When the Rev. John G. Fee founded Berea College in the 1850s, he was inspired to base his school on what he called “the gospel of impartial love.” This radical inclusivity meant that all persons seeking education, regardless of means or any social constraints then in effect, were invited. Black and white students were welcomed, as were women and men.
Providing education regardless of race or gender was radical for its time. It was Rev. Fee’s calling in the 19th century to do something about this exclusion. In the 21st century, as we mark Pride Month, we know that impartial love extends to more than two races and to a broader view of gender. Identity and difference have become richer and more complex in our society, and it is Berea’s history and calling to be welcoming and inclusive of these differences, just as Rev. Fee once was.
Our gospel of impartial love, which has become the College’s motto and mission, is based on the Bible verse, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26). We have leaned into this mission over the years to create a campus environment that welcomes “all peoples” in a spirit of human kinship. And we have, as a community, expressed this gospel through our eight Great Commitments, which serve as the moral and philosophical framework for all that Berea College does. To very briefly summarize, we are committed to providing a robust liberal arts education, work opportunities, and a supportive environment to excellent, low-income students of any race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, with a focus on students from Appalachia and to environmental sustainability.
We have grown over time in our understandings of what Berea’s Great Commitments really mean. We like to say that we are both being and becoming. While we are doing our best to live up to our commitments with regard to race and gender equity, we also seek always to refine and extend our understanding.
That certainly applies to welcoming members of the LGBTQPIA+ community. Only in recent decades have we begun to acknowledge gender beyond the binary of man and woman and have instead begun to see gender as a spectrum. This growth in understanding applies to our other commitments as well. At the time that Berea College was founded, understanding and engagement between Blacks and Whites were the paramount issues of national concern. Our interracial education commitment initially then focused only on interactions between those two groups, but now it extends to all races. While antiblack racism is still the most pressing interracial concern in our society, we are now also very aware of the mistreatment of other groups on the basis of racial identity. Racial equity, like gender equity, must extend to all.
As Berea’s own feminist icon bell hooks teaches, our struggles across race and gender differences are interconnected. Learning from her and other feminists of color, we know that diversity of race and gender on Berea’s campus will enrich the educational experience of all. We have much to learn from each other, and that learning cannot happen through exclusion. We have further come to realize the significance of intersectionality, that persons who find themselves in more than one marginalized identity category often experience exclusion and mistreatment to even greater extent.
Our whole community owns and embraces the Great Commitments. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni push us today to live up to our stated ideals with regard to race and gender equity. All expect us to mean what we say in our motto and mission when we promise to regard as “of one blood all peoples of the earth,” but we feel a special obligation to the students we serve, many of whom have experienced mistreatment on account of their identity. For this reason, we established a center on campus this year, to be named the bell hooks center, where we use the insights of feminists of color to marry the College’s commitment to gender equity with its commitment to racial equity in order to provide a safe environment for our students to be their authentic selves. We also recently created gender-inclusive housing within our residence hall structure so that all Berea College students can feel safe and comfortable on campus.
During Pride Month, we proudly recommit ourselves to welcoming all peoples of the earth by applying our Great Commitments beyond all binaries.