Cat Cleary: Asking Questions that Have No Right to Go Away

Summer 2011


Newly appointed to the College’s Board of Trustees as a full-voting student trustee, Catherine Michels Cleary ’12 believes in…

Asking questions that have no right to go away

by Ann Jacobson

Cat Cleary

She thinks she first heard it said by a Sister of the Holy Cross at Saint Mary’s, but Catherine “Cat” Michels Cleary ’12 is not certain. She immediately put it to paper as she often does with words that inspire. Ask the questions that have no right to go away has stayed with her ever since and become her personal motto. “Questions that have no right to go away are those that beckon us to pay attention to things we would rather ignore,” says Cleary. “In response to them, we often say we’re too busy, don’t have enough time, or they’re not our problem. I interpret this statement with a gendered lens, as I do my whole life. These questions for me have to do with power dynamics, equality, social class, social norms, and sexuality.”

Cleary says her eyes were first opened to “the impact that race, age, and class have on the lives of women” after she participated in an alternative spring break program through the College’s Office for Civic and Social Engagement, as a first-year student. She and four other Saint Mary’s students went to Indianapolis to learn about women’s issues in urban environments, and heard speakers on issues that included sexual assault, human trafficking, and teen homelessness. They visited shelters for abused women, the Indiana Women’s Prison, and Girl’s Inc. of Indianapolis, whose mission is to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold.

Inspired by that experience—and by her grandmother, Audrey Cleary, who served several terms in the North Dakota State Legislature, and no less by her parents, Julie Michels and Paul Cleary, Catholic educators, who nurtured their daughter’s feminist beliefs and the importance of a faith-filled life of service to others—Cleary set about preparing herself for a future in public service. She sought a student-designed major under the Women’s Studies (WOST) Program, focused on public policy, law, power, and privilege along with a minor in Spanish. Cleary also tailored her learning approach beyond the classroom to educate her firsthand on the complex legal and social issues women face. “I have no reservations about saying that the great majority of my learning here at Saint Mary’s has happened outside of the classroom,” says the Fridley, Minnesota, native for whom the classroom serves as her springboard for learning.

By example of her work, volunteer, full-time classroom studies, and internship experiences, Cleary might serve as inspiration to those of us who might believe we do not have enough time as we are too busy to pay attention to issues that we think are for others to solve. (See sidebar featuring some of her accomplishments). This summer, she is interning with the Indiana Coalition against Sexual Assault (INCASA) in Indianapolis, a 25-year-old organization dedicated to eradicating sexual assault against all individuals. Admitting that her involvement in so many extra-curricular activities definitely tests her ability to balance her commitments, “it is incredibly fulfilling,” she says. “I’m at a point in my life where each day I find myself interested in a new career, but I find they all revolve around my desire to advocate for women, in the non-profit sector. I also plan on running for public office in the future.

Saint Mary’s has helped me by fulfilling my spiritual and academic needs, by challenging my commitment to serving others and most importantly, by giving me room to grow.”