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Jennifer Harvey’s fight for racial justice

By MAX BROWN

Between the #paintitblack movement of last fall and the #signthepledge movement of this spring, students are now more than ever demanding equality on campus. Religion professor Jennifer Harvey has been working her entire career at Drake to make this equality a reality.

Harvey has been at Drake since 2004, before which she was a graduate student. Outside of Drake, she is an active public speaker throughout the country. She was also ordained in the American Baptist Church in 2000.

Philosophy and Religion Department Chair Brad Crowell said that Harvey has been involved with helping disadvantaged groups since her start at Drake.

“Professor Harvey has been involved with supporting and empowering historically disadvantaged groups for as long as I have known her – the issues are part of many aspects of her career and personal life including her research, speaking engagement, writing (both academic and popular), but especially her teaching and her role as mentor both of students and within the CREW Program,” Crowell said.

The Crew Scholar Program was created in 2013 in response to the fact that over 95 percent of the student body at Drake was white. Harvey said that the program was intended to act as a safe space for students of color to discuss their experiences and seek advice on how to find success at Drake. Harvey was also a part of the Catalyst faculty program, which started a need-based scholarship fund for first-generation students and students of color.

Harvey described her approach to racial empowerment as “liberation theory and ethics,” and said it was a part of her religious background.

“This tradition recognizes that there is a core thread of justice that permeates the biblical texts that Christians declare sacred and that the divine figure described in Christianity (both God and Jesus—Christianity’s notions of the divine) are ‘justice’ committed figures,” Harvey said. “Thus, in terms of racial injustice and gender oppression (and other forms of oppression) Christianity can be read as a tradition that calls for justice for such human beings. I teach ABOUT the communities to practice Christianity this way, as well as the about the ethical traditions that emerge from this form of Christianity.”

Harvey challenged the belief that most religious groups are against racial, gender and LGBTQ+ empowerment, saying that these groups cannot be considered representative of religion as a whole.

“Culture and media over-represent such groups though of course racism/sexist/homophobic forms of Christianity of course exist and are prevalent.” Harvey said. “But, there are long traditions of Christianity that look nothing like this. I work to challenge this by teaching my students that all religions are always plural. There is no such thing as ‘Christianity’ there are only ‘Christianities.’”

Crowell noted that the Philosophy and Religion department is updating their mission statement and goals in light of the incidents from last November and the responses around campus.

“We are currently writing a mission statement with will include our commitment to diversity and empowering various student voices. Most of us feel that we provide space in our classes, but especially an intellectual and conceptual framework to respect, engage and empower each other.” Crowell said.

Crowell  said he feels optimistic about the future of empowerment at Drake, citing the #paintitblack and #signthepledge movements as important examples of students organizing around their desire for an inclusive campus.

“One point that I have seen change over the past few years is that faculty and administration are deeply concerned that this battle continue and that students are empowered to engage racism when it appears and that faculty provide as much support as we can,” Crowell said. “Both of the movements that you mentioned were student organized, that is an important aspect of how we all work together to change the culture of campus.”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Harvey

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