Sometimes specific beliefs threaten other people's very existence. Part of my work is to reframe how we get to a place where those beliefs make sense to people.

Nikki Young

Thelathia "Nikki" Young has always found her way by asking questions, but it wasn't so much the answers that guided her as the questions themselves.

"In my church in rural South Carolina, we would read about Moses, but I was wondering about the interracial relationship between Moses and his wife," says the professor of women's & gender studies. "I realized the questions I was asking were the queer questions, the non-normative, subversive sort of questions."

After she graduated from college, a desire to change the world led her to activism in Atlanta. And then it happened again.

"I realized I was asking questions that are theological in nature — what does God say about this or that? How do people talk about what God says about this or that? I thought if I was asking those questions, I should go to seminary."

Even in seminary, she found her angle was a little different than others headed into ministry. Her urge was to find out how belief becomes action, whether good or bad.

"Rather than hold onto particular theological claims, I was more interested in what people believe and how that impacts their actions and how that impacts the broader social system," she says. "I'm interested in value systems — what takes us from our beliefs to our actions. I realized I'm an ethicist."

She found academia a natural fit — a vocation in which she could share information about shaping our environment and examine how we relate to one another.

"Religion underwrites a lot of frameworks we use to understand the world," Young says. "Sometimes specific beliefs threaten other people's very existence. Part of my work is to reframe how we get to a place where those beliefs make sense to people."

Young's research focuses on the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and religion. Although students often assume her classes are only about opinions, they leave with the vocabulary and theories of this intersectionality, and with insight into how their beliefs filter their view of the world. Admittedly, it's not always pretty.

"Students want to remove themselves from the reality that they world in which they exist is fundamentally unfair — that there is structural oppression we all contribute to," Young says. "Conceptually, it's not hard for them to get — it's just hard for them to swallow. But they also learn there are pathways to different choices they can make to change the world."

Posted July 2018