of justice as a vital aspect of our core identity.
What's more, we often actively resist the notion that injustice exists as an inherent bias within our being.
However, Kenneth Russell, CU's director of diversity and multicultural affairs, seeks to be clear: we all have implicit bias, and these biases are realities that we are also facing.
At Cornerstone University, Kenn is invested in the work of providing sight:
"For me, justice has a lot to do with rightly orienting society: focusing on relationships and structures in society at large."
Kenn explains that few address the uncomfortable sides of history and its impact on today. Oftentimes, students arrive at college unaware of how social systems and disenfranchising systems have benefited some and not others. As topics of diversity and multiculturalism arise, students can start to get uncomfortable or defensive, especially as they unlearn or relearn.
Still, this process of raising awareness is not aimed at shame, judgment or retribution. Rather, as Kenn says, "It's about cultivating a posture of loving, learning and living together."
Living beyond bias starts with love—fully seeing the image of God in real people with real experiences that may be different. Love requires a posture to lean into hard conversations and stay in them. We all can agree that people experience love in different ways. "But what does that mean in a racialized context laden with historical baggage?" muses Kenn. "And how do we learn about it?"
Looking at larger national and historical trends, Kenn recognizes a clear pattern: if we don't talk about diversity, inclusion and our full history in these areas, we have a very hard time loving. We must first own the hard realities, even when they feel racially charged.
"It is often an uncomfortable moment for some people to sit down and explore the theological and historical inconsistencies of the church. There is a unique role I play in highlighting the tension and conflict embedded in our Christian past."
Kenn is no stranger to his own stories of engaging Christians with unconscious bias. In fact, during his tenure at seminary, Kenn found himself in an environment where the conversation of race was not very well cultivated. Recalling that season, Kenn recognizes:
"These experiences really hurt, but then they also cultivated a deeper desire in me to understand a theology of race. I came to deeply own the gospel as a call to the ministry of reconciliation: from humanity to humanity. I also started pondering, 'How does orthodox Christianity begin to inform our ortho-praxis of reconciliation?'"
And this is the work in which Kenn now engages. From the formational emphasis on justice in the CU Virtue Project and Terra Firma to ongoing community conversations like Dinner with a Side of Justice, Kenn seeks to cultivate love, stimulate learning and then create contexts where students can live out justice on CU's campus and beyond it.
In this work, Kenn is quick to acknowledge he is not alone. In fact, part of what keeps Kenn encouraged in this work at Cornerstone is a commitment that the virtue of justice not remain theoretical or academic but instead become experiential. Not only are CU professors across departments intentionally working diversity into their curriculum, but various departments like Student Development, Admissions and Campus Ministries have all identified diversity as a core value for their work. CU understands that the work of reconciliation is something we all engage together, and the university is committed to embracing that call wholeheartedly.
On the matter of racial reconciliation, there still is much to be done; however, Kenn has eyes to see the endgame and a heart passionately called to the work:
"Being a community of the beloved, it starts with difference and love. We are reconciled to God and to one another, and we must remind ourselves that in God there is both unity and diversity; God is a community of love."