As part of our series, “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society,” I had the pleasure to interview Rev. Dr. Lena Crouso.

Rev. Dr. Lena Crouso serves as the Chief Diversity Officer in the Office of Intercultural Learning and Engagement at Southern Nazarene University, and she is also an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. Dr. Crouso is the daughter of Asian-Indian immigrants and states that her journey from Hinduism to Christ, along with her diverse life path, has given her a heart and mind for the empowerment of all people through intercultural understanding and a desire to lead people in spiritual and emotional ways, empowering students to move toward social transformation and freedom.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up as a daughter of Asian Indian immigrants. My parents came to this country, the United States in 1960, and my father got a scholarship to study at Rice University. He was part of an immigration influx when the U.S. was looking for some of the best mathematicians and engineers around the world. He was able to come and really work towards what you would call the space race. He came here with my mother and my sister from India. I was born in Houston, Texas, and then my brother was born. And then we began our immigrant journey here in the United States. I spent a lot of my formative years going back and forth from the United States to India.

I developed within the context of two cultures, and that is often known as a third-culture person. As my formative years began to come to an end, we moved to Ohio, and that’s where I started my real assimilation from being an immigrant and transformed to embody the best of both cultures — my Indian heritage and my American culture.

In addition to a cultural transformation, I went through a spiritual one. I was raised as a Hindu, which is the religion of India. When my parents immigrated here, they carried on those traditions. Later in life as an adult, however, through my spiritual journey, I found an affinity and a sense of belonging and love from the understanding of being a follower of Christ. Through that shift in my spiritual journey, I became a follower of Christ, and it’s made a significant impact on my life.

As a Christian, I began to understand what it means to be intercultural. Regardless of our diverse intersections of identity and how we identify, we all care deeply about our beloved communities throughout the world. So we can come together in unity, in our diversity.

Therefore, my upbringing contributed quite a bit to my understanding of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice, and has been a formational part of my professional, personal, and spiritual journeys. I often interlay all these things together and don’t really compartmentalize them, because as these common aspects of life all come together, I can see why we must pursue reconciliation and goodness with each other.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Well, I will say that I am definitely a lover of books. I have often thought of books as my friends. As a daughter of Asian Indian immigrants, there were many, many times of loneliness and uncertainties. I’ve found that books were very comforting and a way in which I could find belonging and kind of immerse myself in these stories. I think, to this day, I value interesting stories, whether they are fiction or nonfiction. I value what they mean to the condition of humanity and also to the best of humanity. I think that there’s a connection there. But there is one book that I think has a significant impact on me, which is really Gandhi: An Autobiography — The Story of My Experiments With Truth.

Though Gandhi is of a different faith, he is such an important historical person who framed and formed much of what we think about peace, nonviolence, and how to mobilize for justice through a peaceful process. Through his autobiography, Gandhi had an impact on me, as I came to understand the circumstances and the experiences that he went through that began to frame his ideas about freeing an entire nation from being ruled under British colonization. To see how he embodied the work of peace, the work of reconciliation, and the work of nonviolence, and mobilized those ideals to pursue justice and promote love in the world, really has had a significant impact on me, especially as one of Indian origin.

Gandhi also translated all the biblical interpretations of the Scriptures, and really took them into his being and felt strongly drawn to Jesus and wanted to embody the model of Jesus as a leader and a teacher. That also had a profound impact on me as I started to think through what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a teacher, and how to have an impact that is transcendent. That is the embodiment of a spiritual love, a theology of love, if you will. So that book particularly drew me closer to my own identity, my own roots, my own ancestry, but also to the work that I believe God has called on me to devote my time and energy and life to.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I will say that I draw a lot of strength from Micah 6:8, which is a biblical text that advocates how I individually should live in the world: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” That quote really speaks to me as a life lesson that reminds us all to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. When I need something simple to ground me, that is a very, very comforting, familiar, and empowering kind of life message that I can rely on.

Let me break it down a little further. To act justly is a way to ensure people are treated with equity and goodness through individual actions and societal actions. To love mercy is really the embodiment of loving compassionately, the capacity to care deeply and be empathetic, and also the ability to receive care. It’s a beautiful kind of circular understanding of what it means to love. It is given and it is received. I really like the symbolism of that.

Then, of course, to walk humbly is something that I need to be reminded of every day. There are so many ways in which our work can overpower us, the day-to-day pressures and stressors and things on our list, and the things that test our emotional and mental wellbeing. The ways in which we interact socially, and even now in the ways that we are moving through the COVID-19 pandemic. All the things that are happening around us, even in our nation with racial injustice and other challenges. When you think of walking humbly, that is a really important way to be reminded that we can be fully dependent on God to be our strength and our peace and our grace. We need that when we find that we are losing our way. So the Micah 6:8 passage is very meaningful to me in that way.

In addition, at Southern Nazarene University (SNU), where our mission is to make Christlike disciples through higher education, we strive towards the reality of helping our students, whether they’re undergraduate students, professional graduate students, or adult learners. This reality of acting justly, having mercy, and walking humbly with God speaks to the foundational thread that is historically rooted in SNU. It continues on as we look at our graduates of today and then even into tomorrow. It’s a very universal framework for us.

How do you define leadership? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Defining leadership can be very complex. I look at the idea of being a leader as generating a sense of movement, vision, direction, and empowerment amongst people, creating a synergy, a collective, communal hope that moves people together around a common goal or a common good.

At SNU, we steward leadership. We move the reality of leadership beyond just power and position. It’s actually in the understanding of the model of Christ, where Christ understood that to lead is to live last, to lead is to put others before yourself, to lead is to embody the wellbeing of others before thinking of oneself. When you think about SNU and our hopes and our mission and our vision, I think that is how we define character, create culture, and serve Christ. You can see the beauty of what it means to a leader through SNU’s leadership programs.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Actually, I think that one of the most important things in preparing for high-stress circumstances or situations is to pause to pray, prepare, be at peace. We often don’t take time to just slow down and take a breath when we are anticipating something stressful happening, or moving towards something that is a high-risk decision, or preparing to have a difficult conversation.

We need to take that pause where we pray and believe that there’s a unifying force that comes when we pray and talk to God. Then we also need to prepare, instead of rushing to take care of things. So, by praying, preparing, and then being at peace, you can find balance in your life that can really release and relieve stress.

OK, thank you for all that. Now, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is, of course, a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Well, you’re absolutely right. It is a very, very huge topic. But I think one of the things that we have to face together is not only the national history, but the global history of what it means to have separated human beings and then caused power and position to create a different way of seeing human dignity and evaluating human worth. And I don’t think that we spend enough time really analyzing that.

But the history must be reckoned with. We cannot just simply say, “Well, that’s in the past, and let’s learn from it.” I don’t think you can fully learn from history until you lament through history. And lament only comes after you listen to the history and decide that it’s going to shape you, form you, and transform you. But when I say you, I’m not just thinking about the individual you, but I’m also thinking about the communal you, meaning all of us together as a society.

I think once we start to really face the history and know it for what it is, let us then ask, “How do we use this to inform our movement and move it forward?” It must be about reconciliation and not about the betterment of individuals or certain groups. I don’t think we can simply talk about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion, because we haven’t really gotten to the root of what it’s about. We’ve only tried to treat the symptoms, but we haven’t really gone down to the actual disease itself, if you will. Because we haven’t actually acknowledged and dealt with the root causes of these issues of inequity and injustice, we are now in crisis.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

I think one of the most important things is going back to some of the things I stated earlier, and that is promoting diversity and inclusion has to take us to the art and science of storytelling. Stories actually become the bridges by which we can move diversity and inclusion forward. Without these stories, the mutual stories, the intersectionality of stories, we fail to understand humanity together. I think that that is one of the main initiatives that we need to begin to develop within any organization or institution or corporation or business: How do we actually put forth stories and how do we teach storytelling?

Storytelling is one of the most ancient traditions dating back to the origins of humankind and how that began to shape relationships and the sociological ways in which we interacted with each other. The great National Poet Laureate, Maya Angelou, probably said it best, and this is a paraphrase of her quote, when she said that, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” When people, as a group, cannot tell their shared story, we cannot create the bridges that we need. And when individuals can’t share those stories inside of them, we cannot bridge the relationships that we need to move humanity towards reconciliation.

One of the things that we’re working strategically on at SNU is to develop a robust model of storytelling. It’s an art and a science, and we have to teach the ways of storytelling and also to have conversations together, open dialogue together, and launch intercultural learning opportunities. By igniting courageous conversations, where there’s active participation and learning together, we can look at cultural responsiveness as a way forward. When we think about the work that SNU is doing — and I have the distinct honor and humble privilege to lead as the Chief Diversity Officer — we actually can move the needle with diversity and inclusion through these kinds of initiatives.

It’s also very important to think through how we need to look at systems and structures. And that’s one of the most important things. I think sometimes we just want to apply quick fixes or just give very surface events or programs to the work. But I think one of the most clear, distinctive ways that we can change and transform an organization and institution or business is to actually look at the systems and structures. And I always say that there are three things that we have to look at: What do we need to deconstruct? What do we need to reconstruct? And then what do we actually need to construct that doesn’t exist? And so I think that when you think about the work to promote diversity and inclusion, I think that those are some very important things that we are doing right now strategically at SNU to move forward.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Yes, often we don’t realize that we are not fully complete if we are all the same. I think that that speaks to why we at SNU talk about being intercultural and that we together are better in our diverse intersections of identity than just being the same. There’s an excellent article in Scientific American titled, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.”

The beauty of this discovery, if you will, is that we find that when you are around people that are diverse in many different ways and aspects, not just identity, but intersections of identity and also perspectives and capacities, you actually have to work your brain in a way that it has to be exercised to be more efficiently and more effectively, thereby actually making individuals smarter and groups smarter.

I think that’s a remarkable testament to why we should diversify our executive teams, our cabinets, cabinet level, and our boards. Anytime that there’s a leadership team, it’s very, very important that it represent multiple intersections of culture in order to be more effective, transformative.

OK. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Well, it’s always very complex when we think in terms of steps, right? Because often, we want these quick fixes — what are the five easy steps? What are the 10 steps? What are the seven principles of whatever? And particularly in business models and organizational leadership models. But I would like to think in terms of frameworks that actually give us lenses that we can look through to move us into a place where we’re inclusive, representative, and equitable:

First lens: looking at systems and structures and their effectiveness to move the work for inclusive excellence.

Second lens: making sure we have representation, not tokenism. We have to look through this lens to see, are we representing who we say we are, who we are wanting to become? And also, do we represent a globally diverse world?

Third lens: determining if our daily values are defined by equity and justice. Do our values reflect those as priorities? And do we actually have them so embodied that they become transformational in our behaviors, that they begin to change the way in which we work and function in our community together?

Fourth lens: examining how we, as an organization, a business, institution, inform the greater good in the communities that we are a part of. I find that if we are not connecting to a larger ecosystem of our neighborhoods and our communities, then we’re not fully actualizing what it means to be, what it says here, an inclusive, representative, and equitable society. We simply become a siloed entity that doesn’t have any assurance that we have connectivity with the wellbeing of the place and space in which we exist.

Fifth lens: deciding how we want to measure our effectiveness. Do the values that we embody actually bring transformation? We should be assessing in a variety of ways for intercultural development, cultural responsiveness, and looking at our systems and structures. If we don’t have assessment tools and instruments to look at all of these things through those lenses, then we really don’t know if what we’re doing actually is yielding the outcomes that we want.

So those would be the five lenses that I would suggest that we look through that aren’t really steps, but they allow us to look at the right things, at the right time.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Well, I often am kind of bothered by the word “optimistic” because I think optimistic is an oversimplified word that yields towards an emotional reaction to whether it feels good. We have pessimistic, which feels negative; optimistic, which feels positive. I prefer to choose the word “hopeful.” I’m a hopeful realist. And to take the words of, really this quote has been said by many, many people, but is often attributed to Bishop Desmond Tutu, who has said that, “I am not pessimistic nor optimistic, but I am indeed a prisoner of hope. And for me, I am bound up and I am bound in the idea that hope will take us where we need to go.”

Hope is a beautiful thing. It’s something that is not necessarily seen yet, right? And so when you think of hope, it’s an embodiment of something good that will happen. It’s an anticipation on the very rim of a dark cloud, right? The silver lining, something is going to break forth, something just in the midst of chaos will break forth, and it will be good. And so for me, I cling to that hope. And I believe that that’s what needs to move us forward is the hope that perhaps reconciliation will come on earth as it is in heaven. The way that we, as people, always were intended to live and to be together for the flourishing and wellbeing for humankind. And so I would like to look towards that hope and not just think in terms of, will it be resolved, but rather, will it be reconciled.

Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I honestly, right now, can’t think of one specific individual that I think, “Oh, I wish I could just sit down with them.” I think there are so many heroes that don’t have a platform. They’re not famous, they’re not wealthy, but daily, they’re actually living their lives connected to humanity and doing transformational things. So it’s fascinating to think about who I might like to sit down with. But I think, right now, I can’t really choose one person. I would like to see the invisible humans become visible, becoming the shining examples of the very best of humanity. I think sitting with someone like that would be highly valuable to me.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much.