White Students for Racial Justice leaders discuss organization goals


Kat Marquez

The Intercultural Programs’ White Students for Racial Justice (WRJ) put on the event, “Making ‘Good Trouble’ across Disciplinary Lines: Anti-Racism & the Pursuit of Justice” last Thursday, Nov. 12. In the all-student email, co-leader Lauren Petersen shared that the event was partly inspired by the late civil rights activist John Lewis, who used the phrase “good trouble” to pursue justice and hope. Three professors, Dr. Yadav, associate professor of religious studies, Dr. Nwaokelemeh, associate professor of kinesiology, and Dr. Knecht, professor of political science, each shared their own academic research about pursuing anti-racism before attendees went into breakout rooms to discuss and process how their work applies to our lives.

In the excerpt of the interview below, co-leaders Emily Mosher, Lauren Petersen and Caleb Liebengood give insight into their inspiration, their goals and more. At the end of the interview, they shared some ways people who are interested in WRJ can reach out to them for more information.

Q: What inspired WRJ to put on the event, whether individually or as an organization?

Emily Mosher: “[WRJ’s advisor] Dr. Whitnah empowered us to do an event that focused on something we feel WRJ should represent and partake in: antiracism and protest … The campus is in need of more honest conversations from WRJ. Individually, I really have been wanting to do an event that sparked uncomfortable and blunt conversation and caught the administration’s attention … It’s integral for white students to understand the importance of antiracist work/protest, as well as for students of color to feel heard and supported by us as WRJ leaders.” 

Lauren Petersen: “Topics of anti-racism work and protest as a Christian practice are critical to talk about, especially after the protest on campus last semester and the national protests of this summer. We wanted to challenge people to see how research can be one form of subverting and critiquing the status quo in the pursuit of justice.”

Caleb Liebengood: “We wanted to do an event that went farther and engaged students in a way that previous WRJ events hadn’t done … [Our event] helped students to think about why and how Christians should pursue racial justice and why protesting racial injustice is something that is not antithetical to the Gospel.”

Q: What made you select Dr. Yadav, Dr. Nwaokelemeh and Dr. Knecht?

EM: “Dr. Whitnah offered their names up as possibilities of faculty who have connected their professional research to racial justice. Caleb and I had taken class with Dr. Yadav and are really inspired by his commitment to Biblical justice and truth, so we knew we had to ask him.”

LP: “We wanted to include professors from across several different disciplines — humanities and sciences — to show that there’s a lot of different forms that anti-racist work can take on. If we had more time for the event, it would have been incredible to have even more share! I loved how each of them were able to bring a unique lens on the implications that racial injustice takes in different spheres of our lives from public health to the politics of sports to how we view the Christian faith.”

CL: “I had taken classes with Dr. Yadav and Dr. Knecht, and I was really looking forward to hearing from them. Dr. Nwaokelemeh’s perspective on advocating for public health equality as a form of protest was really interesting and something that I think is underlooked.”

Q: Why should the Westmont community care about “Good Trouble” or any aspect of WRJ’s event?

EM: “Good trouble is necessary for genuine growth in racial and social equality at Westmont. As we said in the opening of our event, we are not “stirring up trouble” as many members of administration claim, but we are simply naming the disparities that already exist here when we protest or partake in antiracist work. Last spring’s protest revealed that. More specifically, if the white members of Westmont’s community do not care about ‘Good Trouble,’ they are blind to racial and social injustices that already exist; simply put: they are comfortable in their own privilege.”

LP: “Pursuing racial justice is never going to be easy or comfortable. A lot of times in Christian circles, we’re taught to keep the peace and avoid conflict, but I think conversations/activism towards racial justice always come with some discomfort and risk. Our hope with this event was to offer some models of how professors are doing this in an academic context in order to inspire students and other faculty/staff to consider how they might also engage in activism, asking hard questions, and practice ethical dissent when they see injustice around them. We wanted this to be a reminder to not settle for Christian niceness because it’s easy or safe, but instead, to go against the grain of easy answers in pursuit of true justice.”

CL: “Pursuing racial reconciliation is part of what it means to follow Jesus. If we take serious Jesus’ life, it means recognizing the ways that he challenged institutions and the status quo and called us to mourn and hunger for justice. The in-breaking reign of the upside-down Kingdom of God certainly causes good trouble. We knew that these professors would be a good model for what it looks like to pursue justice in the world of academia.”

Q: What does it mean to be part of WRJ?

EM: “It means that you are committing to understanding and developing your white identity; it means you are taking a step towards an antiracist life through honest conversations and a community of people who will hold you accountable … [I can] share my story with racial justice and inspire other people who are in similar spots I have been in in my journey, and to encourage them to keep going. I love that students have models of what it looks like to not know what the heck you’re doing, but pushing through to better yourself and acknowledge the privileges we share as white people.”

LP: “We really want WRJ to be a space for white students to come join wherever they’re at in thinking about race and pursuing justice. For me, leading does not mean I have it all figured out … I’m continuing to realize how far I still have to go and learn! Instead, it means creating space to grow alongside other students asking similar questions and pulling together resources and people who offer helpful insight as we think about this along the way. I view it as a place to ask ignorant questions and mess up, but to continue to place transformative justice as a value we’re actively seeking.”

CL: “It means participating in a community that is thinking about and pursuing justice … for people to think critically and humbly and have important conversations about what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be White … [At WRJ, we] learn about the history of racial injustice in our world, the ways we are complicit, and how we move forward together. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help lead and grow alongside Westmont students.”

Each co-leader acknowledged that the conversations about race and racial justice can be difficult. However, they agreed that WRJ serves as a space for white students to understand and educate one another on how to be active participants in transformational anti-racism work in the communities around them through fruitful conversations.

For more information about White Students for Racial Justice, you can email the co-leaders at emosher@westmont.edu, caliebengood@westmont.edu, or lpetersen@westmont.edu, follow them on Instagram, or their Linktree. A recording of their event can be found here.

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