Melissa Bartholomew fosters diversity, inclusion, and belonging at HDS
Melissa Wood Bartholomew, MDiv ’15, has been here before—the horrifying event, the protests, the renewed pledges, soon forgotten, to combat racism. While she has concerns about whether the current movement for racial justice will be sustained, she says this time feels different.
“Five or ten years ago,” she remembers, “we were confronted with the same issues that are at the core of the racial justice movement today: the killing of Black people (e.g., Eric Garner) at the hands of police, the movement for Black Lives, and the fight against systemic racism. Still, in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—and given the coronavirus’s impact on communities of color—there seems now to be a deeper commitment to systemic change. Moreover, it’s global.”
Bartholomew has “been here before” at HDS as well. As a master of divinity student, she and her classmate Rachel Foran cofounded the HDS Racial Justice and Healing Initiative to “advance racial justice and healing by means of cross-disciplinary dialogue, scholarship, and training designed to address personal and systemic racism through strategies rooted in love.” Following graduation, while pursuing her PhD in social work at Boston College, she returned to campus as a racial justice fellow where she facilitated conversations designed to help make HDS a more authentic, inclusive community.
Now Bartholomew is back again, with a mandate from the School’s leaders to take this work to a new level as HDS’s associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB).
“I believe the goal of DIB is to create an atmosphere where people can bring their whole selves to the community,” she says. “It’s work that’s rooted in compassion.”
A successful litigator and mediator who teaches restorative justice at Boston College Law School and diversity at Boston College School of Social Work, Bartholomew hopes to bring not only the deep listening skills of a minister and healing practitioner to the role of associate dean, but also the habits of mind of an attorney and mediator.
“As lawyers, we’re trained to see all sides and build an argument that is counter to our own,” she says. “When you can understand and make a case for someone else, it enhances your ability to love your neighbor as yourself. It enables you to have compassion and empathy in the most difficult circumstances. As a mediator, you are able to bring all parties to the table and facilitate a process that will hopefully move them closer to resolution than they were when they stepped into the room.”
Bartholomew is also a licensed Baptist minister whose commitment to the work of diversity, inclusion, and belonging is deeply rooted in her spiritual life. She describes herself as a Christ-centered minister—a nod to her daily commitment to cultivate the Christ consciousness that enables her with love when she encounters racism and oppression.
“I have the Holy Spirit that animates me and orients me and reminds me of my own frailties and shortcomings,” she says. “That Spirit is a power greater than me, yet in me. So this is not an intellectual endeavor. It is work that requires the head and the heart, and I believe it also requires the Spirit. The path of love and justice is the foundation of all I do.”
Bartholomew says that HDS is uniquely positioned to address racial justice and healing—and to bring that work into the world. Her vision for DIB is to build a connected, cohesive community that is engaged in antiracist and anti-oppression work “from the inside out.” Along those lines, she hopes to leverage the School’s curriculum and programming to help prepare leaders of all major traditions—and those with no tradition at all—to serve diverse communities and work to eradicate racism wherever they find it. She says this work begins at home with the HDS community and each of its members.
“Before systemic racism can be addressed, we must begin by addressing the way racism manifests within ourselves,” she says. “As an instructor at HDS, I’m part of a classroom environment that acknowledges that reality as part of an effort to cultivate interpersonal change. That work expands beyond this space—out in the world but also at home where we engage with people who don’t share our views. The approach is individual and interpersonal.”
Such high-touch efforts will be a challenge as the School continues to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. During the 2020–21 academic year, Bartholomew will devote much of her time to helping students feel like they’re a genuine part of the HDS community, even though they may be thousands of miles away from campus.
“While we’re online, my priority is to support the School’s ongoing efforts to strengthen our foundation and address the pressing needs of this challenging period in a way that gets us on solid footing,” she says. “We’re responding to all that students bring—the trauma, grief, and uncertainty, as well as the hope and excitement.”
Long-term changes in the culture of a 200-year-old school won’t come quickly. Bartholomew urges patience, compassion, and understanding during a time when emotions are running high.
“In a moment of anger and outrage, it’s so important to maintain the long view and understand that what’s required is a cultural shift,” she explains. “That shift takes time and commitment. There’s no ‘off’ switch. It’s long-term, internal work. We have to strategize and incorporate methods to take us through.”
—by Paul Massari