As I was working on a new column for our newsletter, the news broke about the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas. And as I tried to process that event on top of the awful and racist attack in Buffalo just two weeks before, the updates I intended to share all seemed inconsequential. And soon after there were more mass shootings in Milwaukee, Tulsa, Ames (Iowa), and Philadelphia.
In every case, my mind and heart immediately go to the community colleges in these communities because inevitably they are touched by these tragedies. Many of our colleges become hubs for emergency responses, family gathering places, sites for press conferences. Most already provide space and support for active shooter tabletop drills for their campuses, their communities, for business leaders, and mostly, for local and regional police, fire, and first responder units.
But really, what can anyone say in the face of these events that are heartbreaking and at the same time emblematic of so many underlying problems our nation currently faces?
How do we bear to look at the faces of more children and their teachers senselessly murdered in a place that is supposed to be filled with hope and love and learning? How do we comprehend the fact that guns are now the leading cause of death of children in this country? How do we contend with the many policymakers and legislators who, as Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in his emotional speech after Uvalde, put their own desire for power “ahead of the lives of our children and our elderly and our church-goers”? And how do we deal with the fact that in the face of these acts, so much of the response deepens existing political and ideological divides rather than rallying our communities and country to collectively address these challenges?
Or, to put it another, more personal, way that may not be so daunting: How do we get past the grief, the anger, and the sense of hopelessness — to not feel paralyzed by these events? My answer? I continue to come back to our colleges and to the communities we play a central role in building, nurturing, and protecting.
It has to begin with empathy
In my speech at this year’s DREAM conference, I quoted the late Dr. Michael Elam, president of Halifax Community College, a colleague and an amazing leader. He said:
“There is so much happening in today’s society that seems to indicate that love is absent. Prejudice, hatred and killing are the obvious culprits. But there are more subtle indicators as well, such as the inequitable distribution of resources, uncaring treatment toward others, and all forms of discrimination. It does not have to be that way. Our community could be so much better if more love was exhibited.”
Dr. Elam knew that his job was to bring love to his community and provide those in his community a sense of hope. “Hope begins with someone conveying even a glimmer of a different, better, safer, less painful, more joyful possibility tomorrow, and each day after, to another person who cannot see it himself/herself at the time.” In short, it must begin with empathy.
I know no better response to recent events than to remind myself that we must build institutions and communities of inclusion and safety, of hope and promise, and of love and caring. We cannot reach every individual nor stop every bad thing from happening, but we have the unique position to foster a greater sense of belonging in our communities and provide spaces for our students, families, and partners to collectively create a better future. In a recent interview, Gustavo García-Siller, the Archbishop of San Antonio whose diocese includes Uvalde, reminded us that “all people have the capacity to be creative, if love leads us.”
Each of us works at this every day, but it is in times like these we need reminding that the work we do does matter. I am a regular reader of Vu Le’s Nonprofit AF pieces. In his column on Memorial Day, he shared a passage from poet Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ essay “We Were Made for These Times.” Her words resonate with me:
“What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.”
I truly believe our institutions and our network in action are “an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing” and that, together, we are a force for both practical and visionary change that will radically create more stable, equitable structures within the colleges and communities we lead.