Each year I have the distinct privilege to be one of many people that volunteer to train the residence life staff here at the University of Wisconsin – Superior. These are amazing folks…student-workers who truly constitute the front line. They live in the residence halls, side by side with our students and work every day to form relationships, earn trust, seek understanding, mediate disputes, listen to complaints, design fun activities, sponsor educational events and yes, report violations of the rules when this is warranted.
My contribution typically is to speak to them about diversity and inclusivity. To discuss issues of social justice like privilege and oppression and give them pertinent information and strategies that hopefully will aide them as they seek to create an environment that is safe, open and welcoming for all people. I often share my personal story of the long and painful road I traveled coming to grips with my authentic identity – racially, spiritually, sexually, etc., my small attempt to lead with and model, vulnerability.
So yesterday I found myself out in the scenic woods of northern Wisconsin at the Pigeon Lake Retreat Center explaining and sharing and listening and laughing with over 50 of our “best and brightest.” During break-out sessions when they were working in small groups discussing training scenarios, I roamed around the room listening to these young leaders thinking deeply, feeling empathetically and seeking solutions for fictitious situations that could easily become realities sometime during the coming year. There were some pretty special moments and I can assure you – you would have been inspired.
Meanwhile on the news tonight, I saw devastating and disturbing pictures from Syria — rows and rows of dead children, the innocent victims of chemical weaponry launched at their homes by forces engaged in a civil (or not so civil) conflict they couldn’t begin to understand. What must their last moments of life been like? And a family in Australia mourned the loss of their college-aged son, living here in the US and attending school in Oklahoma where he played baseball. While out for a run he was shot dead, in the back, by three African American teenagers who apparently didn’t know him and had no motive for this violent act.
And all of this – local, national, international is taking place in the context of the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington and Dr. King’s famous, I Have a Dream speech. There has been and will continue to be much discourse by the talking heads as to how much progress has actually been made since those turbulent and glorious days. I’m not sure any of us really knows. However it seems clear that as long as the news is broadcasting posthumous photos of murdered Syrian children and mug shots of American teenagers accused of murder, that we still have a ways to go.
So tonight I choose to turn my thoughts back to the “Res. Life” staff here at UWS. They will likely not have to deal with civil war or drive-by shootings but they will doubtless encounter the embryonic seeds of such tragic behaviors: ignorance, fear and misunderstanding. And in those critical moments, if they can fall back on their training and better yet, the best and most sensitive aspects of their own natures, perhaps an entrenched position might be softened or a bigoted viewpoint respectfully challenged; a discussion rather than a slur, insights rather than insults. Am I naïve to think that integrity displayed on this local level might actually avert a tragedy broadcast on some future edition of the national evening news?
So here’s my “shout out” to those beautiful and committed folks: to the directors, the central staff and the RA’s of Ross, Hawkes, Crownhart, Ostrander and Curran-McNeil Halls. Thank you for your commitment and all the hard work to come. You are truly great.
Dr. King said: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”