Remarks following a moment of silence for 9/11

September 11, 2017

It is an honor to be with you today, at Reverend Speer’s invitation. Since September 11, 2001 it has seemed impossible, at times, to picture a modern America or world free of fear, hatred, and violence. And yet, every day I wake up and recommit myself to the task. Since joining the Vassar community, I’ve been newly energized and inspired seeing that we are all getting up each day and committing ourselves to making our campus a model of what it means to intentionally learn from difference as opposed to fear it, hate it, and run from it.

This is no easy task. It is worth asking ourselves: what other choice do we have?

In 1999, a longtime minister and activist at New York’s Riverside Church, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. spelled out the stakes. He observed, “Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.” While pundits and politicians may encourage us to believe that it is diversity that we should be afraid of, Reverend Coffin reminds us that there is much more to fear in a society that aims for purity based on sameness.

I have often come back to the question of whether, and how, groups of people can learn to recognize their similarities and differences at the same time. This is a big ask, as it requires people to intellectually and emotionally grasp a paradox. In another sermon, Coffin took up in more detail this relationship between sameness and difference directly. He wrote, “The challenge is to recognize that the world is about two things: differentiation and communion. The challenge is to seek a unity that celebrates diversity, to unite the particular with the universal, to recognize the need for roots while insisting that the point of roots is to put forth branches. What is intolerable is for differences to become idolatrous. No human being’s identity is exhausted by his or her gender, race, ethnic origin, national loyalty, or sexual orientation. All human beings have more in common than they have in conflict, and it is precisely when what they have in conflict seems overriding that what they have in common needs most to be affirmed.”

On this 16th anniversary of September 11, let me end by affirming very clearly what we have in common. All are welcome here. Everyone has something to teach and more to learn from one another. Let us remember the sentences from Vassar’s mission statement: Vassar strives to pursue diversity, inclusion, and equity as essential components of a rich intellectual and cultural environment in which all members are valued and empowered to thrive.

And whether you are faculty, staff, or student, let us intentionally create a community of profound difference, based in the belief that that our difference offers us enlivening opportunities to learn and grow. As long as we are willing to show up, as we have done today, and stay at the table when our differences arise, then we are enough. We can live a life of love, compassion, and community. I am thankful for this moment together. Let us find Peace.

— Elizabeth H. Bradley, president

Note: Both quotes are from The Heart Is A Little To The Left: Essays on Public Morality.