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Easter talk defines Mills truth

Guest letter from Joanna Iwata, former Dean of Students.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead

Over Easter weekend, I attended two different events: one on campus and the other in San Francisco. It felt good being back on campus to attend the Good Friday service at the chapel, which featured a series of special readings and music performed by our students and staff.

This, in fact, was the first Good Friday program I attended at Mills, sponsored and hosted by our Director of Spiritual and Religious Life, Erika Macs, who a year ago had just arrived Mills. So now that she is here with us to create and sustain our different observances at Mills (wherein we can gather both informally or formally as a community to celebrate these occasions together), this is also rather significant to, me as it coincides with a new wave of student-community activism on campus.

On Sunday, I was invited to attend a special morning service at the Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin district (wherein it was standing room only) Cecil Williams, the emeritus pastor at Glide, spoke to us about the significance of living our truth which in, turn sets us free – and the power of acting on our truth, which transforms our communities when we are faced with adversity. The church itself has a national, if not global, reputation for its progressive and liberal ministry to the poor, disenfranchised and marginalized communities in San Francisco and the Bay Area for the past 30 years. Thus I instantly felt “at home”.

As I listened to his Sunday sermon, what struck me the most was Cecil’s statement to us that no one can kill or distort the truth as he related it to the symbolism and power of the social justice work of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. While he did so, he also tied this into the religious symbolism of Easter associated with Christ’s death, ascension and resurrection and presented other examples of world religions and sacred texts such as the Bible and the Koran. His words, “the truth will set you free,” moved me deeply for many different reasons.

All of this naturally took me back to reflecting on what I experienced two years ago as the new Dean (two months into my first semester here), wherein student concerns had elevated to the level of a silent protest held opposite a Board of Trustees meeting – similar to the most recent silent protest held opposite Gloria Steinem’s public lecture three weeks ago. Yet this time the student protest was different in scope. The truth will set us free.

The difference between the two protests was that this time, there were the larger numbers of students in attendance, which not only ranged from current students and their parents but their friends or siblings and alumnae. This time, I understand the protest organizers presented a student petition to Gloria Steinem and President Holmgren which had 360 signatures, along with an outline of student concerns which now focus on the institutional accountability of its leaders related to the growing staff turnover of women of color in either staff, faculty or administrative positions at the college as one of their key issues. The truth will set us free.

Cecil’s comments thus resonated with me even more as I also reflected on the significance of the different movements led by our students to act on their truth now and then and even 16 years ago with the strike (where Mills students reversed the decision for the college to go co-ed). Several of my staff who were at the protest site weeks ago also shared with me the indelible effect it had on them to witness the courage it took for close to 200 students to participate in the protest and the larger mix of students from first-year students, sophomores, juniors, seniors to graduate students in the lineup (versus the protest two years ago). The truth will set us free.

While I was not present to witness the student protest several weeks ago, upon my return to campus this past week, I had an opportunity to read the two issues of The Weekly following Spring Break. As I saw the photos and read the comments made by students, I was moved by the courage and action taken by our students to address their larger institutional concerns they have with our administration, all of which will frame a much larger community dialogue with college officers in two weeks on Friday, April 20. The truth will set us free.

Perhaps the truth will indeed set us free in a constructive way to identify the common denominators necessary for students, faculty and staff to work together with our administrators and trustees to address and respond to the different issues du jour which affect our campus community and also frame our quality of life at Mills.

What I do know about our Mills women is that they are certainly resourceful, intelligent, honest, passionate and empowered. Never to be underestimated for their brilliance and their ability to act within their own circles of influence! For the very things that makes Mills a distinctive liberal arts institution for women is certainly alive and well, if not thriving now in a new form of student-community activism we refer to as social justice . where the truth will set us free.