I spoke about diversity, community, and aspirations for our shared futures last year, in October 2017, when I had the honor of providing the fall convocation address. I share the heart of my remarks here because I believe they still resonate and because I remain committed and vigilant to issues of justice.
These thoughts from just over a year ago inform some additional observations. First, an excerpt from my 2017 convocation address:
I acknowledge the urgency of this moment in our history, and still will not cede or give up my time with you, our time together, to forces of rage and hate that relish in creating fear or misery.
I want to claim some space for community and resilience. And some of their friends, themes like beauty and hope. We can be about real change, positive change that benefits everyone, and also be about hope and resilience.
I propose to you that these themes might enable us to envision and develop collaborative goals for justice, collective self-care action plans, or designs for powering up our emotional and leadership and intellectual batteries.
Prioritizing community and resilience can help us appreciate victories that might otherwise be overlooked. Help us appreciate hard work being done right now. An emphasis on community and resilience can spark, inspire, and shape our thinking about the future.
Small change matters, if grounded in this spirit.
Several weeks ago, I attended the Student Government town hall meeting. I arrived late and snuck quietly in the back. Most students didn’t know I was there. Right before an open forum began, leaders asked students for ground rules. These are some of the principles students suggested:
- Be nice
- Respect that other people have opinions, even if you disagree with those opinions
- Offer constructive feedback
- Don’t detract from the conversation
I saw these very principles in action earlier this week when I participated in a book club/reading group meeting with students – yes, there’s a book club!
Students quickly established an atmosphere of trust and created conditions in which you could be vulnerable and challenge each other at the same time.
You shared opinions and reflected on commitments and voiced frustrations and fears honestly in a group of people you didn’t know so well.
You took risks together, in community. You did it because of the idea of a book club or reading group, because we thought we might gain something, and, for most of us, more likely than not because of who asked.
Many of us can think of instances in which we’ve been moved to do things, to act, because of relationships. Because we’ve built rapport, we feel obligated, in a positive sense, to our friends, teammates, neighbors.
I’ve met many of you, as orientation leaders, Bonner Scholars, Quest Scholars, RAs and Hall Counselors, Student Government leaders, Watson fellowship applicants, and STRIDE participants.
I’ve heard you tell stories about how your teammates, your classmates, friends on your hall or floor have asked and encouraged you to get involved with something important to them, or vice versa.
You’ve told me these bonds have led to action, like going together to Charlotte to see the protests.
Some of you have sat on the sofa in my office and reflected on national discourse or, honestly, campus discourse, and you’ve said to me, “Who am I to deny their experience? Who am I to deny what’s real to them?”
You’ve told me, in multiple settings, and in front of peers, that listening to other perspectives is important, because you expect to work in environments where other perspectives will be present…
…and because you want to be heard,
…and because you want to believe the people you study and live with – the people from your hall your first year here, the people in class with you right now – trust you enough to be honest; trust you enough to believe that you can hear them.
You want your relationships with your peers to be authentic.
From what I have seen and from what you have told me, I am confident you have the capacity and desire to do hard work, and that you have the skills to rise to the challenges ahead.
So now, for our community to be authentic, and to be a community that is actually capable of achieving our mission, we must collectively embrace the stickiest aspects of our statement of purpose:
- We must practice leadership and service.
- We must exercise our disciplined and creative minds.
- We must affirm the dignity and worth of every person, and furthermore, take advantage of or reimagine or co-create what our statement of purpose calls for: “opportunities for worship, civil debate, and teaching that enrich mind and spirit.”
We will be called upon, as a community and a nation, to think about remediating hate and oppression, and repairing harm.
We have committed as a campus to redressing the vestiges of slavery and reconciling our history with our aspirations for education and learning. This work requires air and light. Nourishment. This work requires resilience.
This work requires that we ask ourselves, as a community dedicated to the dignity and worth of every person, “What do we owe ourselves and each other so that we might thrive as we blaze new, bold paths into the future?”
Perhaps we might… Be nice. Be kind to ourselves. Practice self-compassion. Assume positive intent in others. Listen and respond with care when our peers express grief and suffering.
Perhaps we might respect that other people have opinions, even if we disagree with those opinions. Offer constructive feedback.
Add to, not detract from the conversation. Dance with the conversation, push the conversation into braver spaces.
I know what’s at stake. I believe deep, meaningful cultural changes and shifts in thinking, behaviors and policies require strategy, persistence, political compromise, not compromising on values, innovation, and strong will.
The air and light that make all this possible are meaningful relationships, the ability to work in communities, and the thoughtful cultivation of resilience.
Just yesterday, I attended a lunch with community partners with leaders, advocates, community-based educators, entrepreneurs, and several students.
We sat in discussion groups to share ideas about topics we generated at the lunch meeting in response to just one question: What is required of us to lead in the future?
The community partners at my table brought experience from working on literacy, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, addiction treatment, racial justice, and other social issues. Our topic: resilience.
We defined resilience, together, as the ability to keep going; the ability to locate power within yourself to actively grapple with challenges and opportunities.
A partner at our table talked about the importance of celebration – celebrating even seemingly small victories, to encourage us to persist.
The student at our table, a senior, used the term recovery in his definition of resilience, describing it as the ability to get back up once defeated and try again. The student also added what he called a “critical community aspect.”
He said, “it looks like an individual is being resilient, but almost always, a community is bringing them up.”
Our table agreed, emphatically, and I hope that you do too.
I share this reflection with you because I think we’re onto something here. Because there are community partners here, in this town, in Charlotte, in this region, who are thinking about the same things we’re thinking about, caring about the same things we care about. I see so much opportunity.
There is urgency, yes, and there is opportunity.
MORE THAN A YEAR has passed since I made these remarks. Our strength and mettle have been tested during this time. Students, and faculty and staff, have responded with remarkable courage, passion, clarity, thoughtfulness and grace. I don’t mean to suggest everything has been great, but I do believe we can shine a light on efforts to care for each other, our values, and our shared futures. If we can’t acknowledge and appreciate our collective strength and resilience, we limit our ability to envision and work toward a better and more humane future.
So, I want to create space here right now, as I tried to do in my convocation speech, to acknowledge and appreciate our community, students in particular. Students have written opinion pieces and essays for The Davidsonian and Davidson Journal. Students have organized vigils, rallies and disorientation tours, held intentional dialogues across lines of ideological difference and deepened interfaith initiatives. There have been Student Government meetings and open forums. I am grateful for these efforts.
And, I am grateful for the courageous self-reflection and honesty of the students who have blogged for this site. I am also grateful for their critiques. They remind me of an Audre Lorde quote, from “I Am Your Sister”:
I sit before the typewriter for days and nothing comes. It feels as if underlining these assaults, lining them up one after the other and looking at them squarely might give them an unbearable power. Yet I know exactly the opposite is true—no matter how difficult it may be to look at the realities of our lives, it is there that we will find the strength to change them. And to suppress any truth is to give it power beyond endurance.
TO SUPPRESS ANY TRUTH IS TO GIVE IT POWER BEYOND ENDURANCE. This is one of the reasons why I have been so moved and inspired by the experiences of our students who traveled last year to visit Holocaust sites. Students from Hillel traveled in spring 2018 with an advisor from student activities to historically significant locations in Krakow and Warsaw and then to London to observe and learn from a thriving contemporary Jewish community. In a presentation to peers, faculty, staff and community members, participants shared memories and photographs and performed poetry and music inspired by their experience. The themes of beauty, hope and resilience I mentioned in my convocation speech… I felt them again when I attended the Hillel presentation, and I believe others did, as well. Then and now, Lorde’s quote also comes to mind: “no matter how difficult it may be to look at the realities of our lives, it is there that we will find the strength to change them.”
Our men’s basketball team also visited Auschwitz in the summer of 2018. Coach Bob McKillop explained in The Washington Post:
The volatility of our world right now requires a response informed by both a respect for human dignity and an understanding of what happens in its absence…
This is an opportunity for the players to coach — first themselves through this experience, then teammates, as they lean on one another, and then throughout their lives. They will depend on one another emotionally. The trip will require teamwork and togetherness of a new order for them. That is where we find our strength.
I want them to understand this experience, for life, and to bring it back here, not just as a lesson but to live what they learned. Our world needs leaders who aim to lead and to serve, as our college’s mission declares, guided by humane instincts and creative and disciplined minds. We need advocates for, and defenders of, human dignity.
I encourage us to apply this thinking to current and ongoing struggles. How can we manifest these ideals in our academic, interpersonal, and campus and community pursuits? How might we all benefit and become better, stronger?
SHARED FUTURES. As we work toward being more just and more humane, I understand the dangers of idealizing our institution and our efforts to become better. I can still be inspired, though, and I can still seek hope and courage as anchors for the most difficult days. Even in this time of unrest, this period of broken trust – in our own community and in this nation – I will refuse to give in to cynicism, nihilism or fatalistic thinking about our future. This community has shown me what is possible when we hold ourselves, each other and our institution to high standards.
If we hold up our Statement of Purpose and really study it and if each of us challenges ourselves to bring the statement to life, we can draw the inspiration and strength to continue to advocate for community and justice.
Byron P. McCrae, Ph.D., is vice president for student life & dean of students at Davidson College. He thinks of himself less as a “dean,” and more as an advisor, mentor, strategist