Speeches & Commentary

2020 WashU Day of Dialogue and Action

2020-02-18--Day of Dialogue & Action Keynote Address.

Good evening, and welcome to Washington University’s 6th annual Day of Dialogue and Action. Thank you for being with us today as we engage in dialogues across difference, renew our commitment to making Washington University a place where all people feel valued and included, and as we extend that commitment to our neighborhoods and the surrounding community. I am immensely grateful for those who spent countless hours preparing today’s event. And to our speakers, presenters, and panelists — thank you for joining us and for sharing your wisdom.

To start things off, I want to ask a question. No need to raise your hand, but just consider for a moment…

“Who here dreads large, extended family holidays or gatherings?”

I’d venture to guess that many of you said yes, and here’s why:

Maybe you have a boisterous uncle who, whether conservative or liberal, just has to have an open discussion about politics at the dinner table — and worse yet, attempt to prove everyone wrong.

Maybe your spouse or partner’s family celebrates different traditions than you, and family gatherings no longer feel familiar.

Maybe you have a disability or dietary restrictions, and your family members are unwilling to accommodate you.

Maybe it’s a financial strain for you to either host or travel to be with your family.

Maybe members of your family don’t accept an aspect of your identity you find authentic to you, and you dread interacting with them.

Maybe you come from a different part of the world, you are alone, or you’ve never celebrated that particular observance before.

If you nodded your head to one or more of these scenarios, or perhaps another scenario altogether, you aren’t alone. Take Thanksgiving for example. A recent Marist poll suggested that 58% of people celebrating Thanksgiving dread having to talk politics around the dinner table. A recent Psychology Today article stressed that “the holiday has the potential to generate the most loneliness,” and hundreds more articles annually share tips and advice for “how to survive.”

Often these holidays or large family gatherings are difficult especially because media and our mainstream culture have conditioned our brains to think they should be a romantic celebration of family — when in fact for many of us, they feel just the opposite. Rather, we feel we can’t be fully ourselves because we fear judgement, bias, or ridicule.

What’s worse — this dilemma seems no longer to be a problem that occurs every once in a while. As a society, it seems some of us have lost the ability to come to the same table, to hear one another, to see one another, to respectfully dialogue with one another, and to embrace one another without preconceived judgement or bias.

At Washington University, we are doing our best to try to counteract the “family gathering dilemma” as we attempt to model what it’s like to be a community where all people feel welcome, valued, and included.

Here at WashU, we come from different parts of the world. We have different life experiences and philosophical ideologies. We are diverse in age, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, and culture. We add our own value and beliefs to our studies and work. And we expect dignity and respect from our colleagues and peers.

Washington University is also a place where we spend most of our waking hours. For many of us, it is also the place where we will have more encounters with people from different backgrounds than any other place we will go in a given week.

Given these circumstances, it is crucial that we as a community invest time in one another and make intentional spaces to listen, extend empathy, celebrate, and engage in dialogue. When we do so, we have the opportunity to discern both inwardly and outwardly. We have the opportunity to reflect on our own humanity and the humanity of others. And we have the opportunity to improve the way we see ourselves as a community, which hopefully permeates into the way we see our role as neighbors, as citizens, and as members of a global society.

That’s what days like today and tomorrow are all about, as we use this opportunity to listen, learn, and reflect on our past as we use our collective voices to make way for the future. This is not only paramount for us as a community that values diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also as we double down on our role, impact, and connection “In St. Louis and For St. Louis.”

Thank you, once again, for your commitment to this work, your dialogue, and your collegiality. May we use today to begin to break through the issues at hand as we model for others what living and working in community ought to look like.