Dr. Boddie seeks out the unfinished business in the Civil Rights movement and how the next generation can carry on the work.
Dr. Stephanie Boddie is a gardener at heart: sowing, cultivating and encouraging the seeds of her students’ critical thinking skills as intentionally as she works the earth in her own garden.
She even teaches a class called “Education from a Gardener’s Perspective,” where her students practice introspection through mindful reflection outdoors in a garden.
Assistant professor of Church and Community Ministries at Baylor University since 2017, she has also amassed a critical body of research work digging into the evolving role of churches – particularly predominantly Black congregations – in community contribution, faith-based initiatives and affecting societal change.
Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock sat down with Dr. Boddie recently to discuss the church’s place in changing social interaction and racial biases through compassionate activism and radical kindness, and how – as in the garden – it all grows together.
WACOAN: How did your childhood and upbringing shape who you are?
Dr. Stephanie Boddie: I’m a preacher’s kid – but not in the way you think; it was my mom who was a Baptist minister. Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, shaped my childhood in several ways – being raised in an urban environment helped me to be more aware and conscious of the challenges people face in urban settings, particularly those living on the margin and in underserved communities. My upbringing in Baltimore also shaped me in unique ways; I think people have certain perceptions of the type of city it is. Some may think of Baltimore as home of Johns Hopkins University and health care system. For others, Baltimore brings to mind the tough inner-city streets and the popular series “The Wire.” I spent my time growing up trying to understand my place in the world and what my life would look like. I never expected to attend Johns Hopkins University, to major in science or to become a university professor.
One thing that significantly shaped my childhood was a serious accident that happened to my brother and only sibling, Gerard. I was seven and he was five. We were at the intersection in front of our house and I was responsible for him crossing the street. I went across and he came after me. When I looked around, he was flying through the air – he had been hit by a speeding car. He did survive and recover, but he wasn’t the same person after that. It was a very traumatic event in my life, but it also opened the door for me to see the world differently. I could have fallen into the black hole of despair, but instead that’s when I began my faith journey. Soon after that I went to a revival, and the preacher said that there was nothing God had never seen, no problem so insurmountable that He couldn’t solve. And as a seven-year-old that really caught my attention; I walked down the aisle for the invitation [at that revival] while my brother was still in a coma in the hospital. That experience really set me on the path of my faith journey and awakened me to see that every moment of our lives offers a door to new opportunities, and it’s up to us to make something of it.
WACOAN: Who were your early influences or mentors, and how did you develop your sense of social justice?
Boddie: My grandfather – my mother’s father – was a significant influence in my life. He was a deeply spiritual and generous person, a deacon in the church, and his examples of service and generosity really influenced me as I watched him help people in the community. I’d go with him to deliver services in nursing homes, and I remember hearing about him putting savings aside for burial costs for a man in our neighborhood who had no family.
There were other factors that influenced my sense of social justice that I just learned, though not explicitly. My father had a collection of magazines and newspapers on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that we were not supposed to delve into, but even so I’d read them and was drawn to Dr. King’s messages. I learned that some things are not easily taught. It’s important to have the intellectual curiosity to seek out life’s most enduring lessons.
My first real mentor was my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Hales. He really got to know his students and inspired us. My parents weren’t college educated, so at that time I had no thoughts of going to college. Mr. Hales set up his classroom as an opportunity for students to debate, to challenge his and other students’ ideas. He gave me the opportunity to develop my intellectual curiosity, leadership and critical thinking – I didn’t know I even had these strengths and that these were things to be valued. I was extremely shy, but he often gave me the position of leader in our student debates. For him to be able to see that potential in me was extraordinary – he was able to see what others didn’t see. Mr. Hales was the first person to help me to understand that I didn’t have to be put in a box. I was told by others that I didn’t need to go to college as a woman, and that I’d just get married. I still have this note that Mr. Hales wrote me (picking up a laminated piece of paper with a handwritten comment): It says, ‘Dear Stephanie, I expect to call you Dr. Boddie when you graduate. I know you can do it. Keep up the good work.’
I remember when I first got the courage to say I wanted to be a college professor, another teacher quickly said, ‘You know you can’t do that.’ Leona Kelley was the first woman to believe in me. Years later, after I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Ph.D., I went back to the person who discouraged me from pursuing my dream and she said, ‘I’m sorry; I just didn’t see it.’
WACOAN: Your resume lists five distinct research emphases that you’ve pursued in your career; could you describe them?
Boddie: My faith, social innovation and entrepreneurship research explores how congregations use their resources to address social challenges beyond traditional charity or relief services. For example, a case study I’m working on highlights a Black church in Baltimore that started an urban garden that’s now a national initiative called the Black Food Security Network. This church had previously given food to those in need, and created this garden to meet the same needs but in different ways. Over several years, they’ve developed an urban garden that produces 1,200 pounds of food a year and are teaching other churches how to grow food on their property. Now, more than 200 affiliated churches have urban gardens and pop-up markets after services. The churches both grow their own food and connect with more than 20 Black farmers to create a food system that supports the local community. This research led to my interest in teen food insecurity and working with local schools and other Baylor colleagues to bring STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] education to students through garden activities.
In faith-based social services and policies, I’ve been studying the kinds of community services that congregations provide for the communities and the ways they understand and benefit from local, state and federal policies for non-profits. One is the Charitable Choice policy, which allows religious organizations to apply for federal funding while retaining their religious character. I’ve also tracked each federal administration starting with the Clinton administration, under which legislation enacted the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, to the Biden administration. This work marks the changing nature of government partnerships supporting service delivery with congregations and other faith-based organizations over nearly two decades and five administrations.
My faith and asset-building research looks at ways that organizations and individuals gain greater financial capabilities and more financial assets. One study looks at how churches can use their sermons and services to help people increase their financial skills and think more broadly about asset-building. When a congregation in northern Virginia recognized that during the pandemic they had a greater surplus of money than anticipated, they posed the question of how to give back to the community and answered it by giving 10 percent of their weekly tithes and offerings back to the community. In one year, this church aided over 60 frontline organizations ranging from other churches, food banks, schools, prison re-entry ministries and Boys and Girls Clubs. Another Washington D.C. church taught its members to manage their finances and to purchase homes while also contributing significantly to local schools. This research also opened the door for me to work with scholars in China and New Zealand to highlight how Black church asset-building initiatives can provide a framework for building programs for marginalized communities in China.
On race and the psychology of difference, it’s the idea that everyone has differences, and no one group is the norm. Professor Louis Carter, another significant influence in my life, introduced me to the psychology of difference during my time at the University of Pennsylvania, by helping me understand the importance of understanding our own story and the nation’s story. As Congressman John Lewis reminded us, ‘The movement without storytelling, is like a bird without wings.’ I created a project called ‘Unfinished Business,’ where I’ve collected over 50 oral histories from African American elders. To share these stories with students and general audiences, I’ve contextualized the themes documented in the stories with archival research and paired them with Negro spirituals and other Black sacred music to create a musical documentary, also called ‘Unfinished Business,’ which was part of ‘Reel Stories: A Black Film Showcase’ in Waco in November. Through this storytelling, elders share their experiences and provide messages of hope for addressing the unfinished business of race.
WACOAN: You’re a nationally recognized expert on how churches address societal issues. How did that become your life work and what have you found from your research?
Boddie: My life research came about with an unexpected interaction in my Master’s program. I was taking a course in Social Policy, and the professor, Dr. Ram Cnaan, invited me to apply to the doctoral program and work with him. At the time, I was thinking of being a gerontologist, because I love older people and working with them. I started studying congregations in relation to social and community services during the Bush administration’s faith-based initiatives. As a preacher’s kid, I hadn’t thought about studying congregations as a focus of my research.
WACOAN: It’s hard to include all of your qualifications and work in a casual conversation. What are some highlights from your résumé?
Boddie: I’ve been an assistant professor of Church and Community Ministries at Baylor [University] since 2017. At Baylor, I’m affiliated with the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, the George W. Truett Theological Seminary and the School of Education. I also work with the Digital Humanities program and the Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty and am affiliated with Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. I participate in initiatives at other universities, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society and the Partnership for Innovation; Cross-Sector Collaboration, Leadership and Organization at Washington University in St. Louis’ Center for Social Development; the University of Michigan’s Center for Equitable Family and Community Well-being, Villanova University’s (near Philadelphia, Pa.) Church Management Fellowship; and the University of South Africa’s Institute for Gender Studies.
During my 20-year career in research, I’ve also held appointments at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. I served as a senior consultant for the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute; as a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life; as lead consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Faith and Family Portfolio; and on the faculty of Washington University. I have a Ph.D. in social welfare and Master of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania as well as a B.A. in natural science from Johns Hopkins University. One fun fact about my career is that I started out in science and managed HeLa cells for an influenza vaccine research project. (Wacoan’s note: HeLa cells were the first human cells that researchers could grow and multiply endlessly in the lab, named for patient Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African American who died in 1951 of an aggressive cervical cancer. These “immortal” cells – surviving through endless generations of cells – are invaluable for scientists conducting experiments on human cells.)
WACOAN: You’re also a published author, having co-authored several books and published numerous articles in professional journals. What’s your latest book?
Boddie: Yes, I’ve co-authored six books. The most recent is ‘Racialized Health, COVID-19, and Religious Responses: Black Atlantic Contexts and Perspectives.’ It’s a transatlantic survey on religious responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, with input from scholars from the U.S., Africa, the U.K. and the Caribbean. I’ve also written more than 30 articles, published in professional journals.
WACOAN: About your passion for teaching: How can we mentor future leaders who can answer the call of societal change? How do you incorporate that into your teaching?
Boddie: I believe that to mentor the next generation, we have to first be invested in their well-being and their future. I hope that students know that I care about them as much as I care about the [class] content. I introduce into my teaching immersive opportunities and ‘embodied pedagogy’ – which is learning that values the body and feelings as well as the mind in the learning process. One of two classes I teach with embodied pedagogy is ‘Education from a Gardener’s Perspective,’ which is cross-listed in Truett Seminary, Social Work and Education classes at Baylor.
Students spend the first 45 minutes of each class outside in a Baylor garden observing and interacting with creation and each other. For many students, this activity is unsettling; they believe that they’re paying to be taught, not go into the garden. They see it as passive, not productive, time – even sometimes as counter-productive time. But then they realize that by taking the time to slow down, they’re able to shift into the posture of being attentive and present with each other and the [subject] content. After several weeks, when we begin conversations about what they’ve experienced, they’re better able to settle into learning; they’re not as anxious, or rushed or distracted. And they’re able to make connections with presentations by students from other disciplines. One student said it’s the only class where she knows all the other students by name.
Sometimes when we’re focused so far ahead, relationships can become very transactional: you give something to get something back. It’s exciting to see how students emerge from that [class] experience and weave their findings into other ideas, like the psychology of difference I mentioned before. I give each student a plant the first day of class and various seeds throughout the semester. We have an opportunity to see how different seeds germinate and grow over time. The time and conditions needed to grow microgreens are completely different from an avocado. This experience helps students appreciate the importance of adjusting learning environments – schools, congregations, agencies – so that everyone has an opportunity to flourish.
My hope is to guide students in engaged learning through community projects that help them actively participate in their communities throughout their lives, and I try to provide opportunities for them to move out of their comfort zones.
WACOAN: In your career, you teach, research, make films and write for publication. In your personal life you garden, sing and cook. Tell me how that works with 24-hour days like the rest of us.
Boddie: Some days, trying to do it all is really challenging. One way I approach my work that makes it seem more manageable is to apply one of the important principles of permaculture: stacking and weaving things together. Much of my work has been in areas of social science, social work and religion. And I love music and gardening, so the more that my interests flow together, the less it seems like work because I’m doing the things I love. But the process has to be conscious and intentional; I’m merging the various areas of my life to experience them more fully as a whole.
My father was a gardener, though as a child I didn’t pay much attention to his process; I thought about it more after he passed. In these later years, I began to understand why it was important for my father to bring gardening from his southern roots to his urban life in Baltimore. It was such a life-giving and grounding practice for him. Revisiting my father’s path helped me to see gardening as a formative and spiritual practice. I’ve been singing since I was five years old – I’m a classically trained soprano – and singing has always been a way for me to express thoughts, feelings and ideas beyond mere words. Music has always been a safe space for me and a way to deeply connect with myself and others. One of my other mentors, Esther Heideman, often reminds me that through singing, we bare our soul. So singing is one of my most treasured spiritual practices.
I try to bring what I love into everything I do; I want to be more holistic and less fragmented. I bring music into my teaching and research, and I prepare a meal for my students the last day of class, preparing plant-based foods from scratch with no refined products, which is how I cook. Students sometimes ask me, ‘Why don’t you just buy or order something?’ But I want to help them move beyond stereotypes of certain foods and show them the creativity and care I use in making the food myself. By the end of the meal, they’re usually asking for my recipes! I could tell them how I prepare meals but showing them is better.
WACOAN: About racism: How do we move past not just overt racism but even unintentional cultural and racial bias?
Boddie: We have to consider different opportunities to sit in the place where we might be ‘the other’ and to empathize with those in those seats. For example, think about your family: who in the family is an outsider and why are they outside the group? How do you feel when you have to interact with them? What is it like for them?
What can we do to make them feel as close as you do to others in the family? What can you do to help them to feel seen and cared for? As a family member, you love them. So what are you willing to do to bring them from the margins into regular interactions with the family? When we decide to love someone, it makes all the difference in how we show we care about them. We’re no longer indifferent or hostile towards them; we’re a human family. If we can change these dynamics in our own family, how can we bring these lessons into the public sphere and show the same love, care and concern for our neighbors? What would it look like to bring the Golden Rule into policy?
WACOAN: One of your primary research projects, as well as your film documentary, is called ‘Unfinished Business.’ What do you believe is still unfinished business?
Boddie: My research project ‘Unfinished Business’ emerged from conversations with African American elders and university students as a part of my oral history project. I was revisiting W.E.B. Du Bois’ seminal work ‘The Philadelphia’. One woman said, ‘The Civil Rights movement ended and we thought our work was done.’ She was referring to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended legal segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination. Several other elders expressed deep regret that their generation took their hand off the wheel and didn’t continue the collective focus on confronting and healing from the painful legacies of our racialized past, didn’t continue to fulfill the ideals of our democracy of liberty and justice for all. As a social scientist and social work educator, I could certainly list many problems that need to be fixed in our democracy. Dr. John Jackson, another person that I have learned from over the years, says it more eloquently than I could: ‘We have a deficit of love.’
Our unfinished business is to learn better ways to love one another. To maintain a just democracy and flourishing humanity, there is no greater power than love.
WACOAN: What gives you hope?
Boddie: My students give me a lot of hope. I’m blessed to work with students who want to leave the world a better place than they’ve inherited. Though we live in a time of great polarization and far too many people have retreated from public life, I see students who want to find their purpose and others who are already making a difference in their local communities or on campus. I’m excited to see students who want to cross dividing lines and listen deeply to the stories of people who have different backgrounds and perspectives. I wonder if the question to be answered should be: How do we activate the superpower of hope in ourselves and help to ignite it in others?
This article and image were first published in The Wacoan.