Alaina Kleinbeck: Put your power to work to address systemic oppression

One of several murals of Pauli Murray created as part of a collaborative public art project in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Face Up Project, Duke University Center for Documentary Studies

Christian leaders have the responsibility to think institutionally about our power and the ways in which it reiterates the systemic injustices we observe in our world, writes the director of Duke Youth Academy.

Today, much of North American institutional life is experiencing a wake-up call to its participation in systemic oppression of marginalized and minoritized people. It is not only governmental institutions being called to the confession booth but every corner of our institutional life, including religion.

People in our churches, denominations and other Christian institutions yearn to end systemic oppression -- a work that is cultural, structural and personal. Many historically or predominantly white Christian institutions have a growing interest in developing greater diversity. This impulse has good intentions and even good theology, but research indicates that few diversity initiatives achieve their stated aims, with some initiatives even working against those goals.

When we talk about developing diversity in our institutions, we are actually talking about changing the ways power is distributed among people from different backgrounds and identity groups. Simply committing to respect each person and make a few new hires will not address the power problem within our institutional system.

This dual reality of the desire to make changes and the frustrating history of failed attempts leaves many of us feeling deeply inadequate to address the inequities at play in our institutions and in our world.

For Christian institutional leaders, the feelings of inadequacy are real, but they do not grant us permission to opt out of this important work. We believe that all individuals carry within them the breath of God. This breath, or Spirit, is powerful and demands expression in every living person. In this theologically grounded notion of personhood, it is clear that minoritized communities and people do not need to be given a voice; rather, their God-given voices need to be heard.

Anti-exclusionary (anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-sexist) institutional leadership begins with identifying one’s own power -- and its access to resources and knowledge -- and analyzing how it might be deployed to overcome injustice. Such leadership is mindful of the ways that institutional power and privilege dulls our ability to empathize with others.

Pauli Murray, a pioneer civil rights activist and feminist, tells a story of her time at Howard Law School in the early 1940s. For the majority of her time there, she was the only female student in her class. During her first year, an invitation was issued to “all male members of the first-year class” to attend a social gathering at a professor’s home for potential membership in a legal fraternity. The fraternity’s aim was to enhance the professional development of the students. When Murray challenged her exclusion -- “Well, if it is a legal fraternity, why am I not eligible?” -- she was dismissed with an invitation to “go and form a legal sorority.”

The professor did not grasp that, despite having encouraged Murray’s studies and even campaigned for her to receive a scholarship, he had excluded her from receiving the intangible and invaluable benefits of a fraternity membership: personal mentoring, professional networking and career support. His investment in Murray stopped at the formal bounds. Despite graduating at the top of her class, Murray was never successful at private legal practice. Instead, she went on to teach law before becoming the first African-American woman ordained in the Episcopal Church.

For those of us who hold institutional power, Murray’s experience as a female student in a male-dominated environment has instructional value. We must share our institutional power in formal and informal ways. We must invest in the success of mentees from marginalized or minoritized backgrounds in the same ways we might comfortably and naturally invest in mentees who are more like us.

Harvard Business Review’s analysis of research on workplace diversity programs indicates that mentoring programs are among the most effective initiatives in increasing female and nonwhite managers. These formal programs disrupt our typical social patterns of choosing to mentor those most like ourselves and challenge us to invest in the development of less-likely mentees.

Yet formal mentoring programs cannot be a silver-bullet fix. We must personally invest in individuals’ unique giftedness, their Spirit-led power, and create a space within our institutions for each to thrive. Unlike Murray’s professor, we must be willing to put our necks on the line for our minoritized colleagues and challenge institutional norms that exclude them.

As institutional leaders, we have the responsibility to think institutionally about our power and the ways in which it reiterates the systemic injustices we observe in our world. We have the opportunity to rethink the markers that qualify a person to be worthy of our investment. We can redefine success for our work so that there might be space for the less-likely candidates and the fruitful innovations they will bring.

Ending systemic and institutional oppression will be possible only when each of us understands our power -- both individual and corporate -- and puts it to work.