By Carolina Lumetta
On Wednesday, Feb. 5, the first annual Rodney Sisco Symposium for Leadership, Diversity and Equity opened with the presentation of the Student Choice Diversity Award to one faculty and one staff member. Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer Sheila Caldwell described the purpose of the award to “celebrate individuals who champion efforts that result in greater awareness, diversity, justice, inclusion and unity for all members of our community.”
William Osborne Society Brotherhood Coordinator and former scholar of the Building Roads to Intellectual Diversity and Greater Education (BRIDGE) program Michael Thompson presented the staff award to BRIDGE coordinator Daniel Watts (‘12). Thompson praised Watts for fostering a community of love for underrepresented students through the high school college access program. Student Government EVP of Community Diversity Estefanía Hernández (‘21) presented the faculty award to Assistant Professor of Philosophy Nathan Cartagena. Hernández described Cartagena’s teaching style as a Christ-like blend of justice and mercy that aligns with Sisco’s legacy.
The Record sat down with both award recipients to learn more about their work. These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Nathan Cartagena
Q: What does receiving this award mean to you?
I’m honored and filled with fear and trepidation because Rodney’s legacy is astounding. I’m overwhelmed that students, many of whom knew Rodney, think I embody the things he embodied. I sometimes feel like John the Baptist when he first meets Jesus: I’m not worthy to handle Rodney’s sandals.
I pray that the Lord empowers me to carry his legacy through my love and care for all students on campus.
Q: What sets apart your teaching style and classes?
I’m committed to helping all students understand their racialized background and the racialized world we inhabit. And students see that I can help them because I am a race scholar, not just a racialized minority. I’ve dedicated my life to reading, listening and writing about race. I do this within an explicitly Christian frame. Students will testify to the fact that we discuss Christian theology in every class. This framing empowers students to see how we can draw from Christian theology to combat racism by the Spirit’s sanctifying power.
Q: What report card would you give the Church when it comes to racial issues?
Bluntly, I would have to give U.S. churches an F. The Church played a foundational role in crafting racism — and then forgetting this history and the impacts it recounts. Such memory loss is what scholars call “organized forgetting,” and leaves Christians stuck in a version of Plato’s cave — we inhabit a racialized world but don’t know it. The Church’s preachers, teachers, and evangelists must address this forgetting and the injustices it promotes. Christ’s commands for us to be just and merciful require that we pay attention to racialized lines of our cave, for it is there that you find rampant injustice and a lack of mercy.
Q: What would you say to students, especially as they continue to wrestle with a lot of racial issues on campus?
I encourage everyone to read church history. Study how the church started constructing racial categories in the fifteenth century, employed those categories to colonize the “New World” and establish pigmentocracies — governments by and for those deemed White — and continued fashioning versions of Christianity that sustained commitments to white supremacy, nationalism and empire. Church history is painful. But studying it equips us to know how to promote the weightier things of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness as in Matthew 23:23 — in our racialized world.
BRIDGE Coordinator Daniel Watts
Q: What does receiving this award mean to you?
I knew Rodney extremely well. We were very close, and I miss him. From the moment I first came to campus as a freshman in the fall of 2008, Rodney was an incredible influence and mentor. I learned a lot of things from him, and I pattern the way I work with students after Rodney. He didn’t have set office hours; you felt like you could always come in and talk to him, you were never interrupting him. I’m very honored and humbled to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Rodney.
Q: What message do you want this award to send to the campus?
When I think about Rodney’s work, the word we use, almost to the point of it being cliche, is love. As a young African American male, it meant a lot to have Rodney supporting me. This needs to be a campus where all students feel known and safe and loved in the fullness of who they are. It’s especially important for me to focus on doing what I can to ensure that happens for minorities.
Q: How would you describe the motivation behind your work?
Ultimately, my faith drives my desire for justice. Due to their different backgrounds, Diversity Award from Page 1 some students have higher chances at desired educational outcomes than others. Some people face greater barriers simply due to the color of their skin or their parents’ education levels. It’s part of my motivation as a Christian to combat those barriers.
When I was younger, I was in a low-income, all-black neighborhood in the Bronx, but I also grew up with college-educated parents. I was in a college access program when I was in middle school, and then I went to an elite high school. I was able to come to Wheaton on a full ride. It’s not because I’m better or smarter — some people just have more opportunities. As I got older, I thought more about the injustice represented in that dichotomy. Love defines the way that I interact with people, and it’s certainly my motivation for my interpersonal interactions. True justice ultimately stems from love.