After writing a blog post last week urging Christian conference leaders to pursue diversity in their speaker lineups, I’ve been so encouraged by the response, and in particular by the number of majority-culture leaders who have added their voices in support.
As I wrote last week, the problem is not that Christian leaders are ignorant of multiethnicity as God’s vision for the church. Instead, many dominant-culture Christian leaders just don’t feel responsible for fulfilling this vision, or don't see the ramifications of omitting brothers and sisters of color.
To encourage and help those in the church who desire for more diverse and dynamic conference lineups, I took to Twitter using the hashtag #SpeakersofColor to highlight Christian speakers from non-white backgrounds. I enlisted some of these speakers of color to offer more specific suggestions, which are listed below.
As race-related issues continue to dominate the headlines, may the church provide a prophetic example of reconciliation and unity amid the beautiful diversity God has created among his people. – Helen Lee, author and editor at InterVarsity Press
Keep Building New Relationships
Jo Saxton, church planter and board chair of 3DMovements
If your event is supposed to connect with a generation of future leaders, remind yourself of what your world, your nation, your next generation actually looks like. It is already diverse—ethnically, culturally, socioeconomically, generationally. Presenting only dominant-culture voices will not equip your audience for the goals of your event. It’s strategically inadequate. We as the church can't afford to keep doing this.
I know a number of people who select speakers by virtue of who they know. They value that personal connection highly, and they want their events to have a relational touch. If that’s your approach, broaden your network of relationships and seek to do so on an annual basis. Your priority is to initiate and build relationships with leaders of color long before the conference invitations go out. If you want a spiritual breakthrough, expect a battle beforehand, and be prepared to work on this for a sustained period of time.
To find more voices of color, approach seminaries, NGOs, denominational synods, publishing houses, agents, or other conference leaders to find out who they know. Ask the leaders or people of color who you do know (even if it’s you’re only connected by Facebook) for recommendations. Approach your peers who are the same skin tone as you and see if they have suggestions. And pray about this issue, because when we pray, things happen, even if we can’t see the results immediately.
Pay Attention to Position
Vivian Mabuni, national director of field ministry for Epic (the Asian American ministry of Cru)
When you include speakers of color, be aware of power dynamics. It makes a difference when minority voices are given keynote or plenary talks, as opposed to serving as “the emcee” or “the interviewer” (although those are valuable roles as well). There is something to be said for having people of color teaching the Word of God, on the main stage, and not just on a panel discussion on racial reconciliation. As Viola Davis said in her Emmy speech, the only difference between people of color and those from the dominant culture is opportunity.
Conference planners need to know that as a person of color, whenever I am considering attending or speaking at an event, I immediately scan the website or brochure of the organization to see if anyone looks like me. It’s demoralizing and disappointing when there is not. The demographics in the nation and church are changing, and if we are interested in reaching the next generation, we have to demonstrate our competency in this area.
Value Unique Contributions
Sandra Maria Van Opstal, executive pastor of the Grace and Peace Community
It’s not that I feel "left out" as a Latina when conference lineups aren’t diverse; instead, I believe the perspective of my community enriches the church as a whole. I'd love to hear a conference communicate to me as a person of color via their speaker lineup, worship, and organizing teams, ”We need you! Your values and views are necessary as we pursue God’s kingdom."
When participating in a conference about mission, urban ministry, reconciliation, and global justice, we need to hear from the Christians who are most affected by those issues. Those of us doing the hard work of theology and praxis of diverse worship can help to create atmospheres of worship that form us in hospitality, solidarity, and mutuality.
Think About the Overall Experience
Nikki Toyama-Szeto, International Justice Mission vice president
As the program director for Urbana (’09 and ’12), I was committed to giving a platform to people whom a North American audience might not otherwise hear from. But even I found it challenging to live out that commitment. When you are putting together a conference, there isn’t room for a bad speaker, so it’s easy to be tempted to stick with “safe” choices.
I ended up seeking out conferences, networks, and gatherings that would expose me to speakers, teachers, and leaders who were very different from the ones I knew already. I learned so much from them, and so did our audience. As a result, these Urbana speakers didn't give same old conference messages; they offered robust and timely content. Yes, speakers have to be compelling and competent communicators, but I would encourage program directors to consider ways to challenge their audience through the experience of the conference, not only through the content.
Take Advantage of Social Media
Zakiya Jackson, national leadership cohort for the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA)
For faith leaders organizing Christian conferences, I have one simple suggestion: Look at Twitter lists that leaders of color are included on.
Those of us who are active on Twitter often belong to lists that include other speakers and leaders of color. (They’re easily accessible on profile pages.) Creating your own list or subscribing to existing ones can be a good starting point for discovering who to follow and research further.
Lack of diversity in a conference speaker lineup is really the end of a chain of circumstantial realities. Talking about the speaker lineup at a conference is an exercise in futility unless the decision-makers themselves are willing to honestly assess how racially diverse their own leadership inputs are. While nearly everyone can claim some degree of diversity in their social network, the harder question is whether they are under the direct mentorship of at least one person of color. The answer is often no.
When leaders consistently read books written by white authors, listen to sermons preached by white preachers, seek the advice of white colleagues, implicitly trust white theologians over ethnically non-white theologians, and follow primarily white people on Twitter, they lack a vision for receiving instruction and knowledge from people of color. To white Christians who are wondering how to diversify a church body, a conference speaker lineup, or an organization, my answer is, “Start by diversifying the leadership in your own life.” That’s where the hard work takes place, and there are no shortcuts.
Take a Global Perspective
Onleilove Alston, executive director of PICO Faith in New York
You’d never know judging by the dearth of black women at Christian conferences, but the average Christian in the world today is a woman of African ancestry. Well-documented research, in books such as From Times Square to Timbuktu by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, positions 21st-century church growth in the Global South.
What does it say about our events when the average Christian in the world today is not represented or invited to speak? Those who resemble the dark and lovely Shulamite Girl in Song of Solomon (1:5) are absent from the typical Christian conferences. It is imperative that black women are not only featured at such gatherings, but leading them.
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