Changing the Culture: An Interview with Lynn Sullivan

Lynn Sullivan is helping YDS through historic times. Earlier this year she became the School’s first Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In that role she provides guidance as YDS works to implement anti-racism practices in its culture, enhance accessibility, and provide an experience of belonging for all minoritized students. She represents YDS in Yale University’s campus-wide programmatic DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging) efforts and serves on the School’s Anti-Racism Task Force. The Task Force is providing recommendations for decentering institutional whiteness at YDS by addressing intellectual practices, curriculum, recruitment and retention, the needs of students of color, and preparing YDS graduates for 21st century issues of diversity, justice, and reconciliation.

Before coming to Yale, Lynn worked for 20 years as a senior administrator at independent schools and has served as chair of the Commission on Diversity in Independent Schools for the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools. She has degrees from Rutgers University, the University of Bridgeport, and Columbia University. The following are excerpts from an interview with Reflections in August 2021.

Lessons from the pandemic …

Lynn Sullivan: The pandemic has taught us a lot—we’ve all received a crash course in accessibility. It has forced institutions to be much more mindful of who needs what when it comes to, for example, remote learning and meetings. By taking care to find the best software for transcribing or making sure everybody has access to a meeting, we’ve learned to focus in a comprehensive way on what individual needs are. That’s the difference between working from an equality viewpoint and moving toward an equity viewpoint. Equality is giving everybody the same thing. Equity is giving people what they need to thrive. That means greater attention to individual needs. It’s energy-expensive work, yet very necessary work.

Equality is giving everybody the same thing. Equity is giving people what they need to thrive. That means greater attention to individual needs. We are not doing our job as 21st-century educators if we are not attuned to all these dynamics.

We are not doing our job as 21st-century educators if we are not attuned to all these dynamics. So even if it takes more time—with more voices to include, and then operationalizing what we have learned from listening to them—we all need to play a role in evolving best practices. 

On whether disability issues have been left behind in an age of reckonings … 

Sullivan: Disability has not always gotten the same level of attention that other identities have, but I wouldn’t say disability is being left behind. Let’s keep in mind that the scope of who identifies as disabled is much broader than physical disabilities—it includes chronic illnesses, invisible disabilities, and more. Those who are identified as being differently abled are now asserting their voices in ways that other historically excluded groups have done so in the past and continue to today. They find themselves burdened with the responsibility of advocacy, which is not dissimilar to the ways in which BIPOC, LGBTQI+ and non-binary students have had to lift their burdens over time. They are rightly fighting to have their presence affirmed, fighting to change the culture. They want more than a nod of solidarity; they want measurable action.

One obstacle that people with disabilities want to overcome is a social concept that’s similar to color blindness, the position that “I don’t see color.” When churches say that, they are trying to say, “Come as you are, we love everybody the same.” Actually, that sentiment can’t be enhanced until we notice the range of identities we purport to love and, in doing so, employ action to quite literally enable those with disabilities to come through the doors and access all spaces and attune ourselves to a variety of needs. Our challenge is to be intentional in appreciating all people, the whole range of identities. What do we learn as sighted children when we notice a person using a wheelchair or someone who may show visible behaviors that fall on the autism spectrum? A parent or guardian is likely to warn us, “Don’t stare—that’s rude.” And the conversation ends right there. That ought to be a moment that opens a conversation. Instead, a child has learned that something here is wrong, outside the norm, which sends messages that manifest through one’s whole life: people who are different become invisible.

We are an ecumenical environment here, yes, yet we must always reflect back to fundamental beginnings: who did Jesus tend to? I wonder if that’s something we need to remember in our church spaces. Do we have blind spots in terms of representation in our liturgies and in our exposure to expressions from those who are differently abled? What happens when decisions about representation in our institutions results in a retreat back to ableist actions and attitudes?  

The credit for much of the progress we have made goes to those who are affected the most. Similar to the experience of other historically underrepresented groups in many spaces, it is also important to recognize that sustained progress will happen when those who are not directly impacted also decide to use their able-bodied privilege to change practice and culture.

On sympathy vs empathy …

Sullivan: We don’t need sympathy models anymore—we can’t rest with models that merely give marginalized groups a seat at the table. We need a commitment to real empathy, with humility that generates concrete action. To be truly empathetic to the situation of another person requires work. It can be painful. But we need to sit with the discomfort. It means enduring all the feelings we had last summer after the murder of George Floyd and challenging what we thought we knew about ourselves and our identities. Are we willing to sustain this momentum we’ve found at the expense of a man named George Floyd? We have a responsibility to be in solidarity alongside those who have been living with the harm done to them. That’s empathy.

So much depends on recognizing the atrocities of our history. We can’t do anything until we all come to terms with the truth, as difficult as that may be. At Yale we are encouraging folks to practice how to wrestle with that discomfort in ways that lead to transformative learning and being in community with one another. This is not intended to shame or wave a finger, but there has to be a level of accountability.  

The challenge of diversity at YDS and in the US …

Sullivan: As a divinity school we have a moral obligation to move beyond window dressing. It’s an easy enough exercise to look at our syllabi and see who’s missing from it and make some changes. It’s more difficult to move the needle on the culture of a place. We can point to a lot that we have done so far, but where we still have opportunities for growth is in identifying the conditions necessary to cultivate a true sense of belonging—supporting marginalized students’ ability to access, thrive in, and collaborate fully in the community. 

Students for very good reason are impatient, because many students, especially minoritized students, are on the receiving end of harm in this country. There is a heightened sense of urgency to live up to the fullness of God—to reform an environment where we can hold authentic conversations, recognize and acknowledge our harms as well as our progress, and create the beloved community we want to live and breathe in.