About Dr. Kenneth Christiansen

Photo of Dr. Kenneth Christiansen My professional career includes thirty-four years, 1974-2008, teaching courses in religion and sociology at Defiance College, Defiance, Ohio; four years, 1970-74, serving as pastor of Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Somonauk, Illinois; and two years, 1965-67, as a parish worker at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois.

Holy Trinity was a storefront congregation located at 29 East 47th Street, half a block from the center line of the Robert Taylor Homes, the largest public housing project in the United States at the time. Prior to this volunteer engagement I had lived an almost entirely white world. My entry into the black world of public housing residents and the surrounding black Southside of Chicago changed my life. Nothing could be taken for granted. People took care of us. I was invited to dinner at a home in the projects after church one of my first Sundays. The interior of the apartment, the smells of chicken and other things cooking, all seemed familiar. After a blessing we started eating. What did awaken my consciousness was when I noticed everyone else had paused eating and was looking at me. Then someone gathered their courage to ask, “Please pass the knife.” I hadn’t noticed that I had the only place setting that included a knife. I came to know that family very well. That was just the beginning of an extensive re-education.

Others had similar surprises. A female member of our team started a group for teenage girls. She met them all at the church the first night. When it came time for the next meeting, a half hour before the meeting, she heard a knock at her door. When she opened it she saw five or six girl from her group. She asked, “What are you doing here? Aren’t we supposed to meet at the church?” One of the girls said, “Lady we don’t walk anywhere by ourselves in this neighborhood and you aren’t going to either.” They continued to escort her to the church for their meeting weekly.

Friendship Press, affiliated with the National Council of Churches, published my board game Dignity in 1967. Dignity simulates life as experienced by residents of the Robert Taylor Homes Public Housing Project in Chicago, 1965-67. The activities of the Civil Rights campaign of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Chicago in the summer of 1966 also play a role in the gameThe game sold over 10,000 copies before going out of print in the mid 1970s.

Why the theme, Asset-Based Anti-Racism?

For seventeen years at Defiance College, 1980-1997, I taught Cultural Diversity classes every semester to a collection of Education majors, Criminal Justice majors, Social Work majors, Religion Majors, and a smattering of others. The student population in my classes, like the college itself, was mostly but not all white. Many were first generation college students. My assigned task was to help prepare these students to work professionally in schools and agencies where they would be working with children and adults from every race, ethnicity, and economic background. I had one semester to make a difference in their personal and professional lives.

At the beginning of every class, we began by looking at the history of prejudice, discrimination and oppression in our country. We didn’t sugarcoat anything. Somewhere in the first several weeks it inevitably became clear that many or most of the Caucasian students in the class were feeling a lot of guilt. Not guilt for things they themselves had done. Rather, guilt for things members of their race had done historically. Or guilt for the advantages they or their racial ancestors enjoyed at others’ expense. This would typically cause them to show signs of shutting down; to parse every response they made in class discussion; to become very unsure of themselves. Open class discussion became more difficult. I did not and do not see this development as healthy. I could only imagine how tongue-tied they would be at the end of the semester and how limited they would be when helping a student or client in their chosen profession later in life.

My response was to share what I observed to be an empowering message. “If you actually have done any of the horrible things we are learning about, or if you have intentionally utilized your advantages, your privileges, to disadvantage or injure someone else, by all means feel guilty. If, on the other hand, you haven’t done these things, get angry instead. Get angry at racism and oppression wherever you see it.”

Guilt, I explained, is anger directed inward. If you let it build up, it will eventually either eat you up or burst out as anger directed toward others. If, on the other hand, you feel anger instead of guilt when you see injustice or discrimination, that anger can energize and mobilize you to fight oppression in all of its forms for the rest of your life. Anger at oppression can inspire you to speak up, to join with others to fight injustice. At the personal level it can inspire you to listen to victims of oppression, how they perceive their situation, and join them in rebuilding their lives and the world they and we live in.

Persons who see themselves as assets that can bring about needed positive changes will accomplish much more for the common good than persons who are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. I am calling this the Asset-Based approach to Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression. This name was inspired in part by the practice of Asset-Based Community Development as described by John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight in the book, Building Communities From The Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (ACTA Publications, Skokie, IL, 1993). Their work is continued at the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University in Chicago, https://resources.depaul.edu/abcd-institute/Pages/default.aspx.