NBTS E-Story

Dr. Ashley Talks About Antiracism at NBTS

At New Brunswick Theological Seminary, people of color now compose the majority of both our faculty and students. The Rev. Dr. Willard Ashley, acting Dean of the Seminary, talks about the Seminary's antiracism efforts that made this transformation possible, and some of his own personal experiences.

Excerpts of this interview will be published in an upcoming issue of Positive Community. The entire interview is published here.

How did you come to NBTS? Striking up a conversation at a conference, I learned the Seminary needed someone to teach a class to lay leaders in its Certificate in Theological Studies program. This resonated with me. I had extended Care for the Caregivers, a post-9/11 program in New York City, to lay people who provided care, even though the original grant specified clergy only. While the leadership class didn't work out, instead I took the position of Director of Field Education-the program that places seminarians for a year in real-world positions.

That was 2008. Were other professors people of color? Yes, 4 of 9 full-time faculty members were people of color. Today, 5 of 9 are people of color.

Were antiracism efforts strong then? In my interview the NBTS faculty wanted to know: What is your commitment to antiracism training? For once it wasn't me bringing up the subject. My first week they sent me to Kansas for Level 2 of the Undoing Racism program from a group called Crossroads. That still amazes me. It was non-negotiable, even for a black professor.

You had already attended Level 1 antiracism training? I've attended Level 1 five times.

Do you find yourself bringing up race often? Just the other day, I was in Manhattan, at a gathering of people making financial decisions about aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. "You don't know how much I hate to bring this up," I found myself saying. "But look around this room and tell me: Who is not at this table?" Most decision makers in the room were white.

You sound reluctant. I'd like to move on but realize I can't. You keep expecting to see progress. But the numbers do not lie. I'm very research-based. A Pew study says for every $1 of wealth in a black person's pocket, a white person has $20. Another Brandeis study documents that African Americans are significantly behind in every measure-physical health, education levels, housing.

In the book Unequal Treatment, a study commissioned by the Black Congressional Caucus shows, even when all other factors are the same-health insurance, stage of the disease, income level-black patients receive unequal medical care. And a black physician with two such "equal" patients will treat the disease of the white patient more aggressively.

Even among doctors who are so educated? The numbers show, the idea of racial superiority is ingrained and internalized.

So how do you define racism? I like the definition used by the NBTS Anti Racism Transformation Team: "Racism is to be understood in the American context as the misuse of institutional power, intentional or not, to support white privilege."

Why focus on white privilege? There are other serious abuses of power. Take any of the "isms"-homophobism, male chauvinism, xenophobism, and apply race. Invariably people of color are in the worst position among victims.

Now you're in a position of power. Do other seminaries have academic deans who are black? Fewer than 10 of the 271 American Theological Seminaries. There are more African American presidents of seminaries than academic deans.

As a white person, how would I benefit from antiracism training? Racism hurts everyone. Once you acknowledge you hold a position of privilege in our society that you did nothing to earn, you open the door to share power. You can start participating in disclosing conversations and learn inside secrets.

What's an example of an inside secret? For instance I might reveal how humiliating it feels to be a 50+ year-old pastor who finds himself followed around an Apple Store by a plain-clothes detective. And, by the way, no one is pure white. To put on the mantle of white you have to disown some of the ethnic characteristics that make you you. Taking off the mantle can be very therapeutic.

How long have you been a pastor? I was called to my first church as the Senior Pastor in 1982 (New Hope Baptist Church, Portsmouth, NH). After New Hope I was called to serve, Monumental Baptist Church, Jersey City, New Jersey; Abundant Joy Community Church, Jersey City, New Jersey and Union Baptist Church, Montclair, New Jersey (Interim Pastor).

You're also a psychoanalyst specializing in pastoral care and disaster response. Do those experiences inform your antiracism efforts? I've spent a lot of time with people understanding the impact of severe trauma on their lives. When I was an executive coach after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it wasn't uncommon for a supervisor to say, Can't you just recommend a prescription so my employee can get back to work in lower Manhattan? It was a wake up call to acknowledge trauma in my clients and myself. There are many kinds of trauma. Some ravage in an instant. Others-living day-to-day in an environment of drive-by shootings and stray bullets-chip away in stress over a lifetime.

How is NBTS different? NBTS has an Anti Racism Transformation Team composed of faculty, staff, students, alumni and trustees and is one of the only seminaries to require antiracism training. The Seminary requires all faculty and staff to participate in the training. Students attend as part of a 2-credit course. This past fall M.Div. students participated in and received credit for a Sankofa journey -- a three-day, cross ethnic bus trip designed to help Christians move toward righteous responses to racism and grow to understand and value each other.

Where does NBTS go from here? Our faculty is developing antiracism curricula in all our degree programs.

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