After Ferguson: Seeking Justice as the Semester Starts

Editor’s Note: As we begin a new semester, ESN seeks to support Christian scholars seeking to act justly as teachers and researchers. Later in January, we plan to post a longer reflection by a friend of ESN who is giving deep thought to these issues. As the semester starts, ESN writer Katelin Hansen makes some reading and teaching suggestions. 

As we continue to process last year’s heartbreaking news stories, Christians on academic campuses can play an important role in the ongoing process of lament and reform taking place. From Michael Brown in Missouri, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Renisha McBride in Michigan, and Oscar Grant in California, to Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in Florida, Reekia Boyd in Illinois, John Crawford and Tamir Rice in Ohio, and Eric Garner in New York. No matter where you are across the country, chances are there have been incidents such as these that have touched your campus community. The following are some things to keep in mind as we live into our vocation as Christians in academia.

Being in an academic setting brings tremendous opportunity to learn from colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds. We have unparalleled access to scholars from many fields, as well as students from all across the country. In the coming semester, take the opportunity to learn from coworkers in history and cultural studies departments. Listen to the stories of students in your classes. We have a responsibility to engage in dialogue and to listen to those willing to teach out of their lived experiences.

We must also avoid the temptation to examine our communities’ racial disparities from a sterile or abstract perspective. As we live into God’s Kingdom on earth, we must lean into the tensions of a broken world, allowing ourselves to experience to weight of the emotions and the messiness of the journey.

Many of the teach-ins and rallies taking place across the country are being organized and led by the scholars on our very own campuses. Students are leading these movements often at great sacrifice to themselves and their careers, spending long hours organizing, protesting, and teaching. Show up to campus events when they occur, especially those organized by the students. Take time to listen to what the participants have to say.

Remember that many students, staff, and professors alike may be grieving. They may be hurting, anxious, or feeling isolated. Know that they may wear a mask over their hearts to hide the pain and to get through the day. Allow space for those around you to process and to heal. This may mean offering grace through assignment extensions or makeup exams.

Over winter break, students may have gone home a much-needed refuge of community and mutual-understanding, and may be anxious about reencountering feelings of isolation and hostility on campus. Or conversely, students may return from visits with family that were not as restful, instead meeting with conflict and disagreement with relatives and old friends.

As the new semester begins, be sensitive to the specific needs of your community and academic setting. Find out what events are planned around your campus. Participate when invited, and give space as appropriate.

In anticipation of students’ return to campus, here are a few articles to read to begin wresting with the issues weighing heavily on our minds in these last several weeks:

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Katelin Hansen

Katelin Hansen (@BTSFblog) is pursuing a doctorate degree in neuroscience at Ohio State University (OSU). At OSU she is active in InterVarsity’s Christian Graduate Student Alliance and the Emerging Scholars Network. In addition, Katelin edits By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online ministry facilitating justice and understanding across racial divides for the sake of the Gospel. BTSF explores how Christianity’s often-bungled relationship with race and racism affects modern ministry and justice. Recognizing that racial brokenness hinders our witness to the world, BTSF strives to increase the visibly of healthy and holy racial discussion by approaching justice and reconciliation from a Christ-minded perspective. Katelin also serves as the Minister of Music at UM Church For All People, a multi-class, multi-racial church in an underprivileged neighborhood of Columbus, OH. To learn more about her academic journey read A Full Education (The Well). You can find her on Twitter at @BTSFblog

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  • Donald F. Calbreath, Ph.D commented on January 12, 2015 Reply

    With all the sympathy for Ferguson and elsewhere, let’s use our educated critical thinking skills to ask a few questions. We’re shown pictures of Trayvon Martin as a child when in fact he was a large male (over six feet tall) on the night he assaulted someone. The Ferguson grand jury (including several African-American members) reported that Michael Brown was in the act of assaulting the police officer when he was shot and that he was not shot in the back as the demonstrators so vociferously (and erroneously) claimed. Many of the demonstrations have loudly advocated the killing of all police. Yes, there are racial disparities, but why do we overlook the facts in these cases? Why is it OK for crowds to call for deaths of police? The audience you are supposedly writing to is supposed to be smart enough to discern truth from fiction and use our skills to sort out what is going on. Instead, many times we get caught up in the crowd and the actions serve only to further polarize communities. As a retired Ph.D (biochemistry) and emeritus faculty member, I almost think sometimes that we have failed this generation because they cannot see beyond the noise. Please prove me wrong.

      ByTheirStrangeFruit (@BTSFblog) commented on January 12, 2015 Reply

      Sir, Trayvon Martin was not over 6-feet tall. This is known and reported in Martin’s official autopsy. What crowds have you heard advocating for killing all police? This is not at all the message of the many marches I have attended and seen covered in the news.

      Please to do not perpetuate the violent stereotyping. This is a poor position from which to be calling for facts. Please consider how very hurtful and counterproductive your posture and statements are in facilitating these conversations.

      • Donald F. Calbreath, Ph.D commented on January 12, 2015 Reply

        Take a look at recent protests led by the “Rev” Al Sharpton. who has a long history of stirring up racial animosity. The New York mayor is also being blamed by many for his comments. The ‘kill the police” chants made national news. Sorry about Trayvon’s height – he was only 5’11’ (he was still four inches taller than George Zimmeman). I am not trying to perpetuate violent stereotypes. I just see the videos of the massive property destruction in Fergsuon and I saw it elsewhere years ago.

          ByTheirStrangeFruit (@BTSFblog) commented on January 13, 2015 Reply

          Again, your words here are terribly unhelpful. For example, there were indeed prominent news casts such as you have described that have been widely circulated as the result of deceptive video editing that since been retracted or apologized for ( and

          Try to understand how painful situations like these must be for young organizers who are frightened, but working hard to let their stories be heard. As this ESN article suggests, take some time to engage in in-person dialogue with those are experiencing these issue first hand. Have some conversations with those organizing at your university and listen to their stories.

          • Donalad F. Calbreath, Ph.D commented on January 13, 2015

            Let me offer some background. I lived in the south for many years in the late 40s and then again in the 60s and 70s. I am very aware of the injustices and discrimination. I have one friend who is a black pastor and has told me about his life growing up (not a pretty picture). Do not imply that I don’t know what’s going on – I have probably seen a lot more than you have. I was in graduate school in the 1960s during the Vietnam war protests and saw how many demonstrators manipulated the situation to present a slanted picture of things. I remember some Black Power protesters when I was at Duke in the late 1960s. Their demands were vague and very unclear. Their main accomplishment was to create a small riot in downtown Durham and smash storefront windows. I also remember Martin Luther King, Jr and the march on Selma – a dignified, definitely non-violent movement that brought national attention to a very serious problem and led to significant change in this country. In 1969 I was involved in tutoring black kids form a very impoverished neighborhood. My wife and I had them over to our apartment for tutoring, leading my landlord to drop not-so-subtle hints that he and the neighbors did not want to see this going on (eviction, maybe?). No, we didn’t stop the tutoring. My point – don’t lecture me about what I supposedly an not aware of.

            I am all in favor of stories being heard, but I don’t think all the stories are being told and much of what is being told is selective. Back to Michael Brown. The autopsy data shows he was approaching the officer – witnesses felt he represented a threat. He was not shot in the back, but was shot while attacking a policeman. I also do not think that rioting, looting, and burning down businesses generates a lot of sympathy.

            Please deal with all the issues and deal with them honestly. That’s all I ask.

    ByTheirStrangeFruit (@BTSFblog) commented on January 13, 2015 Reply

    This is a reply as part of the thread above. There may be a limit on the number of sublevels to the thread. Anyway…

    That’s a really wonderful history that leaves you well poised for new conversations today! Excellent! Having many ongoing relationships like these is so important and will help in engaging in the new dialogues you initiate with students and neighbors today. Nothing in the above article advocates for ignoring the many issues at play. The opposite in fact, if you reread it. That is the good that comes from investing in the ongoing work of abiding relationship, both on and off campus.

    You might also enjoy this posts from Christena Cleveland (she’ll be one of the keynotes at the upcoming IVCF Urbana conference):

    J. Nathan Matias commented on January 13, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for this wonderful reflection, Katelyn, especially your note that “many students, staff, and professors alike may be grieving. They may be hurting, anxious, or feeling isolated… they may wear a mask over their hearts to hide the pain and to get through the day.”

    In conversations in our lab about Ferguson, and in efforts by students across America to convince administration to give them breathing room with final exams, this was one of the central issues.

    It’s so easy to get sucked into details from the media discourse on a single case in ways that fail to show respect and compassion. I made this mistake myself this past December, in an email thread at my lab that was discussing responses to Ferguson. When someone brought up the idea of body cameras for police, I replied with a lit review of experiments on transparency, questioning claims that surveillance will necessarily make things better. I wanted to make sure that any projects by colleagues would be self-critical about the risk they brought to marginalized peoples, and I thought I was being a good ally.

    A bystander in the thread came to me personally and said that my lit review made them feel like this thing they were experiencing had been turned into just another research project, just another thing to debate. I apologized — although I thought I was taking a concrete act of allyship in the ways I am best positioned to contribute, I had failed to acknowledge the hurt and grief that people were feeling, and I needed to stop, listen, and apologize.

    Thank you for calling us to that kind of empathy.

      ByTheirStrangeFruit (@BTSFblog) commented on January 14, 2015 Reply

      Thanks, sir!

      Thanks for telling your story. So many rich aspects about it! I appreciate your willingness to share it. And your points were probably good ones. That’s the thing about these conversations—it’s rarely clear cut to determine what our right response should be. I’m know I’ve done similar things many times before!

      Thanks too for that link. I hadn’t seen the NPR story.

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