The Perkins Center: learning how to engage with discomfort and differences

Illustration by Max-o-matic

The John Perkins Center is a part of the living legacy of John Perkins, the “fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” as he described it.

Although I will admit, when I first learned about the Perkins Center, I wasn’t sure what Seattle Pacific hoped to do with the Center beyond making a token statement in the conversation around race and justice. A private, affluent, predominantly white university partnering with John Perkins to effect change? I was skeptical.

Yet, after working at the University for 14 years, 12 of those in the Perkins Center, I have experienced just how meaningful this partnership is. The Center has cultivated student leaders who in turn leave to lead in their own communities, like alumna Rediet Mulugeta ’12 who is a program associate for The Krista Foundation. We have created key programs such as Multicultural Night of Worship with Ashley Reese, which still offers diverse worship experiences on campus. And for nine years we have reflected on areas of justice and reconciliation through online publications.

The JPC will continue to focus on reconciliation ministry, community development, and leadership training. As the Center’s executive director, I want students to develop hearts for community and reconciliation work, and a passion for justice and advocacy. I want students to know more about themselves because of their involvement in this work.

Through the JPC, students are sent out into the community to practice the principles that Perkins established when he founded the Christian Community Development Association, a network of Christians who work to restore deteriorating communities in the United States.

The Center grounds itself in John Perkins’ “three Rs” — reconciliation, relocation, and redistribution — the foundation of a set of eight Christian Community Development principles that look at how to build healthy communities. CCD work uses an ancient Chinese proverb as an outline of the principles, which says: “Go to the people. Live among them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build on what they have. But with the best leaders, when their task is done, the people will remark, ‘We have done it ourselves.’”

I have seen the Center mentor students in leadership and transform historical programs like SPRINT, Urban Involvement, and Latreia. Their engagement now goes beyond a charity model into one that moves students toward community development and a life of engaging social change. The goal for the student experience is stepping out of their comfort zones and “relocating” into different contexts that will shape who they are.

“We hope students will step out of their comfort zone and into different contexts that will help shape who they are.”
—Caenisha Warren

Recently, we surveyed students who had served in leadership roles with the Perkins Center to find out what they had gained through their involvement. Students wrote about engaging discomfort and difference, acknowledging privilege and hearing someone else’s story, learning humility and perspective, and moving beyond stereotypes.

“JPC taught me how to engage in my story, listen to others’ stories, and learn more deeply [about] the different communities’ stories,” one student wrote. “Just because my perspective seems true doesn’t mean it is complete, or the best perspective.”

The Center is helping students to live life where people, community, justice, and reconciliation meet. We teach leadership that is developing students’ capacity to learn from a community. We teach reconciliation might begin with the individual, but it also requires us to look at the laws and practices that perpetuate inequitable treatment. Perkins preaches that reconciliation values people and sees worth in their capacity to contribute toward their community.

Reconciliation presents us with something beyond just ourselves, beyond our will, and beyond our world. Perkins’ personal story of transformation demonstrates how a person’s life can be changed by the power of reconciliation. In Perkins’ book Beyond Charity, he writes, “The purpose of the Gospel is to reconcile alienated people to God and to each other, across racial, cultural, social, and economic barriers.”

Reconciliation requires sitting in places of intersection and connection; finding places of historical perspective, as well as present growth, and engaging opportunities for learning and even unlearning.

In 2010, DeHeavalyn Pullium ’11, a senior at SPU, started a discussion series on race and justice called “In Context” on campus. “In Context” was controversial at first, but today, these discussion groups are woven into the fabric of student life on campus.

In 2015, I was in Memphis attending the Christian Community Development Association conference, when a young man approached me at a restaurant. “You don’t remember me. My name is Tim,” he said. “I was in the first group that did ‘In Context’ when I was a student at SPU, and I wanted to let you know it had a huge impact. In fact, it is why I am here at CCDA.”

The Center’s work focuses on student engagement on campus and in the broader community. It provides the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing programs of our partners, build relationships, and learn from the leaders and the communities. Students come to understand that redistribution speaks about more than just economics.

We hope students can be motivated by their experiences of being in the community. In addition to their formal education provided in a classroom, we want students to learn through stories about impact and privilege. We seek to help students develop perspective and disrupt stereotypes and judgments. We journey with them as they sit in places of competing ideas and find ways to connect despite differences. We lead them to ask important questions that direct us forward.

“What makes us better leaders is that we are comfortable with being uncomfortable,” a student said about his experience with the Center.

“How are we learning from and drawing on the experiences from those at the margins?”
—Caenisha Warren

Christ’s example shapes how we lead. Jesus relocated, shared in our suffering and pain, and engaged in ministry with people who were on the margins of society. Jesus overturned tables and disrupted the inequitable traditions and unjust systems of his day. At the same time, he cared for and empowered leaders from the people the rest of society pushed to the margins.

If we’re serious about change, we have to be willing to reach out to those at the margins, be led by them, learn from their experiences, and bring them into the center.

Today the Center resides within the University’s campus in the city of Seattle — a campus where student diversity has increased significantly since the Center’s start, even though the University’s composition of faculty and staff, structure, and policy still reflect a predominantly white campus.

Recent years have challenged the University to look beyond the numbers (e.g., how many students of color are enrolled at SPU?) and work toward real changes in people’s hearts and minds. The Center has been in the middle of this tension for the past 15 years, but we continue to carry forward John Perkins’ vision for reconciliation.

As the Center continues to operate at the intersection between campus and community, we want to sustain thriving collaborations, with new partnerships abounding every year. We want to find new ways of inspiring critical reflections and conversations. Our hope is that SPU students will become not just students of the University, but students of the community.

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