Message from the Center: Frank Bruni & Sarah Smarsh

I’m writing this in the midst of a rough week.  We compile these programs about three weeks prior to when the event actually happens, so by the time you’re reading this, much of what I’m writing about will be old newsreplaced by new news. Right now, the impeachment hearings and their attending levels of nastiness continue, another school shooting occurred in a high school just north of LA, and student journalists at Northwestern University were publicly shamed by older, more experienced journalists for making a mistake in their coverage of a campus protest. Admittedly it’s been a rough couple of years for journalists: writers and editors are a bit on edge.  But if your experience as a journalist has afforded you the privilege of being able to air your ideas in a public forum or publication, you have the responsibility to use that forum to pave the road for younger, less experienced writers. How is it that so many “experienced” journalists did not see this as a teachable moment, but instead got on their soap boxes, and ranted at students whose actions did not quite live up to their best intentions. The student editors at the Daily Northwestern made a difficult decision, but why not help them learn from it, instead of disgracing them or even worse, deterring them from trying again?  We need young, committed writers and journalists and artists and activists and documentarians – we need our young people to feel like we have their backs or they won’t step up. We desperately need them to step up.  Soon.  Now.  Not only in large urban places like LA or DC or Chicago, but in every place, in small towns and small campuses with small newspapers trying to do the right thing.

In 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt made a now famous speech at the United Nations. The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which she was a principle author and advocate. This is one of the more enduring excerpts of that speech:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.

Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity, without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

This is where civic engagement starts. This is where civility starts.  With small acts of teaching and conversation and compassion and listening. If these things don’t happen in our homes and communities, in our meeting halls and in our classrooms, then they don’t happen on the national stage. Regrettably, our national conversation is being driven by shouting and shaming and thoughtlessness.

Tonight we are gathered in a hall of public assembly on the campus of a public university to be part of a conversation. Royce Hall is named after the philosopher Josiah Royce, who was an  “American Idealist.”  Born in a California mining town, he believed in communities of grace, in the commitment to the shared cause of a community. Frank Bruni and Sarah Smarsh are journalists who believe in that shared cause. They believe, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, in the small places close to home. Their words remind us that these small places, these small actions are important, they are the foundation of our democracy.  These are the places that matter, and if we put our collective minds to it, they can become communities of grace.

— Meryl Friedman, Director of Education & Special Initiatives