Dear Colby Community,
At our opening convocation this fall, I spoke of the political environment in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s and how the discontent of that period – a time of racial discord, insecurity about our country’s place in the world, widespread economic uncertainty, and distrust of government – was echoing throughout the 2016 election season. I did not know then, though, that our national campaigns would move to even lower ground and would ultimately reveal as much as they did about the multiple, complex, and largely ignored divisions in our society.
The vitriolic campaigns and the prospect of policy changes that could roll back civil rights and create even deeper societal divisions have made many in our community anxious and fearful for their personal safety and the safety of loved ones. Some of this concern is about possible changes to immigration laws and deportation practices. Some of it is about growing violence in the form of hate crimes, which, according to the FBI, rose nearly seven percent last year with especially high spikes in targeted attacks based on religious identity. Far more frequent and insidious are the daily acts of bias – the slights, abusive epithets, physical confrontations, and threats that are never reported. These demeaning, cowardly acts are evident in our own community as they are across the country.
Let us reaffirm at Colby our commitment to a deep and abiding respect for our shared humanity, and let our differences in backgrounds, experiences, identities, and cultural and political beliefs be a source of strength and discovery.
I can assure you that we will do all in our power to secure the safety of our community members, no matter their nationality, immigration status, race, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity, and that we will fight policies that run counter to our mission of educating the most talented students from across the country and around the world.
Many of you have asked in recent weeks about what you, as individuals, can do to address the many challenges we face. I welcome that question because it acknowledges that we all have a role to play in shaping our future. Allow me to offer a few suggestions.
1. Building a better society begins at home and is constructed on the foundation of respectful daily interactions. How we treat one another at Colby and in our broader communities matters greatly. Let us really listen to and talk honestly with one another, cast aside our stereotypes, and rid ourselves of the presumptions that supporting any particular candidate or party reveals what we need to know about an individual’s beliefs. And let us engage in life off the Hill to know our neighbors and to join with them in building a stronger, more vibrant social fabric.
2. Use the tools of education and scholarship to gain a more nuanced understanding of the issues and to amplify evidence-based arguments. To our students, I hope you will seek courses that challenge your understanding of social justice and look to the scholarly and creative work of our faculty as a model for making change. I find inspiration in the work of so many of our faculty, including Catherine Besteman’s research on refugees in Maine, Neil Gross’s writing on policing and crime, and Khalid Albaih’s cartoons on politics and global suffering.
3. Our democratic society works only when informed citizens engage in the political process, vote, fight for positive change, and hold elected officials accountable. The Goldfarb Center and the Oak Institute are among the many organizations on campus that invite your participation and will open avenues of political activity on local, national, and international issues. If you have been sitting on the sidelines, there is no better time than now to participate in political action.
4. Live a life where your values and work are aligned and where you can address the issues most important to you. I do that through my work at Colby, and it is fulfilling and gratifying. I find additional wellsprings of motivation and guideposts for action when I listen to remarkable individuals who visit campus, such as Alissa Rubin, who recently received the Lovejoy Award for her reporting that exposed widespread forms of oppression and the devastating effects of war, and LaToya Ruby Frazier, our artist in residence last week, whose photography tells powerful narratives of labor force and health care discrimination and environmental racism. Examples of lives of meaning and purpose are all around us, and each is a reminder to me of my obligation to use my talents to create a more just world.
In 1965 America’s civil rights movement was still in its infancy. Martin Luther King Jr. found reason for optimism even in those most trying times. Recently I came across a speech of his from that year that gives me hope as we look to the future. He spoke about the effects of war, violence, prejudice, and discrimination, and concluded by famously saying, “I believe firmly that we will get to the promised land of collective fulfillment. … Oh I know that there are dark and difficult days ahead. … And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” We have seen meaningful, even transformational progress since that time, although not nearly as much as many of us would like. And the setbacks have been very real as well. But the American system of government has proved remarkably resilient for more than two centuries and the American spirit has ultimately demonstrated its strength and generosity.
I look forward to joining all of you in finding the very best within ourselves and in our communities. Our collective capacity for change is as powerful as we choose to make it.
I wish you a peaceful Thanksgiving. For me, there is no better place to spend this holiday than Mayflower Hill with family and friends and in a community that never backs from the fight for social justice and a more equitable world.
David A. Greene