Essay Contest

Moving Past Our Mistakes

A More Inclusive HDS to Come?

By Diana Ortiz

I learned a long time ago that nothing in history is natural. Policies and laws, justice and injustice, and wars and peace have all come about via the intentional decisions and actions of human beings. Like other educational institutions, Harvard Divinity School is a product of its history. At the same time, it is a perpetually changing zone, ready to be influenced and touched by the fresh thoughts, inquiries, and experiences of every new incoming class. Strolling through the beautiful walkways of HDS’s perfectly green campus and standing in front of the grandiose Andover Hall sparks in me thoughts of the many lives that HDS has helped to shape and transform into stories of discovery, mastery, and curiosity. In the stillness, I think of the ones who have walked these halls before me, the ones who walk alongside me, and the ones who I hope will walk after me.

When I envision what HDS will be like in one hundred years, I must consider its previous development. I take courage that HDS is not a stagnant institution, satisfied with the progress it has made thus far, but rather that it is constantly aware of its need to continue to become the religious institution that the world and students need it to be. As we all know, the stakes are too high and the world’s conflicts are too many for HDS to conform to the status quo.

My hopeful conviction in HDS’s bright future lies in the School’s honest intention to embrace, adopt, and attend to students’ requests. My vision is that, by 2116, HDS will not only have grown in its diversity of students, faculty, and staff, but that it will be leading the study of religion in providing equity and inclusion to the marginalized communities within the academy. Truly, this is a high calling. In all honesty, the future state of this institution’s being is highly dependent on its demographic composition by 2116. It cannot go unsaid that the most important determining factor of HDS’s future existence lies on the makeup of its student, faculty, and staff populations. As a woman of color who is a first-generation immigrant and college student, I appreciate that when it comes to gender, HDS has done outstanding work establishing itself as a multigendered and gender-nonconforming affirming school. And, while the School has made tremendous advancements in the areas of race and ethnicity and in increased admission of international students, we have to admit that it is still a predominately white institution. This greatly determines who is available for panels, discussions, and leadership positions.

One can talk about the lack of students of color applying to divinity school and the need for admission officers to recruit students of all colors. But these well-known institutional barriers within the educational pipeline should only further encourage HDS representatives to be more intentional than they already are about admitting and hiring more people of color. Perhaps it is necessary to say here that attending divinity school may be a privilege in and of itself. Low-income students may not have the privilege of attending a graduate school that is not known for its money-making prospects! Fortunately, HDS recognizes that ministers and scholars of religion do not often make millions after they graduate, and so the School makes sincere efforts to provide students of need with the necessary financial assistance. Overall, how HDS decides to respond to the difficulties brought about by its community members’ intersecting identities of race, class, and gender will greatly determine its future position in the world. It is my hope that in one hundred years, the student body and faculty will no longer have a white majority and that the demographics of the community will be even more complex than we can imagine today. This is not just for the sake of labeling ourselves as a diverse school, but so that we truly represent the richness of the world’s students and scholars.

I recognize that diversity is not acquired by simply admitting and hiring folks of color. The School’s members also have a responsibility to truly commit to the hard work it takes to create a welcoming space for all the represented cultures, opinions, and critiques to prosper. As a student of color, I quickly realized my need to assimilate into the white middle-class culture that dominates the American higher education system. Nevertheless, there have been spaces in HDS and beyond that have been intentional about being sensitive to my culture and that have welcomed my multilingual contributions. I believe that HDS can and will go even further by asking itself the challenging question: “How has my racial and class privilege contributed to the dominant culture of my classroom, office, or organization?” There is no such thing as a perfect school, but progress and accountability will be expected of such a prestigious institution.

While there might not be an equal breakdown of percentages among all the racial and ethnic groups or among all the religious categories, it is of great importance that there be a greater representation and increased visibility of historically marginalized and oppressed voices. It is not enough to have a handful of professors of color. If, as a student of color, you cannot relate to one out of the two to three professors of your race, then you are out of luck. When there are more Latino food and maintenance workers than Latino professors, it says something about where we are as a community and about the extensive work there is still to do in the area of racial justice. Personally, my greatest mentors have been white female professors. I understand that not everyone gravitates to mentorship among professors of their same racial or ethnic background, but it is ideal to have more options for those who do seek mentorship in particular areas of affinity.

The presence of students, faculty, and staff from a wider array of backgrounds will cultivate an even richer social life on campus. Activities on and off campus will continue to be essential as they continue to provide students the complimentary learning experiences necessary to strive in graduate school. Organizations like the Prison Education Initiative will continue to provide students with the opportunity to involve themselves in transformative work outside the classroom. Groups like the Racial Justice and Healing Initiative will continue to address pressing racial issues on campus. If needed, students will also be able to join student-led religious organizations that provide students with a sacred space to connect and practice with each other. Field education will continue to provide vocational explorations for both MDiv and MTS students who wish to apply their skills and knowledge in their local communities. The popular tradition of Community Tea will not only prevail but become one of the most cherished parts of every student’s experience at HDS.

For students who aspire to carve out their own space on campus, the School will continue to provide on-campus resources and support, as it did when organizations like Nuestra Voz and the Women of Color Collective were started. In addition to being sensitive to the issues of students of color, the School will also continue to show solidarity with queer members of our community by assuring the availability of gender-neutral restrooms in every building. Such support for marginalized voices within our campus community has helped to create the campus we have today, and it will continue to be necessary when there will be an even greater array of experiences and perspectives at HDS. Regardless of the dietary restrictions, social identities, and other markers of uniqueness, Harvard Divinity School will be prepared to embrace all prospective community members who will define the prevailing impact of the School.

Academically, HDS will seriously reflect on its curriculum and admit to itself that, despite the trailblazing efforts to diversify course materials, the majority of courses are still heavily reliant on Western-centered literature. By the three-hundred-year mark, my vision is that students will be exposed to a greater number of academic perspectives. It is my wish that there will be a Latinx and Latin American religious studies program and an American Indian religious studies program—I would hope before the end of the twenty-first century. Too often, I have found myself in very interesting classes that rarely assign authors who are nonwhite or non-Western. Though the subject being taught often determines the content of the syllabi, we cannot ignore that this is mostly due to the limited number of professors who intentionally seek out resources showcasing marginalized voices. The burden of responsibility to diversify the curriculum should not fall on the shoulders of faculty of color but should become an institutional value of the School.

If HDS diversifies its academic curriculum and provides courses that expose students not only to voices from the dominant culture, but also voices from subcultures within cultures, it will continue to be relevant in the world. The School will also need to commit to an arduous exploration of marginalized voices and long-term conversations about who we privilege in class materials—going beyond just giving these voices an hour to speak at an event. The good news is that one hundred years from now, more scholars of colors will have written books illuminating the urgent need to make these spaces for marginalized voices within white-dominated institutions. As it has done in the past, Andover-Harvard Theological Library will ensure that such books are made available to students at the request of faculty who are seriously considering expanding their curriculum.

One of HDS’s priorities as a religious studies institution will continue to be to provide robust cocurricular support for the religious and spiritual life of all of its religious and nonreligious students. We pride ourselves on being inclusive and sensitive to all creeds, while also welcoming honest scrutiny from our peers and professors. History affirms that becoming a multireligious divinity school met with plenty of resistance but was accomplished by the enduring perseverance of previous generations. Today, students from minority religions continue to challenge HDS to keep providing its unfailing support of religious pluralism and the study of world religions.

As a Christian student, it is only fair for me to recognize the privilege that Christianity has held historically, not only at HDS but also in the origins of Harvard University. As much as I appreciate the liberty to congregate with other students of faith, it will be essential for HDS to continue to support the spiritual and religious lives of all of its students. While I am grateful for the amount of resources available to Christian students, such as denominational counselors, it is my hope that there will be spiritual and religious counselors available for all incoming students. For this to occur, HDS’s spiritual life staff will need to deliberately encourage, as it already has, the expression of various religious practices from both religious and nonreligious students during the weekly Noon Services held in Andover Chapel.

In 2116, there will continue to be a need to provide open spaces for students of all creeds to maintain the integrity of their beliefs while witnessing and respecting the practices and beliefs of other students. Although we value pluralism as a school, we also embrace remaining true to oneself and one’s beliefs. HDS students should have access to more non-Christian resources to prepare for a decreased majority of Christian students, denominational counselors, and Western-oriented Christian courses.

As incoming students navigate this unique space, the challenges of talking about religion and politics and the politics of religion will continue to exist, but I hope they will become less daunting as we become better equipped with language and resources that will aid our facilitation of difficult conversations. We of the HDS community need to continue to challenge ourselves to allow our more progressive students still to cultivate their liberal theologies, but also to give students who maintain theologically orthodox interpretations the space and permission to be part of the conversation.

We must also prepare for an increased differentiation in political beliefs, and, of course, go beyond American politics and make space to listen to the political realities of international students. Too many times our politics have alienated us from speaking to one another, but at HDS we must always be striving to take seriously each other’s creeds, beliefs, and opinions. At the same time, we cannot ignore the real harm that historically marginalized communities have endured. Therefore, our priority should not be to maintain a level of comfort for the historically privileged groups. We need to learn how to be forthcoming with one another while also being sensitive about each other’s identities and experiences. Balancing these two social needs will become the responsibility of every incoming student who expects to be heard but who must also hear others with the same level of curiosity and respect.

Again, the goal for HDS is not to become a perfectly diverse and inclusive institution in every area of academics and campus life. Rather, the hope is that HDS will not drift away from the path of critical self-examination that leads to intentional self-improvement. The years to come will challenge HDS to humbly seek feedback from members of its community and to take seriously both the criticism and the praise that is received from all voices. As we celebrate all of our accomplishments in academia and our dedication to the development of ministry, we must also take a moment to reflect on the ways we have prioritized or silenced some voices over others. If HDS wants to be the leader in the field of religious studies that is needed in the world, it will have to lead us into a humble awareness of our institutional shortcomings and move us past our mistakes into effective change. By 2116, we will be better than we were one hundred years ago, if we allow ourselves to reflect on our past and labor toward an even more radically diverse and inclusive Harvard Divinity School.

“What will Harvard Divinity School, or the field of religious studies, look like in 2116?” This was the topic of the bicentennial essay contest the Bulletin sponsored for HDS students and recent graduates.

Diana Ortiz is a master of divinity candidate who plans to graduate in May 2017. This is an excerpted and edited version of her submitted essay.

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