Newsletter: Volume V, Issue 4

Promoting Spirituality for Diversity Advocacy and Social Justice Education:
A Practitioner’s Perspective

By Patricia Wolfe Anton

As an Assistant Director of Housing responsible for staff training and development, Anton noticed how staff sometimes hesitate to discuss issues of faith and spirituality with students, or even each other. Anton and her colleagues identified the need to educate staff from around campus on how various aspects of social identity, including spirituality and religious identities, impact their work with students. Collaborating with other Student Affairs units, Anton describes the process of developing a new training program around these areas, including challenges and future opportunities for similar work.


University Housing/Residential Life staff at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign engage in ongoing social justice training as part of their staff development. In fall 2009, staff from University Housing/Residential Life and the Student Affairs Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR) collaborated on a four-part series to explore the intersection of various social identities and their impact on students’ growth, peer interactions, and overall college experience. The exploration of spirituality was an important factor of social identity in this dialogue series. The following sections provide an overview of the background of the campus climate at University of Illinois and the units involved in this training series, a description of the program format, challenges and barriers we encountered, as well as future implications and recommendations to other campuses interested in engaging in similar work.


The University of Illinois is a large, public, Research I, land-grant institution in the Midwest that attracts many undergraduates from the Chicago area and beyond, and also boasts the highest population of international students among public institutions in the nation. Racial tension on the campus has been one of the most palpable social issues on the campus over the years due to the presence of the controversial Native American “Chief Illiniwek” symbol representing the athletic teams before its retirement in 2007. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and staff have had an increasing presence and voice on the campus in the past decade, with the LGBT Resource Center being established as a result. Ethnic cultural houses on the University of Illinois’ campus include the 40-year old African American Cultural Program, the 35-year old La Casa Cultural Latina, and newer initiatives of the Asian American Cultural Center and Native American House. Additionally, the Women’s Resource Center opened its doors in fall 2009 after outgrowing a single office after many years. Although a public institution, the campus is infused with a variety of churches, temples, mosques, and meeting houses throughout its landscape to support a very religiously active student body.

Staff in the residence halls works closely with all these diverse populations as undergraduate students are required to live on campus in certified housing for their first year. The Department of Residential Life in University Housing at Illinois has included social justice education and training for staff as well as students as a primary value and annual strategic plan goal for the past decade due to the necessity of meeting the needs of a diverse and changing student population. One way to carry out this work has been to dedicate the fall semester’s staff development series to a particular social justice issue for further exploration, understanding, and action planning.

Over the years staff has tackled conversations of race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religion and spirituality, gender, and ability in the format of a multiple-part learning series. The dialogue has never proven to be exclusive to these topics as staff recognize that one’s ability to consider their own or their students’ experiences around socio-economic status, for example, are deeply rooted in the overlap of their race, nationality, gender, ability, and so forth. It became apparent that the next step in the dialogue process needed to be an exploration of the intersection of various social identities at play.

Given this need for training around identity intersections, it seemed obvious that the Residential Life staff should reach out to other professional staff in Student Affairs and, in particular, to the various cultural centers and cultural programs that exist on campus to engage together in this learning series. Only recently have these offices been under the umbrella Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations, operating as a team of units with similar goals to serve students of particular populations, while also serving as a resource and educational program to all Illinois students. Coming together to participate in the staff learning series with the Residential Life staff would be a new initiative for the OIIR staff.


The goals of the staff learning series were:

Staff from both units met several times in the summer 2009 to decide upon the topics for each of the four sessions. The University of Illinois had just released information about its “One Book, One Campus” title for 2009-2010, alumnae Eboo Patel’s (2007) Acts of Faith, which staff decided would be a perfect backdrop to the learning series. The themes of the book include a coming-of-age process in regard to identity development, including faith development, learning to appreciate faith traditions other than one’s own, and finding common goals to work together as allies to serve the needy. These themes provided excellent connections to the goals of the learning series.

The following topics were selected and members of the Residential Life professional staff were paired with members of the OIIR staff based on expertise, interest area, and/or willingness to lead a particular session/topic. For interested staff, informal dialogue often followed at lunch in the dining hall immediately follow each program, and an optional book club was offered after the four-part series for staff wanting to discuss Patel’s book further.

Session I: Getting to Know Each Other; Introduction to the intersection of identity and how this effects social inclusion
Session II: Sexual orientation and gender issues intersecting with other social identities
Session III: Race, culture, and spirituality
Session IV: “Bi-and multi-” racial, ethnic, sexual, religious; exploring issues of students and staff living in the world of “both”; multicultural competencies student affairs professionals should build to model the conversation of multiple identities at play

The topics of religion and spirituality surfaced in all four sessions, but were a particular focus in session III. The presenting team guided staff through dialogue activities where participants explored how their race and cultural upbringing specifically impacted their religious life (or absence of), and vice versa. This session, as was true in past years when the topic of organized religion was brought up, became passionate and personal at times and somewhat uncomfortable for some, while very energizing for others. Most staff agreed that it is easier and “safer” to discuss the broader concept and experience of spirituality, because religion – defined by the group as being affiliated with a formal faith tradition – often pushes buttons. While these dialogues proved to be a difficult, they were a necessary part of exploring religious diversity and how it impacts the way we do our work and work with students.


Inviting staff from other units into one’s fold can be tricky. Residential Life staff spend hours on team building initiatives and often have a family atmosphere as part of their organizational cultural that can sometimes be foreign or intimidating to outsiders. As a result, inviting the OIIR staff to the table presented some challenges in building trust in a short time period so that true dialogue could occur around the complex topics. Departmental units providing the time for staff to participate in an ongoing learning series also proved to be difficult; smaller units in OIIR, in particular, that only have 1-2 full-time professional staff can struggle with simple office coverage issues.

Additionally, of all the various social identities that the staff has explored, religion has typically proven to be the most difficult, uncomfortable, contentious, and even threatening to some for a variety of personal reasons, with the most often cited conflict being the conflict between many organized religious traditions and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender identities. Acknowledging spirituality as a part of one’s identity, wellness, and holistic experience as a person has been a safer path for some, but a watered down approach to discussing the topic for others. The Department of Residential Life has long promoted an environment of safety, acceptance, and celebration for LGBT s taff and allies; supporting this population has often been more salient and even necessary due to the number of “out” staff, and Urbana-Champaign offers a number of religious communities for those who wish to practice and express this facet of their identity. With these challenges in mind, being able to understand the importance that both religion and spirituality play in many college students’ lives, being able to dialogue with students about their spiritual journeys and crises, and being sensitive to students’ faith traditions are critical multicultural competencies for Residential Life and other Student Affairs staff to hone (Pope, Reynolds, Mueller, 2004).


This staff learning series partnership has strengthened the relationships not only between the Residential Life staff and the cultural centers/programs, but also among the OIIR staff as well in their early development as a unit. The depth and breadth of the staff learning series would not have been possible without collaboration from the various units. If other organizations are considering such training or development, it is highly recommended that partnership with various Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, and/or campus community agencies be included in the planning process. Most campuses, public or private, have campus ministries or pastoral councils as resources for students; this is a great place for Academic or Student Affairs units to start fostering partnerships. Cultural centers on campus are often seeking ways to collaborate with other units, as their funding is typically limited, and they often attract a homogeneous population of followers (which is part of their initial purpose, but can be limiting in regard to campus integration.) Asking the director of a cultural center to join your office or organization for a meeting, training session, or advisory group is a good place to start.

Additionally, an organization must recognize that classroom-based training and development programs are only one part of the staff learning process; it is important to encourage projects and partnerships to continue once the initial programs have concluded. This can be in the form of offering programming together in the residence halls or cultural centers, co-teaching classes that may be offered through the units, inviting staff to serve on search committees, or offering optional, follow-up “brown bag lunches” for staff who are interested in further exploration of the topics to continue the dialogue.

In regard to the “how” to engage in such dialogue, critical elements (common to most social justice education) seem to be necessary when planning each session: facilitating “ground rules” with the group, allowing participants to share their own stories, providing time for active listening skills to be practiced (and practiced again!), and striving toward common, achievable goals as a bridge to action and long-term learning.


Spiritual development overlaps and impacts all facets of an individual’s identity development, and thus is an important social justice issue to consider. For many of our students and even our staff, it is their most salient identity area, but yet we often provide little space on public (and private) campuses to express and explore spirituality. Units wishing to engage in social justice work should take the time to include religion and spirituality in their staff training and development programs. Although it takes some work, collaboration with other units on campus often results in a rich, engaging, and worthwhile learning experience for both staff and students.


Patricia (Trish) Wolfe Anton has served in various Residential Life positions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign her entire professional career, since graduating from Indiana University’s master’s program in College Student Personnel / Higher Education in 1993. In her current role as Assistant Director of Housing for Residential Life, Anton is responsible for the supervision of professional hall staff (Area Coordinators & Residence Hall Directors) in the eight residence halls on the Champaign campus. She has extensive experience with crisis management, staff supervision, and conflict mediation. Additionally, Anton coordinates all of Residential Life’s staff training and development programs, co-manages the departmental paraprofessional class, and teaches a for-credit undergraduate courses on social justice. Her areas of professional expertise include social justice education, adult learning and mentoring new professionals. Trish is an alumna of the National Housing Training Institute, the Social Justice Training Institute, the Disney Institute on People Management, and has completed doctoral coursework in Human Resource Education at the University of Illinois to further her expertise in these subjects.


Patel, E. (2007). Acts of faith: The story of an American Muslim, the struggle for the soul of a generation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pope, R.L., Reynolds, A.L., Mueller, J.A. (2004). Multicultural competence in student affairs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.