A crowd of more than 350 people gathered in the Soda Center to hear Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - this year's Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow - deliver an inspiring speech about volunteerism, faith and politics and the importance of Saint Mary's mission of the common good.
Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and eldest daughter of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy, said she was delighted to spend a week at Saint Mary's, not only because of the caliber of intellectual discussions she had with SMC students but also because of the sense of comfort she felt with the College's mission of Catholic education and commitment to social justice.
"I just feel such a connection to Saint Mary's College. As many of you know I grew up in a Catholic family and I take my Catholic faith very, very seriously and I just loved meeting the students, the staff and the faculty," Townsend said. "I have been to many, many colleges, and I have never seen such a mission-driven group of people as I've met here in the last few days."
During her week-long stay at Saint Mary's, Townsend met with student groups and visited classes to address topics such as volunteerism and service, women in power and the intersection of faith and politics. Her Feb. 16 lecture, "The Dream Shall Never Die: Hope and Action for Today," was inspired by a speech delivered by her late uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, when he was running for president 30 years ago.
Her uncle had just passed away around the time she was asked about the topic of her speech for her Saint Mary's fellowship and his 1980 speech was on her mind. "I was thinking so much about his speech at the 1980 convention and how he writes in his book about how the dream shall never die, and the dream that he spoke about was really a dream that we can have more just country. We can have a country in which all citizens feel welcomed, that all people can feel that their talents can be recognized."
Townsend says a first step to helping all people have their talents recognized is galvanizing young people through community service and volunteerism. While Maryland's lieutenant governor, Townsend led the state to become the first in the nation to require community service in order to graduate from high school. However, she said not everyone supported the idea, including some members of the teachers' union who told her that you can't require a student to volunteer, it has to come from within them.
Townsend responded by referencing Aristotle, "we become harp players by playing the harp. We become house builders by building houses. We learn to be good by doing good. And you're not going to learn about service and make a difference unless you do it."
Change And Difficulty
She saluted the work of SMC's Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) as it celebrated a decade of service and making an impact with the scores of Bay Area community partners.
"I have to tell you, I've had dinners and lunches with your students and they each describe, with such enthusiasm and joy, what they do in Jumpstart, or how they've gone into Oakland to help kids that haven't been helped before or how they've gone to South America and Central America and made a contribution," she said. "It is that sense of volunteerism, that action of volunteerism, that is the rebirth of innocence that is so needed to revive a country that has been so hurt by this financial crisis."
Even though she championed the cause of service and the common good, she also reminded the audience that pursuing social change is difficult and there can be personal repercussions when you are fighting for change. She recalled the threats made against her family as a result of her father's investigation into organized crime in labor unions.
"At one point they were very angry at my father. These mobsters threatened to throw acid into my eyes and into the eyes of my brothers and sisters."
Townsend's lecture touched on pivotal moments in American history, from the assassination of her father in June 1968 - five years after her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was slain by an assassin - to her recollection of her father's experience on the presidential campaign trail in Indianapolis in a poor black neighborhood on April 4, 1968, the day civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. A crowd had been waiting to hear Senator Robert Kennedy and didn't know of King's murder.
"He walked in and spoke to the crowd. He had no written speech, and he had made a few notes, and he said that 'I want to tell you tonight that Martin Luther King has been killed.' And there was a gasp from the crowd, because they hadn't heard. 'And I think he was killed by a white man, so its possible you may feel a bitterness towards whites, but you have to know that my own brother was killed by a white man, so we have a choice in this country about what we're going to do.'
"And then he quoted Aeschylus, who said that 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'
"And he said, 'please go home and say a prayer for yourselves and a prayer for your country, whether you be black or white.' As a result of his speech, a speech about love, and compassion and shared sadness about what happened, Indianapolis did not burst in to flames, and it was a peaceful city, and most historians would say that it's because you had a politician that was willing to go in to a situation that was fraught with difficulty and fraught with danger and say we can make a difference."
Making A Difference
Townsend encouraged the audience to make a difference and to perform service not to feel better or for charity's sake, but to help bring about real change. "It really goes back to the ancient Greeks, where the Greek word for idiot is a private person, someone not involved in public life. And what we want and need desperately is a spirit of Saint Mary's in public life, a spirit that says, we do service, we care about you and we also care about the common good. Good luck and God bless you."
In the spirit of recognizing those who provide service that has made real change, CILSA director Marshall Welch acknowledged four individuals with CILSA's first annual service awards: the student leadership award went to Miranda Herrera; the faculty award went to chemistry professor Steve Bachofer; a staff recognition award was presented to Sodexo's Matt Carroll and the community partner award was given to Alameda Point Collaborative executive director Doug Biggs.
CILSA Directors Recognized
CILSA director Marshall Welch and associate director Jennifer Pigza are among eight civic and community engagement leaders from across California who were selected for an advanced professional development program.
"Diving Deep: Campus Compact's Institute for Experienced Civic and Community Engagement Practitioners,"is aimed at veteran civic engagement and service-learning directors who want to serve as active leaders within higher education and the larger service-learning and civic and community engagement movement.
Campus Compact is a national coalition of more than 1,100 college and university presidents - representing some 6 million students - who are committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education.
The eight California participants are from public, private and faith-based colleges throughout the state. The group will collaborate with community engagement leaders from higher education institutions from across the nation.
The institute will take place over three-and-a-half days in July 2010 and will include interactive workshops, presentations and networking opportunities.
-- Mike McAlpin
Office of College Communications