The role of higher education in working to preserve our democracy at a time when society is so fractured and polarized was one of the topics raised when Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson spoke in April. She was addressing the Minnesota Campus Compact 2019 Summit and Presidents’ Awards Luncheon, where hundreds of college students, staff and community partners heard her first-hand. Read the full speech; below is an excerpt.
“Our country desperately needs its institutions of higher learning, and organizations like the Compact who are committed to civic engagement and preserving our democracy, to lead the way. To lead the way out of the polarization, divisiveness and meanness that dominate much of our public discourse today. We are in a social upheaval reminiscent of the 60’s as our country is engaged in fierce debates over immigration, health care, voting rights and our criminal justice system; indeed, battles over core, fundamental – and what many thought were enshrined – ideals about who we are as a country. In the 60’s, it led Harry Belafonte to say: ‘we are in a struggle for the soul of this country; it is a struggle for America’s moral center.’ We are in no less of a struggle today. We thought, for example, that we had entered a ‘post-racial’ world after President Obama was elected; only to find that that was not so. In a recent Vox article by P.R. Lockhart, entitled ‘Living While Black and the Criminalization of Blackness’ – Lockhart describes the myriad ways Black people are viewed with suspicion, profiled and threatened with responses from the police – like the Black co-ed at Yale who was sleeping in the lounge area of her dorm until a white classmate called the police because she wasn’t sure if the Black student ‘belonged’ there. Even after unlocking her dorm room to prove she lived there, she was still asked for ID. Or the two Black men arrested for trespassing in a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting to meet with a business partner. The manager claimed they ‘refused to make a purchase or leave.’
“As disturbing as these incidents are; I’m encouraged and I want you to be encouraged, as well. Because in the midst of these troubling events, I see a new age of citizen engagement, and it’s coming from people across the political spectrum; and young and old alike. People of all ages are energized and motivated to act, to speak up – even people who have previously been silent. Kamala Harris kicked off her presidential campaign by encouraging us as a country to ‘see what can be; unburdened by what has been.’ I think that’s good advice regardless of where you land on the political spectrum. . . .
“My point is this: This community – this Compact – needs to be an integral part of these local and national discussions. Higher education must continue to play its unique role in encouraging and training a new generation of young people who will speak up and be actively involved – be that through voting, lobbying, or educating themselves and others about these important issues. Democracy is not a spectator sport. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal . . . and have certain inalienable rights . . . ’ But I assure you that while our rights may be self-evident; they are not self-executing! In other words, they are capable of being eroded, if only through neglect and apathy. Thurgood Marshall said we have to ‘dissent from indifference.’ And so we have to engage one another on these critical issues; but we have to do so in a manner that respects competing viewpoints and experiences that may be foreign to us.”