Diversity and inclusion are big buzz words in higher education circles. Most of the time, efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are university sponsored. What Julie Park does is study the unusual instance where a campus organization on its own initiative pursues a diversity initiative, moving from a mostly white and Asian-American group to one incorporating significant numbers of African-American and Latino/a students. The group? InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at “California University” (a pseudonym to provide anonymity to the group as well as students involved in this study). This book is based on her doctoral research project studying this group.
Beginning in the years after the LA riots in 1992 this group pursued an increasingly deliberate agenda to become more diverse ethnically. Staff leaders took risks, there was more regular teaching on racial reconciliation that grounded this in a biblical rather than “political correctness” agenda, frank and sometimes emotion fraught “Race Matters” sessions were launched, and intentional efforts were made to reach new students across ethnic lines. Julie Park chronicles the up and down difficult journey toward increasing ethnic diversity through a series of interviews with students, staff, and alumni involved with the group during this period.
Cutting across this trend to increasing diversity was the passage of Proposition 209, that mandated “color blind” admissions policies at the state’s universities. This led to a precipitous drop in African-American admissions and a continuing rise in Asian-American admissions. And what she found was that this constrained the InterVarsity’s group to continue to achieve the kind of ethnic diversity it had previously achieved, despite having a multi-ethnic team of campus workers. This occurred both through restricting the pool of African American students from which they could recruit (in one year, only 96 African American students were admitted). It also created a new majority among Asian-American students. This also required a renewed process of aligning vision and strategies to reach students of other ethnicity.
While it is clear that Park at many points is very impressed with the InterVarsity group’s efforts to increase diversity, she also doesn’t flinch at noting their failures and miscues, including a very explosive “Race Matters” session that actually set their reconciliation efforts back, or an instance of “vision creep” where a relaxed focus on multi-ethnic outreach led to a drop in diversity. She gives us a well-written, carefully researched narrative of what it takes to change the culture of a group around race and ethnicity.
This is an important book both for those who work in collegiate ministry and for those concerned with higher education admissions policies. Groups like InterVarsity provide a voluntary meeting place where students can gain a greater vision for relationships across the ethnic lines that we draw throughout American society. If laws and admissions policies decrease these opportunities (which rarely happen in the church or other societal structures), where will they happen? And what should we conclude about the disparity of admissions by ethnicity? That is complicated but one thing is clear, at least to me. We are not operating from a level playing field, which seems to be the assumption of “color blind” laws and admissions policies.