On Monday, Jan. 23, mysterious white note cards with a QR code started to appear all over campus: on the tables of Anderson Commons, in classrooms and at various locations in Lower Beamer. The tiny cards had no explanation but a title with bold red letters that said, “Kingdom Grievances.”
The QR code link took viewers to a Google document with the same title. At the top of the document, there was an announcement for a meeting on the following Monday, Jan. 30, in Meyer Science Center.
The document consisted of a list of 45 “grievances” accusing Wheaton College of committing what the authors called “anti-Kingdom” actions. Each article in the list, numbered with Roman numerals, began with the phrase “Wheaton College, while invoking the call for Christ and His Kingdom…” and then presented an accusation of an “injustice” committed by the college’s administration.
The grievances covered a wide range of campus controversies, including faculty downsizing due to an enrollment deficit, last fall’s contentious chapel messages and the college’s delayed historical race review.
“A reformation is needed at Wheaton College. For too long, we have cried in the Wilderness. For too long, we have begged to change paths,” the authors wrote.
All the cards disappeared within a day, and the document is no longer available online. But the list continued to start conversations surrounding race, mental health and justice on campus.
“My initial thought was, these are all very legitimate grievances. I’ve heard most of them before from different students, so I definitely resonated with those grievances,” said Mason Laney, a senior political science and economics major and last year’s student body vice president.
The authors of the petition are four senior men, who didn’t sign the document but who were open about their involvement: Stephen Stapleton, Dong Hyuk Lee, Julio Reyes and one more who wished to remain anonymous. They gathered together in Lower Beamer one night in October to discuss a movement that they hoped would bring about “reformation” to various aspects of the institution.
“With the recent budget cuts, reprioritization that Wheaton has been doing, or just different policies, there has been some pain caused to a lot of students on this campus, and to fix a problem, we need to first identify the problem,” Lee said.
All four are involved in various capacities on campus. Stapleton is student body president, Lee works in Academic Institutional Technology and Reyes is on the cabinet of Unidad Cristiana, Wheaton’s Latino student union. The authors emphasized that when they wrote the document they were not speaking on behalf of the college or the campus organizations they lead.
Stapleton said that the issues raised in this document were deeply personal to him because of his experiences being a person of color on Wheaton’s campus. He referred to Buswell Memorial Library, named for J. Oliver Buswell, who some say was responsible for a shortage of black students admitted to Wheaton in the early twentieth century. Stapleton also mentioned a recent controversy over a racist meme posted to an anonymous, unaffiliated meme account by a Wheaton student.
“Every day, I see the name of a segregationist on the library, someone who wouldn’t have allowed me to attend this school. And then you see things like the blackface meme. You see things like police brutality, murder, and shootings across the country. And you just see silence, and it just gets tiring,” Stapleton said.
For Reyes, the idea of a movement for reformation has been a product of his Wheaton experience as well, dating back to his freshman year, when an Unidad-led chapel was followed by a racist meme that played on Latino stereotypes.
“One of the very first things I experienced here at Wheaton was the 2019 Unidad chapel and the racist chapel meme, and that was very deeply tied to my experience,” said Reyes. “It shaped the way I thought about race, class and my experiences.”
The authors said that the document did not only stem from anger or sadness but also emerged from a desire to make Wheaton a better place for its student body.
“This is coming from a place of love for Wheaton,” Lee said. “If we didn’t care about Wheaton, we would not have done this.”
According to Lee and Reyes, the four authors had a meeting with Paul Chelsen, Vice President of Student Development, soon after the distribution of the document. Chelsen said he heard about the document from a colleague who saw the QR code in a campus building. He said he mostly asked questions at the meeting with the authors.
“Near the end of the meeting, I expressed concern about the factual inaccuracies in the document,” said Chelsen in an email to the Record. He said he later asked the document authors to remove it from public view until the inaccuracies were corrected. He added that there are other avenues for students to communicate feedback about their Wheaton experience.
“Students are always welcome to share their concerns, especially through their representatives on Student Government,” he said.
Although there were mixed feelings among the authors about the meeting with Chelsen, Lee says the administration was understanding of their concerns.
“They know that students do not have the level of information that a lot of administration or faculty members have. So knowing that, he was very generous in understanding what the inaccuracies might have been and was kind to point it out.” Lee said.
The group received some criticism from other students, especially student leaders, for the way that the document was distributed, but they say that they have received positive feedback as well.
“The way the document was released and the process used to create it wasn’t the best,” said a student who was not involved in the document’s writing and who wished to remain anonymous, citing the lack of consultation with other student leaders. “I grieve that, because rather than helping to promote dialogue and bring healing as the authors intended, it has caused greater division.”
Some student leaders on campus were also less than pleased with the unilateral creation of the document and its anonymity.
“With the acknowledgement that Wheaton is as broken as any other human institution, anonymous finger-pointing and manifesto-like language rarely promote constructive, lasting change,” said sophomore Zachary Welch, international relations and economics major and administrative manager of Student Government.
Brian Howell, professor of anthropology, noted that the frustration surrounding the way students expressed their grievances is not uncommon. When students are working quickly in groups, they easily forget to loop other student leaders in.
“That’s how organizing kind of goes,” Howell says, “I hope that they would see whatever work they do now as just laying the groundwork in a kind of seed-planting way.”
The meeting announced on the document took place on Jan. 30 at 6 p.m. in Meyer Science Center. About two dozen people attended the meeting, which was open to faculty, staff and students. Most of the students present were upperclassmen, and many were friends of the document authors.
Reyes and Lee spoke on behalf of the document author team. They started the meeting by admitting the inaccuracies in the document and apologizing for any members of the student body that were hurt by the document. They then moved to setting short-term goals, which included holding the Senior Administrative Cabinet (SAC) responsible for what they considered to be a lack of engagement with the Office of Multicultural Development over the concerns of minority students, specifically the name of the library.
They also issued two long-term goals: to create a “repository” of faculty, staff and student experiences, and to have “power outside the institution” and “level the playing field with the administration.” After their speeches, Reyes and Lee opened up the meeting for attendees to ask questions.
One student asked about the inaccuracies of the document. Both Reyes and Lee corrected those inaccuracies and also pointed out their own limited access to information while writing the document. Howell was also present at the meeting, and he spoke up to encourage the authors for their advocacy at the end of the Q&A period.
In spite of the controversy over their methods, the authors said they are still encouraged by the response.
“[The document] definitely was a conversation starter, and I think it got the ball rolling. [I’m sure] that we will probably not be the ones directing the ball where it should go, but I think it brought some changes and potential shifts in the future,” Lee said, although he did not specify what changes he had seen.
The authors said they hope to empower students to continue to fight for justice on campus.
“I think one of the things that I’ve been learning about these last four years and starting to care more about is agency, and that in many ways, in very many situations, we have the agency to do something about our situations,” said Reyes. “We can stand up for ourselves and for those around us. And we can also encourage each other to do the same.”