"Immersion, Submersion and Conversion"
Published in the Fall 2006 issue of The Parable, Dominican Theological
On the edge of the city of Detroit stood our Adrian Dominican-sponsored high school and academy for girls. When I arrived there in the role of President in 1996, it had been in existence for 56 years and was struggling. The institution was a well-formed riverbed, to use Scott Steinkerchner’s borrowed metaphor. I believed I knew what it would take to transform the institution into the thriving school it had once been.
What I did not realize was the effect of all the sands that had shifted in the surrounding community. I didn’t think I was naïve about how difficult that challenge would be until I experienced how much the culture of the institution had changed. The demographics of the city of Detroit had changed from majority white to majority African-American. The influence of the change molded the contours of the school’s riverbed with new expressions of bedrock (values).
St. Catherine of Siena taught that self-knowledge leads to knowledge of God. I embarked on the voyage not realizing how much the African-American culture of our parents, students and staff was going to affect me in my way of doing things at the school. I began to appreciate even more how different the approaches to all of life are.
At the end of my first year, the Congregation’s General Council decided to close the school because enrollment had been declining and the financial assistance required to keep doing business was significant. No one could have anticipated the community’s reaction to this decision.
Parents were not only visibly and vocally upset, but they managed to organize a gathering of concerned parents, alumnae and friends in the community. Their outreach to the community through the media resulted in many previously invisible supporters stepping forward to work with the parents to secure a reversal of that decision to close. Their pledge of both financial and recruitment assistance won over the General Council members and the school administrators and the school re-opened.
The way forward together was what brought me so many learnings. Parents took charge in ways that I learned later were based on their experience in their churches. An unquestioning respect among parents as they launched an operational plan brought out volunteers to hold recruitment rallies and pursue community contacts among potential funders.
Raising funds for this institution also took on a different emphasis. Studies had been done on how most African-Americans engage in fund raising. 1 I learned that while many African-Americans were likely to support their churches in its various ministries, they were not as likely to support other institutions, such as their schools. They were more likely to come forward and assist other families in need in the community. Once we helped parents understand that their financial efforts would assist school families, their fundraising took on a life of its own. They surprised even themselves at their early success.
There were celebrations and rituals for the re-opening of the school (which had officially been “closed” for only two weeks). 2 Parents welcomed the opportunity to thank God through communal and well-attended prayer events.
It was during these years that I learned about the emphasis these African-American parents placed on “the community.” They had come out of a strong sense of “the community” from the time they were children themselves. Their frame of reference — community — fascinated me. In the back of my mind reverberated the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
I came to reflect on how my upbringing focused on “individual” growth and excellence. Although I had been a Dominican for almost 40 years at the time, my sense of being an individual dominated my approach to most of my life: problem-solving, planning, time management, prayer and, yes, even community living.
The African-American parents taught me by experience how different it was for them to have been raised in the flow of a riverbed that shapes the person and lays claim to what the individual is and becomes. Their bedrock seemed so inclusive and accepting. The pride of the community came into play when the individual person succeeded.
Because I hadn’t been raised that way and the bedrock of my riverbed was full of expectations, measurements and evaluations, it was a stretch for me to keep their context in mind and honor it. Today I can appreciate and admire it, but do not pretend that I fully understand it.
Scott mentioned that examining our assumptions can lead to new learnings. I had assumed that our African-American parents believed that their daughters needed a quality education to get ahead and to excel in society. What I didn’t fully realize was that their experience as African-Americans had taught them that learning the ways of the dominant culture was what would help them get by in society.
I assumed parents agreed with our philosophy that girls learn best in a single-gender school. What I learned was that many parents placed a higher priority on safety and others chose a single-gender environment for religious reasons. Given the experiences of many of their everyday lives, this made sense and challenged me to examine how I could support them.
Scott’s borrowed image of the riverbed also resonated with our experience in the dialogue with our parents. But expectations of staff and faculty for how the students would apply themselves and how parents would be the “surroundings” for the riverbed of the institution soon fell on hard times.
Being “a community” from which a member was never ousted, these African-American parents were regularly handing out second chances to their daughters and others who were students there as well. It was common to hear, “That’s all right,” and “You go, girl!” in a student assembly or ball game. Public encouragement came in spite of who was around and in spite of what they had done, many times to the chagrin of the faculty. It “takes a village to raise a child” was evident at Dominican. It was a visible partnership.
One of the bedrocks more evident to me now is that of respect from others. Our students and parents insisted on it. Because so many had experienced lack of respect, it was something all of us on the staff had to keep learning. There were times when one of us acted or spoke and a student or parent took it as a lack of respect. Dialogue usually followed in an effort to understand how the student or parent took the comment or action. The campus ministry department even created a listening process designed to lead to mutual understanding.
Just like the differences in understanding “salvation/nirvana” used by Christians and Buddhists referenced in Scott’s article, those of us on the staff had different experiences of respect from those of many students and parents we served. Only when we took the time and had the time for dialogue could we sometimes get to a common understanding. At times, we just had to conclude that our different frames of reference in life shaped our views of the situation and leave it at that. It felt closer to the truth to do this.
To place myself in the situation I did with African-Americans was also to place myself in the learner position. I was in their riverbed, needing to be guided by their thought flow so I could lead the institution. The impact of this immersion on me transformed my actions and decisions.
I knew they had to help shape how we would be together as a community. If we wanted to continue on as a Catholic school in the city of Detroit, among people who are African-American, then we had to find ways to help each other express more meaningfully what was important to our community. This was an ongoing challenge because we took this seriously.
The experience and the learning did keep me humble. I gained a new respect for how differently people grew up and lived. I learned not to make judgments, but instead to think of how it might be to “walk a mile in my shoes.” The experience provided support for my belief that all people need to be at the decision-making table. Each perspective has some of the truth. At times it can only be articulated by someone who actually has the experience and not by those who have observed someone having the experience.
1 John Saillant, “African-American Philanthropy has a Long, Rich History,” Philanthropy Matters, No. 8 (Summer 1994). Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy.
2 When our combined efforts failed to increase enrollment, our General Council again made the decision to close the school in June 2005.