A Call to Civil Discourse

January 7, 2021

Dear Colleagues and Students,

Students on campusI am sure that many of you were—as I was—glued to your television screens late into last night as we struggled to understand how our Capitol could be violently invaded. Whatever political views you hold, I expect you experienced shock and dismay as you watched actions that were an assault on both our democratic ideals and our Saint Mary’s values.

But yesterday was also a reminder of the importance of education—the sacred work we undertake each day. And at Saint Mary’s, where we dedicate ourselves to the core values of learning, community, faith/spirituality, and justice, we have a special opportunity to become the kinds of citizens who will serve and protect our democracy and who will not be bystanders. We join with the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who today called for a commitment to non-violence, urging all people “to work and pray for a peaceful solution to the divisions within that democracy, which culminated in such chaos, hateful rhetoric, exploitation, and violence.”

Many of our students plaster their laptop computers with stickers that announce something about their identities or their commitments. I have just one sticker on the back of mine: it says “Civil Discourse Advocate.” I pasted it there to support a program at Saint Mary’s, the Dialogue and Civil Discourse Project, created by Professor Megan Zwart of the Philosophy Department. As Professor Zwart states on her project website, “The Dialogue and Civil Discourse Project at Saint Mary’s College starts from the premise that by growing in the virtues of Curiosity, Empathy and Intellectual Humility, we can all become better listeners, more careful reasoners, and engaged citizens in democracy.” From the minute I recognized her goal to help students learn how to have conversations across differences, I knew that this project should be scaled up. The skills she focuses on should be among the key highlights of a Saint Mary’s education for every student. And those of us who work here can and should model them. Yesterday’s events were a reminder that our communities, our nation, and the world can be better because of what we do right here.

Last night, I began to feel a little miracle as one congressional leader after another recommitted to the US Constitution and expressed incredulity, outrage, and sadness. They reached across the aisle in a way we haven’t seen in recent times. They revisited—with remarkable unity—the job they had in front of them and reminded each other of what was not in their job as well. 

We all have a job too. Our mission statement—guided by our Catholic faith—promises, among other things, an emphasis on social responsibility and preparation to make a difference in the world. As President of Saint Mary’s, I encourage everyone connected to the College to embrace a unifying and hopeful outlook for our future. Our democracy is not perfect, and yesterday’s events remind us that it is fragile. Seek truth. Demand facts. Accept that our system, even with imperfections, works. Build hope for a new generation who desperately need our perspective and our optimism. You can lead from wherever you are, and I hope you will.

Faculty and staff, we will use whatever time we need in tomorrow’s Town Hall meeting to unpack this together and to learn what you need and what you are hearing students may need.

Students, please know that you can reach out to trusted people at the College, including me. We are here to help you to process what you experienced yesterday. Importantly, you should know that the telehealth services associated with SMC Care are available to you, even during the break and from wherever you are. 

In closing, please join me in the prayer of the Sisters of the Holy Cross:

God of all nations, come powerfully to the people of the United States. Hear our outcry in the face of appalling behaviors that resulted in destruction of human life and property in the nation’s capital. We know that “violence is not the cure for our broken world” (Pope Francis). Pour out the balm of transforming love; heal all divisions that grievously wound true freedom. Send into the hearts of all people the purifying waters of uncompromising justice and reconciliation. We pray for a peaceful transfer of power in government for the common good of the nation and the global community. Amen. 

In peace and solidarity,

Signature of Katie Conboy

Katie Conboy, PhD

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