Brenda Salter McNeil, an ordained pastor and associate professor of reconciliation studies at Seattle Pacific University, has written four books on racial reconciliation, including Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0. In her latest, Empowered to Repair: Becoming People Who Mend Broken Systems and Heal Our Communities (Brazos, May), the author presents a model for addressing race-based injustice and revitalizing communities. The book draws on McNeil’s own work as well as the biblical story of Nehemiah, who led the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the fifth century BCE and can be viewed as an example of a person attempting to use leadership and authority to fix a terrible problem. That message, McNeil says, is crucial: “The younger generation wants to see change, and they’re tired of talking.”

What led you to write this book?

In the world that I’ve been living in around reconciliation, and because I’m a college professor, I see young people asking for something different. We’ve increased diversity numbers and met DEI quotas on campuses and in organizations. We hit every box on cultural diversity, and that meant we were doing it, but it never got to systemic change—from relational justice to systemic justice. I am saying to the next generation behind me, “Yes, all of that, and we can repair systems that are broken.”

What are some of the similarities between Nehemiah and that next generation?

Many of us have exceeded where our parents got to, and now we’re at the next level in education and authority. I’m a college professor; my parents weren’t. Did I do this to benefit myself? It’s taken for granted—education is part of what you do to have a good life, to buy a house, but it’s not just for me to be prosperous. I think there are more people wanting to make the world a better place, asking, “How do I make this better?” That is exactly what Nehemiah was asking.

Why did you decide to include personal stories from your life, including admissions of self-doubt and failure?

The generation coming behind us—particularly those who have been part of Christianity or the church—has lost confidence in adults. You watch the political climate, the lies and disinformation... I have two adult children and they don’t know who to believe. The people who follow me believe I’m telling the truth. I am who I say I am. Telling the truth also makes me approachable and relatable. I’m just as human as anybody else. It’s not a special class of people doing
reconciliation; we are all called.

Among the skills you teach for confronting racism is deep rest. How has your concept of self-care changed, and what does it look like for you today?

I am motivated by change. However, what I’m starting to find out is that we can bring our broken selves or we can bring our best selves. I believe that our best selves are what we need right now, and we need everybody. This is also a communal, collective effort to change. I’ve seen people die pulling this train by themselves. And it’s not just our physical, human effort. We have to believe there is a God who wants justice to roll down like water and make the world healed and whole. We can be humans with limits with a belief in a God that is greater than we are. Some people applaud how long I’ve been doing this, and this book is the things I have learned in the school of hard knocks. You must pace it and do it over the long haul.

What’s the number-one thing you want your readers to learn?

That all of us have influence and all of us have agency—all of us. The question becomes, how will we use it for the greater good? I want people to grapple with how we all can make a difference. We can no longer send thoughts and prayers or like on Instagram. We have to literally do something. I want to call people to action. The next generation doesn’t want to hear what we have to say, but wants to see what we’re going to do.