July 28, 2021
A new antiracism initiative at Princeton Theological Seminary has everyone from the Executive Council to faculty, staff, students, and the Board of Trustees looking inward through open, honest discussions on topics like implicit bias, White privilege, and power.
The initiative also has the Seminary looking outward, as it affirms that antiracism eduation is inseparable from its mission of preparing students to serve Jesus Christ in the world.
“This is not only about making Princeton a more welcoming community,” says Victor Aloyo Jr., a key architect of the program and associate dean of institutional diversity and community engagement. “We want to provide a platform where our students are equipped to become courageous agents of change wherever they are called.”
“We see antiracism as a daily practice,” Aloyo adds. “It is not about compartmentalizing who we are. It is part of our spirituality.”
The program, which is titled Antiracism Formational Platforms, began taking hold last fall. But it is rooted in Princeton Seminary’s investigation into its historic ties to slavery. That inquiry led to a yearlong conversation about the findings and the adoption in 2019 of an ongoing plan to repent for the Seminary’s connections to slavery.
Then came the death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, setting off a racial reckoning with global impact. Seminary President M. Craig Barnes empowered a new Antiracism Task Force that worked through last summer developing a plan to promote a communitywide culture of antiracism.
“There was a continuity between the institution looking at matters of slavery and the events of 2020,” Aloyo says. “It all just compounded the reality that we had recognized and incited us to be creative across institutional lines.”
The result is a substantive and sustainable formational initiative beyond “training” that reflects a rigorous new commitment across the seminary.
“This is a huge step,” Aloyo says. “We are seeing solidarity from all the stakeholders.”
The centerpiece is a curriculum that includes small-group antiracism seminars and an individual course that participants can review in their own time. Last semester, students began meeting in groups of 20 to 30 for virtual 90-minute seminars. The Executive Council, Board of Trustees, faculty, and Seminary staff took part in seminars before the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.
The student sessions have been both inspiring and intense, Aloyo says.
“There have been interactions of pain and past trauma,” he shares. “But that is the purpose of the gathering. To move forward, we need to have those cathartic moments where individuals can understand the suffering and the plights of those around them without blame or shame.”
For the initial sessions, students of color and White students worked mostly in caucus groups — an approach aimed at fostering an environment where participants can speak candidly and feel confident and comfortable.
Aloyo says the approach reflects an understanding that White people and people of color have work to do separately and together. The strategy — which typically includes a process to rejoin and work collectively as the work progresses — was encouraged by student focus groups at the Seminary and endorsed by the Antiracism Implementation Team, which includes students, faculty, a trustee, and staff.
Aloyo also noted that students come to Princeton Seminary from communities around the world, and bring a range of backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs. There is a need, he says, for an incremental approach that will build trust and confidence.
“For our White siblings, a caucus offers time and space to understand White culture and White privilege and do some critical analysis that they may have not had to do because of their cultural upbringing,” Aloyo says. “For people of color, a caucus is a place to address the impact of racism, to interrupt internalized racist experiences, and to create a space for healing and to working for individual and collective liberation.”
The seminars are facilitated by a consultant, Majors Leadership Group, led by Dr. Michelle Majors, who earned a doctorate in educational leadership and is an alumna of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. They follow the appreciative inquiry model by acknowledging participants’ strengths and gifts while guiding them through personal transformation.
“Our consultants come from the element of grace,” Aloyo says. “This isn’t about blaming. But it is about sharing, accountability, and transformation.”
The asynchronous course, meanwhile, uses documents, video clips, TEDx talks, and articles, and is now a part of the orientation for incoming and returning students. Members of the implementation team helped develop materials for this course that encompass a diversity of experiences.
Aloyo sees the overall program as supporting and enhancing Princeton Seminary’s mission of preparing students for Christian leadership in a complex, challenging world. The Seminary’s Antiracism Formational Platforms also provides opportunities for all of its members to engage in responsible capacity-building in a movement toward eradicating racism.
“To be genuinely antiracist is to dismantle (belief) systems internally, in addition to the external realities,” Aloyo says. “Spirituality in this context is a set of practices that help cultivate our inner self to recognize the balance between belief and behavior. In that sense, it’s entirely inclusive of every aspect of our lives.”
Aloyo said he has received honest feedback from across the community.
“Many people have shared that they are appreciative, and they recognize there is more work to be done,” he says. “And we intend as a community to do that work.”
For Aloyo, the mission has deep personal resonance.
A son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Aloyo grew up with a Latinx identity in a predominantly White culture. But watching his parents run a business in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Brooklyn opened his eyes to wider possibilities in a multicultural society.
“My father and mother set the table for me to realize that this world involves the opportunity to get to know, understand, and appreciate communities of other cultures,” he says.
Aloyo received his MDiv from Princeton Seminary in 1989 and led a Brooklyn church where the Gospel was proclaimed in Spanish, English, Hindi, and Korean to congregants representing 39 nationalities. Currently, he is the lead and organizing pastor of a congregation in North Plainfield, New Jersey where its membership consists of families from 17 Latin American countries.
He has worked at the Seminary over three decades, often with a focus on supporting diversity and inclusion. He created the Courageous Conversations program, an acclaimed series of campus-wide sessions that draws hundreds of people for discussions on issues of racism, gender oppression, and power.
“Informal time in discussion groups with faculty and students discussing feminist theological literature altered my views, excited my spirit, and greatly influenced my teaching.”