Strengthening Our Culture of Belonging

November 8, 2022

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

Last month, we were thrilled to welcome historian Jill Lepore as the 2022 Christian Culture lecturer. Lepore’s address invited us all to consider the history of amending the U.S. Constitution, threading through her talk a clever linguistic comparison of “amending”—as in the (mostly) men’s work of revising, correcting, or clarifying our nation’s foundational document—and “mending”—work traditionally done (mostly) by women to repair, restore, or remedy something that is torn or broken. Last week, The New Yorker published a brilliant interactive and expanded version of the subject, written by Lepore, which you can access here.

I’ve read a lot of Lepore’s work, but after her Saint Mary’s address, I picked up a small book called This America: The Case for the Nation. In it, Lepore explores the differences between nationalism and patriotism, ultimately encouraging us to return to the “self-evident” truths that “all of us are all equal, we are equal as citizens, and we are equal under the law.” This is a kind of open-hearted patriotism. One sentence late in the book was especially arresting: “This America is a community of belonging and commitment, held together by the strength of our ideas and the force of our disagreements.” Held together—not pushed apart!

This made me think about our own commitment at Saint Mary’s—documented in our forward-looking strategic plan—to build a culture of belonging and mattering, a culture where each and all of us can learn from people with different experiences from our own, and all listen attentively to ideas we might be hesitant to embrace. In the speech I gave on February 12, 2020 when my SMC appointment was announced, I said this: “As I anticipate my arrival at Saint Mary’s, belonging is top of mind—and not just for myself, but for the whole community. I’ve spent my career thinking about the ways that a small college like ours with a robust mission can become a true home for its students, faculty, and staff, a place where everyone—with all their differences intact—still belongs. In our contemporary moment, I believe such spaces are essential and even sacred.”

Today, I’m even more convinced that there’s a big difference between belonging and virtuous conduct like hospitality or welcoming. These latter two practices suggest that some people already belong and then choose to open their doors to others. But belonging doesn’t have insiders and outsiders. And if we really want to ensure this kind of community at Saint Mary’s, we need to acknowledge the strength of diverse ideas and the force of differences that are already inside the college. As I said in that 2020 speech: “I’d like to think our togetherness will come from a deep civility that can listen to ideas other than our own, that can disagree, forcefully, when necessary, but preserve the fabric of relationships. . . .  Whatever our differences, we have all chosen Saint Mary’s. We all belong under this roof.”

We’ve made some big strides in this area of our strategic plan. The Office for Student Equity, which works to meet the hidden needs of under-resourced students, is up and running, with a $7M endowment. Staff are helping students every day with small unexpected expenses that might leave them out of full participation in the Saint Mary’s experience: computers, move-in kits, professional clothing, regalia for commencement, Notre Dame football tickets. We will continue to fundraise to support these needs! Close to 30% of our students are first-generation college students, and Saint Mary’s has new networks of support to ensure their flourishing at the College. In fact, today, November 8, is national “First Generation College Celebration”—a day when colleges and universities are encouraged to highlight the successes of their first-generation students, faculty, and staff and to focus on the assets they bring to college rather than the deficits they may feel. Tonight, we are hosting a first-generation dinner and celebration here at SMC, and we have other events going on throughout this week.

Some departments have already made major changes to their curricula to ensure that both course content and pedagogy are inclusive. We will continue to work on our curricular approaches to diversity and inclusion, just as we continue to promote dialogue and foster civil discourse in our classrooms and everywhere on campus. Last night, I attended an open student discussion on sexual violence within our tri-campus, and the student organizers began the event with a reminder of how we want to treat each other in our community. “Listening to understand” is becoming a signature practice on our campus, though we still have work to do.

Sometimes, it’s hard work to find common ground. Our brains work to fit new experiences into pre-existing schemas. As the cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget put it: “We assimilate when we can and accommodate when we must.” We’re hard-wired for this and need to challenge ourselves to be invigorated by differences, not threatened by them! We need to be more attentive, and more curious—to choose to be together with people who are different from us.

I recently looked up the etymology of the word “belonging.” It comes from the Old English “gelang,” meaning “at hand,” or “together with.” Somehow, it came to be more about assigning, grouping, and categorizing, but it originated with togetherness. I like how it contains both “being” and “longing.” I hope you join me in longing for—and working for—our being “a community of belonging and commitment, held together by the strength of our ideas and the force of our disagreements.”

Wishing you all a Happy and blessed Thanksgiving!

Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D.


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