January 25, 2021

Remarks on the opening of Elevate: The first annual conference on social justice At Connecticut College

Thank you, Angela and John, and good morning, everyone. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be with you this morning, as we launch what will be our first annual conference on social justice at Connecticut College. And before we go any further, let me express my gratitude and respect to all of you students and staff in our division of institutional equity and inclusion for the extraordinary efforts you have made not just to make this conference a reality, but also to start a new tradition at Conn. I also want to thank our wonderful speakers and presenters, experts from our own community and beyond, who will be sharing wisdom with us over the next two days. We are so grateful that you are here.

It is hard to fathom that we are just twenty-five days into the new year. It’s a year that has already delivered so many highs and lows that it feels as though much more time must have passed. I know we have all experienced this period in different ways but two historic events mark its extremes: on January 6, a violent mob storming the Capitol and seeking to reverse the results of a free and fair election; on January 20, the first Black, Asian woman being sworn in as Vice President of the United States. Two historic events, two weeks apart, demonstrating the twin faces of our democracy——both its pain and its promise, and even the progress that can be achieved in the face of forces ready to overturn it. If nothing else, the framing offers a good starting point for today, because embracing this truth and its singular difficulty is, I would argue, one of the purposes of this conference.

It is also, I might add, our purpose as a College. Our mission at Connecticut College is to create productive citizens prepared to put their education into action in support of a global democratic society. That means working to elevate our discourse, our practices, and our forms of self-governance to create the kind of environment where all people, no matter their identity or background, have the opportunity to thrive, reach their potential, and contribute meaningfully to their communities and to the world.

That ideal, which we call full participation, lies at the heart of who we are and what we do. It is the central building block of Building on Strength, the strategic vision that has been guiding our work at the college for the past several years. And it is the motivating force behind our equity and inclusion plan, and its series of concrete actions giving greater articulation and depth to the vision.

Full participation is what led our faculty, for example, to establish a new curricular requirement for all students focused on understanding social difference and power. And it led one of our most celebrated alumnae, Agnes Gund, from the class of 1960, to support a one-of-a-kind educational initiative that would put that understanding into practice, an initiative we call the Dialogue Project. In my address for the opening of school in August, I asked students to embrace the opportunities of this historic year to become better citizens. And I suggested what would mean: looking hard enough to see another person’s humanity; listening close enough to hear another person’s truth with humility and respect; staying long enough to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, in order to allow everyone to use their voices and to be heard. That is how I introduced the Dialogue Project to our newest students, reminding them that to learn in this way would not just elevate their own experience; it would elevate the world.

Which brings us to our purpose today and to the lofty goals of this conference. To those who helped create this event, I say thank you for answering the call and for being a force for good. To all who have joined us, I say thank you for taking the time to work toward positive change within and beyond your immediate circles. In fact, I challenge each of us here today to use this time to step outside those circles in order to learn something about a culture or identity different from our own; and then to make a commitment to continue learning after the conference has ended. It is only with this kind of commitment, after all, that we will ever begin to reach the elevated understanding we need to fulfill our nation’s promise.

And with that challenge, I want to conclude this introduction begin our work together. I can think of no better way to do that than with the words of our featured guest this morning, the poet Kate Rushin, whom I have the honor of introducing now. There are many things I could tell you about Kate Rushin: that she is the great-great granddaughter of Davie Arthur, a former slave from Maryland’s eastern shore who escaped through the underground railroad to New Jersey, where she, too, was raised. That she developed her taste for poetry as a child by memorizing the verses of Edgar Allen Poe and Laurence Dunbar. That she studied Theater and Communications at Oberlin College, began a teaching career and a devotion to Black women writers, and later went on to earn her MFA with Michael Harper at Brown University. That around that time she published her best-known book of poetry, “The Black Back-Ups,” the title coming from one of the volume’s most moving and musical poems. That she had by then already made her name, and her fame, through another, more celebrated poem published in the preface to the ground-breaking 1981 feminist anthology, This Bridge Called My Back, a poem she called, simply, “The Bridge Poem.” That she went on to receive the Rose Low Rome Memorial Poetry Prize and the Grolier Poetry Prize, and to see her work widely revered and anthologized. Or even that she has now joined the Connecticut College community as a Distinguished Visiting Poet-in-Residence. Yes, I could tell you all of these things, but I think I would simply prefer to cite the words of Nefertari Pierre-Louis, who wrote a review of the unforgettable poetry reading Kate Rushin offered here on campus last year, just days before a global pandemic stopped our world in its tracks. Speaking of the poet’s powerful, soul-stirring energy, Nefertari summed it up with a simple observation. She said, “That is the magic of Kate Rushin.”

My friends, please join me in welcoming a magical poet.

Katherine Bergeron