Thank you. I am humbled to be standing here before you tonite. There are not words sufficient to express my appreciation to those of you that contributed to my selection for this honor. I will begin with thank you. It is meaningful to me that many in this grouping are former students that have gone on to become outstanding professionals. I pray that each of you, at some point in your career, are able to experience the joy and fulfillment that I do when I consider you. I am thankful for the sacrifice of Cynthia Avery, the Assistant Vice President at USD, and my mother - the fantastic Patty – for travelling across the country to be here tonite.
For my 40th birthday (Older than AFA), a friend of mine gave me two books. The first was Tattoos On The Heart by Father Gregory Boyle. It is a narrative of Father Boyle’s experience of living among and serving in inner-city Los Angeles. Beginning Homeboy Industries – a gang intervention ministry is told weaving in moments of faith alongside real life experience. He models a love for the people and his investment in his community. I was struck by his honesty in relaying both the systems that contribute to the gang-ridden environment, but also the choices made by many that do not believe that they are worthy of love. Such a different context than the community I serve at a private, Catholic, predominately white and affluent institution that is less than 200 miles away. It resonated with the on-going work I have to do as a professional.
The second book was Dear Sugar, a collection of Cheryl Strayed’s online advice column where she served as the anonymous wisdom dispenser known as Sugar. Each account drew on what Strayed titles “Radical Empathy”. As I turned each page, I was drawn in to what I wanted to be. What I wanted to teach. As I, well we, meet with students, can we approach from a place of radical empathy? I considered back on how I had spent the last 15 years of my career – the care and concern I had for individuals and their development and the investment in a community. To be honest, I spent the first 5 years really worrying about things like the colors of recruitment shirts and Greek Week themes. I like to think that I have made my undergraduate Advisor, Doug Case, proud with where I am now and that he would forgive my start that majored in the things that didn’t really matter. Dear Sugar inspires me to live with Radical Empathy and also lead from a place of vulnerability and authenticity.
I hope that this place is an entry point for what I think we really need to be talking about. The same month that Lindsay Sell called me to tell me that I had been selected for this honor, a man was killed in the neighboring city to San Diego called El Cajon. Three miles from my church, an unarmed black man was shot by the police. Alfred Olango’s shooting, and subsequent death, moved Black Lives Matter into my every day conversation. It moved it to a new place in my soul. I could no longer be the person upset, but not acting on it. Black Lives Matter. It felt impossible to celebrate this honor with the reality of what has been unfolding across our country for years and now unfolding in my back yard. I regularly have moments to appreciate and reflect on my privilege: as a white person, as cisgender, as educated, as affluent… In many areas. I have sat with that reality through the season of horrific injustices against people I love and care for deeply. As the election season ramped up, I found myself struggling with how to celebrate this acknowledgement while many in my circle have had their basic human rights questioned. Can I celebrate our professional work without issuing a call to action for all of us? Each of us needs to be for the other. We have the opportunity to be safe havens for those that are struggling or feel marginalized. We have the opportunity to teach the revolution to our students: to encourage them to be engaged; to build activists that speak up and speak out when they see injustice.
When we talk about the work we do, it is built on a premise of belonging, being a part of something greater than just you. Can we get to that place without developing an inherent sense of safety and security among our members? The fraternity and sorority experience – and us as professionals and volunteers in this experience – should be the starting point for radical empathy and understanding. Fraternity and Sorority Life must set the standard for people mattering in this world.
For years, I have heard colleagues talking about how a fraternity house should be the safest place for a woman to be. We have used that picture of safety in relation to sexual violence and rape. But, my friends, it must be more that that. Our time is now. My friends of privilege, we must use our voices. We must stand and be a champion for what is right. We must support all of our students in changing a culture all around us. This isn’t about Making America Great Again or acknowledging who was With Her. This is about the day to day experience of some in this room. And, some in our communities. The fear of a mother for what her child may face as a multi-racial student. The fear of a partner for them running out to the store and encountering what could be deadly prejudice. It is about those that tolerate statements like All Lives Matter when we know that Kappernich kneeling isn’t really the problem. It is fear of being told that your marriage is no longer recognized. It is your religion and belief system being enough for others to consider you being locked up.
Leadershape’s Daily Inspiration this week included a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi. “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.” I want us to be a courageous profession. I want those shaping the experience of this next generation to be modeling bringing change to our communities. With acknowledgement that I, too, am on this path of learning and understanding, I challenge you to take up this moment. Have transformational conversations and allow yourself to be transformed in the process. Stay in the mess and discomfort. That space is where growth is born.
Again, thank you for this honor. May your year be filled with the joy that comes from working in a vocation that is rich in need and the conversations that are so essential.