Healing divisions and finding the common good that unites us is challenging for individuals and institutions. In this episode, APU Dean Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to Edgardo Colón-Emeric, Director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, about strategies to build equity, diversity and inclusion and how to counter resistance with patience and openness. Learn how supporting all forms of diversity, whether it’s diversity of backgrounds or diversity of thought, can provide a new perspective and bring hope for a better future of unity.
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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. Today we are going to talk about equity, diversity and inclusion. My guest is Edgardo Colón-Emeric.
I want to take a moment to provide some background information on him. He is the Irene and William McCutchen Associate Professor of Reconciliation and Theology, Associate Dean For Academic Formation, and Director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. His work explores the intersection of Methodist and Catholic theologies, Wesleyan and Latin American experiences with the goal of advancing the gospel of reconciliation in Christ. Edgardo, welcome to our podcast, and thank you for joining me.
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: Thank you for inviting me.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I loved our prep session, so I’m looking forward to this real session. You have a very interesting background. You have had some interesting positions and I’d love you to share some of your background in-depth.
Start a Business degree at American Public University.
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: Sure. So I am a native of Puerto Rico. That is where I was born, where I was raised. That time I was growing up in Puerto Rico, I always dreamed about coming to the United States to study. I was planning to come to the United States to study to be an engineer, and that’s what I did. I came to the United States and went to college and did Bachelor’s and Master’s work in engineering in the north, because I wanted to be in places that were cold and had snow. I had grown in the tropics and I wanted something different, but then found myself in North Carolina, at Duke University studying theology, and now working at the Divinity School. Where I have been now for many years.
So it’s been a journey full of turns that were unexpected, living in different regions of the United States and experiencing different cultural encounters with people in the northeast, people in the Baltimore area, where I was also for a few years, and then in North Carolina. And in North Carolina, also experiencing the riches and complexities that come from being in a community as diverse and with a complex history as North Carolina and Durham, North Carolina have.
Don’t know how much detail to go into other than to say that it’s, for me, been unexpected turns. Come to study engineering, and doing so, to switch to ministry, to the study of theology, and to then positions of leadership at Duke University and new positions of leadership to come as well, because I’ve also now been appointed to serve as the new Dean for Duke Divinity School, starting in July.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Congratulations.
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: Thank you. So it’s been, as I say, a journey full of many unexpected turns. I came here with two suitcases and now my family’s here, and my children, and my roots are also, and my heart are also here in North Carolina. Even as I keep, of course, very closely to my heart, the Puerto Rico. There is a song that says in my old San Juan, and how I don’t want to die apart from you, my beloved San Juan, and that certainly is a feeling that is also in my heart, that sense of home.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I understand that feeling. Home will always be home, no matter where you go off to. And it’s almost like what you said in the beginning. This is your journey, your life’s purpose. Even with that, you always have a piece in your heart of where you started from. Sometimes that’s where we go to when the day seems rough or we’re questioning what our next step should be. You have to always think about home.
But I’m excited about this new appointment for you. And as I said before, congratulations. I wanted to go back to something that you said.
You came here with the goal of being an engineer. You were successful at doing that, and then you made the transition to theology. Can you share with us what led to that move? What happened that made you think, “I have to do a complete change?” Because that is a complete change.
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: It’s a very big change. Growing up, I was always a science person. I borrowed books in the library on physics. I always said, since I was a little boy, “I want to be a nuclear engineer.” That’s what I used to say, not really knowing what that meant.
But I came to the United States and studied engineering, and I enjoyed the studies of engineering and the mathematics and the physics. But I also had some restlessness with the path of engineering, in particular because I was interested in aerospace engineering, and the time when I was studying engineering, and particularly aerospace.
Most of the applications were military applications, and I had some concerns about my work being used, in some sense, to support military operations with which I may not agree, morally. Wrestling with the consequences of my work led me to then switch from aerospace engineering to biomechanical engineering, which was my work in my Master’s degree. That seemed to be a better fit for me.
At the same time, there was still this restlessness that I was perhaps not still on the right path for me. So it was really a call from God. I mean, not a voice from a burning bush, but through my wife, who said, “Maybe God is calling you to ministry.” And when she said those words, I said, “That is exactly correct.”
Peace came with that, and right away, fear came to that, because I had to tell my parents that they paid for all this engineering education, and I was going to go now in a different direction. And that I also now had to be engaging with people in new ways, when I was very happy simply being in a lab and being an engineering nerd, and working a lot by myself on certain projects. So it was very big transformation, very surprising, and yet ultimately the right thing.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I completely understand. As you were sharing each of the steps, I was waiting for you to say that word, the call. A lot of people do not understand that, but when you shared with us, you were having a restlessness. I know sometimes when I’m coaching people about career transitions, I bring that up, because when they come to me, there is a sense of frustration.
The frustration, they’re not sure where it’s coming from, but it’s usually from within. And more than often, it is because they know they need to make a move, but they are afraid of making the move because it’s different than what they’ve done before.
But it seems like you embraced it, and then you went forward, the change, and it leads to you going into the ministry, becoming an associate professor and an Associate Dean for Academic Formation. What is that? What type of position is that?
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: So in university settings and in a school like mine, the Dean for Academic Formation is the person who is in charge of the curriculum, ensuring that there are classes for students, that these classes meet at the appropriate times, that the full range of subjects that students need to complete their degrees are offered, and that the professors teaching those classes are ready to go. So it’s the chief academic officer in the school.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. And then the Director of the Center for Reconciliation. Is that something totally different?
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: It is totally different. The Director for the Center for Reconciliation offers leadership to this center that is a center within the Divinity School. At Duke University, we have university centers that are interdisciplinary, and are not connected to any particular school, but in a sense, help connect the different schools around different areas or projects.
But the Center for Reconciliation is a center within the Divinity School, and it serves to support the formation of students who will go on to be leaders, who will engage the challenges of the world with a spirit and a view of reconciliation, that the end of our story is not one of fragmentation or polarization. That is where we find ourselves in the story, but that’s not the end. The end is actually one of peace and reconciliation, but one that is very costly, and takes into account matters of memory and justice and reparation.
So the Director of the Center for Reconciliation leads that center in its work of forming students for that kind of ministry, and of accompanying churches and NGOs, non-governmental organizations, that are engaged in ministries of reconciliation and peace and justice-building, literally around the world. We have work in east Africa, in northeast Asia and in Latin America. So working with all those different regions, working at the Divinity School, these are the charge of the Director of the Center for Reconciliation.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. That’s helpful in understanding what the center is about, and the fact that you’re preparing your students to be future ambassadors into the world, to bring a sense of hope, which I think is something that we need, especially now with what we’ve gone through the last eight or so years in terms of politics in the United States.
One of the things that I wanted to go back to, I’m still looking at all of your different positions, and I’m impressed with that because I’ve had a similar journey, but it was the reverse. It’s almost like I started in the corporate arena. I did have the opportunity to go to ministerial school. For some reason, I never… I thought I was supposed to be an evangelist, because I never felt comfortable in the pulpit, but that restlessness was still there.
I got that sense of peace when I realized that my ministry was actually in the business world, and it was to help people in that environment to understand what you call reconciliation. It’s still people, wherever you go, they need to reconcile something. Would you agree?
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: Absolutely. There’s always the need for the interpersonal reconciliation. The reconciliation for myself and a spouse, a family member, a friend. But also a need for institutional reconciliation, where institutions have been also sustaining separation and fragmentation. So the healing and the reparation of institutions is also very important.
The work that we do in the Center for Reconciliation grounds those dimensions of reconciliation, the interpersonal, the social, if you want to think, also, of national reconciliation, in God’s vision for reconciliations.
It is particularly a Christian account that of reconciliation that the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity presents, because of our location within the Divinity School. But I would like to think that it’s also a vision that is broader, and that it’s open and generous in its encounters and possibilities for collaboration with people who do not share the same Christian worldview that I might have, but share a desire and long for a world that is different than the one we find ourselves in now.
And where we can flourish together in our diversity as a community, and have a sense that there is actually a common good that unites us, and common things that we care for, even though we may have differences of religion or of national background.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. Because I was looking, also, at where you shared that your work explores the intersection of Methodist and Catholicism, as well as Wesleyan and Latin American experiences. In doing diversity work, I have found, from a practical application, I could never call it diversity because, especially in the United States, a lot of people equate that with affirmative action, and so there was resistance.
However, when I was able to get them to see diversity of thought, and what I meant by diversity of thought was respecting and embracing other people’s opinions and perspectives, there was more buy-in.
Have you had that experience? And if not, what techniques have you found to be successful in getting people to understand the other person?
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: Well, for me, it’s important to situate the conversations within a particular context, as to what is the diversity that we’re talking about? How does this diversity contribute to our mission of our institution that we’re serving? There may be some diversity that is interesting for the institution, but not important for its goal.
I mean that if someone is a flutist, plays the flute, and may be an interesting thing, but it may not necessarily contribute to the institution if its mission is, say, education and engineering, for example.
My point being is that I see that diversity, there are different kinds of diversity, and that those connect differently to the life of an institution, and that there are forms of diversity we need to cultivate if our institution is to be successful. That diversity of ways of thinking, diversities of backgrounds, are sometimes, by some institutions, relegated to like, diversity of sports teams or vocations, rather than saying, no. Some of this diversity gives people a perspective that is actually going to help us be better at the mission of our institution.
The ways, in terms of how I’ve encountered this, and some of the places that you named that might work with Methodism and Catholicism, clearly we have not just diversity in those cases, but also division, and also a history of opposition in some cases. So that it’s not simply a recognition of diversity that is necessary, but actually a naming of divisions and of wounds that have occurred in our history.
So to engage together in dialogue means honest recognition of our history and of the challenging chapters in that history, with an eye and the conviction that where we are right now is not where we’re going to be. That there is a possibility of transformation, and that that transformation will take time.
In terms of skills and things I’ve learned along this path and my work in these different dialogues and encounters among different Christian traditions, different cultures, and parts of the world is patience. Patience in the encounter, interest in learning from the other and not seeing the other as someone that I need to be setting myself defensively against, but in generous embrace or openness to want to learn, and to be interested in the humanity of the other, even in the experiences that I don’t understand right now, or things where we just do not click. Patience for saying, well, “Let’s just live with this, because we also have many things that we share in common.” And the conviction that there is a future day that looks different than today.
For that, in the Center for Reconciliation, we always speak of beginning with the end. When we encounter stories of violence, of hostility, of oppression, that our first move is to start, let’s be reminded of where we’re going with this. Where is this story going?
And this is, of course, where in my case, the faith background is very important in saying that the story we find ourselves in now, and the chapter we’re in, in this mucky middle, is not the final chapter. And that the reminder that the final chapter looks quite different, that final chapter involves peace, involves a world where there isn’t oppression, and where we don’t relate to each other as victim and victimizer. That that gives us hope for entering in a non-defensive way with encounters with other people.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Now, you said a number of things, and I’m remembering a passage that I read a number of years ago. It was about the different denominations, and the fact that many denominations are the result of a breaking apart of what was one larger denomination.
Would you say that type of event is what you’re referring to as the division and wounds, and that those splits were necessary for many people to go to the next chapter? What are your thoughts on that?
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: The splits are part of our story. Whether they are necessary or not, I can not be the judge of that. Could it have been some other way? Perhaps. But we have the story we have, and it’s our story. And it’s a complex story.
I think of the story of Latin America and of my own island, Puerto Rico, and how the story involves colonization, genocide, slavery, poverty, and also good things. I mean, cultures that emerge, and people and celebration. It’s a very complex story, and all of it is part of my story, but it’s not a story that is finished yet.
So that’s, I think, the other part for me, that’s very important, is that when you think of the stories, all of us are in the way. Even your own story, as a person, your biography is not finished yet, and that there’s still more chapters to it, I hope many more chapters to it. And that those chapters may hold surprises for how we actually interpret the story as a whole.
This is, for me, a way, also, of understanding and of speaking with my students about the moment we find ourselves, and how we understand what I refer to as the wounds of our history. The ending may actually hold some surprises and healing from wounds that we thought could never be healed.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: That’s interesting to say, too, because it focuses on the wounds. One of the things that I thought is, sometimes why we have the friction, especially as it relates to diversity and equity, is that someone has been hurt in the past.
As a result of that hurt, and unresolved hurt, they have to have a scapegoat, and someone that is different that they have to put below them in order to feel some level of self-esteem. How do we help people accept other individuals as equal to themselves?
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: Well, it’s a very challenging question. The scapegoat mechanism that you refer to is one that has been well-practiced throughout history, and one that is practiced in our country today as well, with certain groups of people being blamed for many of the problems in the country, and that if these people weren’t here, then somehow things would be so much better.
I would first say that the scapegoat mechanism is a lie. That’s a lie that we tell ourselves to find some meaning to the story, but it’s a meaning to the story that that is gained at the expense of cutting off many people from the story, relegating them, pushing them out and pushing them in the category of enemy, or the category of insignificant, of extras in the story.
How do we move people? How do we help people? Again, for me, it is going to be very, very tremendously by context. If I were in a Christian context, I say, remember the end. The end is not where we find ourselves right now, but the end that is promised, of peace and harmony among peoples, and the diversity of peoples among nations, that diversity does not end at the end. It’s not eliminated, it’s not erased, but it is reconciled. It is indeed a cause for rejoicing, and not a threat.
Now, for people whose understanding of the world, or do not share my faith, I’d say that we have to believe that there is some kind of common good to us because of our shared humanity, and that shared humanity leads us to also want the good for the other.
We are, if you will, like an ecology, and in that ecology as human beings, we flourish together, or we wither together. The ways in which we are living right now in the United States are also destabilizing for the rest of the world, by how we consume goods, by how we seek to insulate ourselves in ways that are advantageous to us, but very, very disadvantageous to other places. These are not things that are good for us as a human family.
So I would say it’s a conviction to say, we are one human family. And because it’s a family, I cannot be content with simply my little family of my people in my country to do well, if some other peoples are doing terribly. Any more than I could be if I’m okay and my kids are okay, but my nieces and nephews are in squalor. Say, “No, one family.” And therefore a common good that allows all of us to flourish.
So how to communicate that, how to form people to see that, is a challenge. I would say a challenge that is educational, and so that’s where I see the importance of schools and universities and so on. And a challenge that is institutional, that requires institutions to be cared for and built and repaired that contribute to the formation and the strengthening of this common good.
We sometimes speak of this new, the sense of “we.” Who is “we?” And the new “we” that is inclusive of others, that it’s not us against them, but is a very big and open “us” that is always willing to say, there’s more room here. And not for you to become like me, but for you to come and walk with me, and we’ll all be changed together by our relationship. Again, within the sense of this shared humanity, shared sense of family.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. And so often, especially prior to, I want to say social media, because I think social media has played a role in spreading some of the hate that we are seeing in today’s society. When we look at people who are different, and it was a matter of including them, but, in my opinion, when we first started the diversity initiative, I don’t think they were thinking about inclusion. I think they were thinking about assimilation versus inclusion. And now we’re in a situation where we have inclusion of what was considered the majority, and the sense of fear about that, because of not knowing where they fit in. The students that you have at your center, how have you coached, taught them to look at that majority group and make them feel comfortable and realize that they have a role in the healing?
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: Few things in what you said that are stirring my imagination here. To the direct question of, how do we form them? Well, I actually would repeat the word imagination. That there is a need for our imagination to be transformed, because it’s been shaped or perhaps misshaped by certain practices, by certain stories, by certain institutions that continue to support certain stories in ways that make it difficult to imagine any other way of being. Calling things normal that are actually not normal. They’re just simply common. But they’re not normal in the sense that they’re not healthy. They are not whole.
I try to help my students to see that with a few practices, the practices, for example, of pilgrimage, of engaging in physical dislocation, of being in a place that is very different from my place, but as in community and with preparation for that, and a sense of journeying with, and journeying with people that are different from them, from what they understand to be, “My own people.” Something like that.
But to say, “Oh, but they are different, and we’re journeying together” and finding a sense of new community, and that my sense of community does not need to be threatened by somebody else’s sense of community. That a community that is healthy, like a relationship that is healthy, is one that can be open to others.
I think of a couple that for example, or a family, that is very fragile as one that might say, “We need to be closing off ourselves from the other, because the other person’s a threat to us.” Presents a threat because our relationship is not very strong. But in a relationship the strong, it can also be generous in opening itself to others without being threatened by the other, but seeing the other as them bringing gifts and finding a new “we,” a new “us,” that becomes possible from that encounter.
So that’s also, the sense of encounter, of pilgrimage and journey, of being friends with unlikely people and finding in that friendship the possibility of transformation and of a stretching of boundaries and sense of who is my neighbor, who are my family? Those are things that we try to work with our students.
Let me just say that you mentioned about the assimilation, and I think that’s very important. Because in some communities, there is a strong desire, and I would say particularly majority communities, a strong desire for inclusion of people who have not been part of their community, but the imagination is that the inclusion means assimilation, as you were saying.
And what I try to say is that, no. I think of it more like inclusion in an orchestra, where you bring your voice, your instrument, your lines to the whole. But you’re a flutist. Doesn’t mean that now you leave the flute behind, just pick up the violin, but rather you bring your flute, your voice, to that orchestra.
So that’s also what I try to counsel my students. To say, you’re bringing your voice to this, and you’re not threatened by the voices of the violinists because you’re a flute, but rather find that, ah! That’s another way of being human. That’s another way of contributing to the whole. And that the whole is one that, and the contribution of the other brings out my contribution even better. It makes me be myself more fully, more excellent, so that in that sense, it is not simply that the other’s not a threat. The other helps me be a better me.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. I like the analogy that you gave because not only was it a good summary, but by using music, it emphasizes the harmony. And that’s what I was thinking as you were naming all the different instruments and how they all have a role to play. We could make beautiful music together if we would just stop and think about what is our role?
And it goes back to your initial, the introduction, when you explained your journey thus far. We may start off as one thing, but it doesn’t mean that we stay that way for the entire journey. And that’s okay. I think we have to work to get people to understand, we accept you for where you are, but we hope we can transform and grow into something more beautiful.
I’ve enjoyed our conversation, and I want to thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your expertise. In closing, are there any parting comments or words of wisdom that you would like to leave with us?
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: You know, in this time of fracturing in our community, and of polarization, to realize that there is more to the story than polarization, even right now, that there are deeper levels to the story and realities that unite us. That would we both have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we’d find that what unites us is much more than what divides us.
But more than that, that there is a possibility of hope for us. There is indeed a common good to be cared for, to be sought for, and that leadership really matters for the cultivation of that common good. That institutions really matter for the cultivation of that common good. And that that common good is both very local and also global, and that these are not to be pitted against each other.
That in the interplay of this embrace of a common good that is both as local as my town, my county, and as global as this planet, we also discover the fulfillment of our own vocation. Of our own journey. That our biography, our personal biography, it’s not a solo work. But it’s really more of an anthology with many contributors to it, and some of those contributors are surprising, and some of them are still to be known.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. As you say, it’s until we get to the end that we get to see the finished product that we’re all in the process of becoming, and that’s a reason to have hope. I think that will probably assist in us getting from point A to point B, is having that sense of hope.
But thank you for sharing the information, not only from your work, but from your experiences, your personal experiences. I think that’s important, and that’s why I was asking you questions on both paths, because it seems like you’ve had a rich journey on both accounts. And it seems like both your professional life, as well as your personal life, have intertwined at different intersections of your journey. I believe that’s important for listeners to hear, because sometimes we try to keep them separate, or we may understand one and not the other, and realize we have to grow on both accounts.
We have been speaking with Edgardo Colón-Emeric. This is Marie Gould Harper thanking you for listening to our podcast today.