By Jessica Berry | Photography by Jeff Montgomery
If I had to pick the least favorite year of my life, I would probably pick 2020. If I had to pick the best year — so far — of my life, in the same breath, I would still pick 2020. This year has helped me grow in so many areas. I also have seen other things grow during this year including my employer: Harding University. The current world pandemic brought into focus several ongoing challenges in our country and University, specifically the epidemic of racism and racial division in the U.S.
When I came to Harding as a freshman in 2002, I always had in the back of my mind, “How can I increase diversity at this wonderful, Christian, yet predominantly white institution?” I really did not have a plan. I just knew something needed to be done and fast. I came across some friends who wanted to help. I had the desire back then, but not the influence or resources needed to make significant change. No one person is to blame. At that time, the urgency for diversity in higher education was not on the radar for most individuals or institutions.
Fast forward to January 2019 when I accepted an offer to be an admissions counselor for Harding. I automatically assumed nothing had changed since my time as a student, and I was beginning to set my mind on how I could really be effective in starting conversations in topics related to race. Unbeknownst to me, things had been changing, and it was time for me to step up and use my voice. Part of my job responsibilities included recruiting students in churches with underserved or “minority” populations. I noticed there was now more diversity on campus especially more Black students, an office for diversity services, and a director of church outreach focused on working with underserved churches. These new positions and efforts signaled a shift in my alma mater that I felt confident would take us to the next level of racial inclusivity.
I always have ideas floating in my head about ways something I care about can be better. The very first day of work, the list of ideas began forming in my head as I learned the campus culture, and I began identifying places I thought I could make a difference — more diversity in chapel leadership and content, more participation in student activities by underserved students, and representation in faculty, staff and senior leadership. Knowing these are three areas where my people look the most when they are learning about Harding and its offerings, I wanted to start here. I anticipated this process of change would be very slow and gradual. I had no idea the time to step up and execute would be right around the corner.
In May of 2020 the brutal killing of George Floyd shook the world. His death brought into clear focus that organizations across America needed to respond to this tragedy. Harding was no exception. This was a pivotal time for us to take action, and I was ready to do my part. Our students were hurting, and I was able to swiftly help organize and facilitate a forum for African American students to express their hurt through a Zoom virtual meeting with President Bruce McLarty and other University leaders. As a member of our Diversity Consortium, I was able to help with the planning and implementing of suggestions made by our students. This momentum encouraged several offices on campus to start implementing other ideas around diversity.
In the month of June, the University took several actions. Among the first was the announcement by Dr. McLarty of the formation of a task force for Recognizing African American Achievement at Harding University. This was in response to a Change.org petition to change the name of the George S. Benson Auditorium to be named for fellow alumnus and a dear friend of mine, Botham Jean. Botham was murdered in his Dallas apartment by an off-duty police officer in 2018. The petition cited as the reason for the change Dr. Benson’s views on racial segregation and his initial resistance to integration of the University until 1963.
McLarty responded to the petition in a statement indicating the name would not change. At the same time, he acknowledged Benson’s flaws and the fact that even though Black students had been a vital part of the University since 1963, there had not yet been any recognition of their important contributions at Harding. Dr. Greg Harris, women’s head soccer coach, became the chairperson of the task force, and the first meeting was held in August. I was honored to be asked to be part of this work, and I strongly agree with Dr. Harris’ view that the task force and its purpose are exactly what Harding needs. “Our task force’s views and opinions on the direction Harding needs to go in terms of racial reconciliation and recognition run very much in line with the students’, they want to see change. They want to see these people known, honored, loved and respected who have not been in the past.”
A powerful Juneteenth celebration brought much needed life and community to Harding’s campus at the height of the pandemic. This event spoke volumes to so many current students, faculty, staff and alumni that through conducting this significant and symbolic remembrance, the University is listening and changing for the better.
Prior to classes beginning in August, the faculty and staff presession conference, an annual coming together to prepare for the beginning of a new school year, included dialogue around race with minority faculty members speaking from their perspectives in video segments called, “Why I Teach at Harding.” This along with an outline of events coming in the fall semester designed to help continue the conversation around race further solidified that we were on the right track. In the month of September the College of Bible and Ministry developed and conducted a two-day seminar course for one-hour credit called “Conversations in Cultural Competency,” a series of presentations and discussions about the ways races and cultures have been affected through events of the past 250 years in our country that have shaped our current circumstances.
Our student leaders did not waste any time either, immediately planning ways to engage their peers across campus in the conversation. Student Association President Morgan Proffitt and Black Student Association President Raissa Ames developed and facilitated a panel discussion, “Let’s Revisit: A Conversation About Race” on Sept. 18. The title was a nod to a previous panel discussion hosted by the American Studies Institute Distinguished Lecture Series in 2016. The 2016 panel consisted of the first two African American undergraduates of Harding, Elijah Anthony and Howard Wright, who is on the board of trustees; former attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Gray; along with former Oklahoma State Senator Anastasia Pittman. Panelists expressed the need for change in our country on this same topic.
Ames knew her friends and colleagues were hurting, and this panel discussion was a step toward healing. “We see this huge outcry on social media, but how can we move this from social media to campus?” Proffitt agreed, “Our two big goals for the panel were to empower students, to know that they did have a voice and to encourage the Harding community in general that this is a conversation that is being had and will continue to be had.”
Anthony, a panelist for both the 2016 and 2020 events, emphasized the importance and critical timing of the conversation that night, “I think we have a perfect storm right now in the country that places institutions like Harding right in the middle of some great challenges. I think it’s the schools who really want to do what’s right that are providing this kind of forum because if we don’t talk about — if we don’t discuss this — then we’ll never get beyond it.
Dr. Ann Brown, panelist and associate professor of English, agreed, “As we engage with one another, in meaningful, personal, real-life experience, then we begin to see each other more as humans and Christians — neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek — that we talk about in the Scripture and that we read about in the Scripture.”
Some of the other actions around diversity and inclusion on campus this semester included A Night of Praise, Remembrance and Unity honoring Botham Jean on the second anniversary of his death Sept. 6 and athletes and coaches gathering in Rhodes-Reaves Field House Sept. 16 for a conversation with 1970s Black athletes Butch Gardner and Stan Eckwood, moderated by the voice of the Bisons, Billy Morgan.
A new mural in Hammon Student Center titled “Lift Every Voice & Sing” highlights favorite hymns of Black students and alumni. A campus art exhibit was developed around a work commissioned by Harding School of Theology. It features seven African Americans who made significant contributions in the churches of Christ. Named for the art piece, the exhibit titled, “Every Voice: A Portrait of African American Churches of Christ in the Art,” included the work on display inside the Brackett Library. An outside portion devised to allow proper distancing for visitors was made up of seven 7 1/2-foot-tall panels, which include the image and biography of each featured individual so that new generations can begin to know these important figures in the church. In October Daniel Adams, professor of art and director of Harding University in Greece, presented an exhibit titled “Dinner Guests: A Gathering,” a series he has been working on for four years after noticing food mascots were usually people of minority status and stereotypically worked in service and domestic industries.
Under Dr. McLarty’s leadership, actions like those mentioned above and especially the efforts of 2020 have helped Harding make significant strides toward diversity. Harding has seen a 40% increase in minority student enrollment since 2015. Graduation rates for underrepresented students grew from 46% to 53% in the last five years. The growth in diversity in the student body is a huge part of keeping the conversation going.
I am definitely pleased and proud of the work accomplished on Harding University’s campus so far. As a community, we are only at the beginning and know we plan to accomplish much more moving forward. Everyone’s enthusiasm to create an inclusive environment on campus provides a sense of security and encourages me to keep thinking of new ideas. The best is yet to be.