Letter from the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement

To our Gephardt Institute community and partners,

Here we are again. Our hearts are heavy, and our communities of color are exhausted, grieving, and in pain. Our nation sits in a place of deep despair. We are tense, we are angry, we are fractured. Everywhere, we see brokenness. We feel the weight of broken hearts and broken promises.

From my first year in college, when I witnessed the racial uprising that engulfed our Los Angeles community following the Rodney King trial verdict, to today, I share your anger and despair that we are in the same place again, and again.  

Amidst a devastating and isolating pandemic, we are reminded once again of the systemic racism and police brutality that plagues our nation. The horrific and unjust deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and the attack on Iyanna Dior have ignited a collective level of responsibility and furor over the insidious and institutional racism embedded in the very fabric of our country. And yet, we are all painfully aware that they represent countless injustices and acts of violence that Black communities have faced for over 400 years. Our nation is again at a crossroads. 

Former Congresswoman Barbara C. Jordan said, “What the people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.” The promise of democracy is compelling, yet ever elusive. What will it take for our democracy to serve and protect every human being among us? What will it take for every one of us to have equitable voice, power, access, and opportunity to partake in the promise of democracy? We must create and sustain an America that has not yet existed: An America whose democracy is accessible to all and that has reconciled with our racist history. 

For our democracy to work – to work for everybody, not just for those who have the most access to power – it is incumbent upon every one of us to get off the sidelines and work in solidarity to better our democracy. This is civic engagement. This is democracy in action. This is individuals and communities tackling the greatest challenges facing our nation. To dissent. To advocate. To learn. To educate. To dialogue. To participate. To vote. To contribute time and dollars. To empower and partner with those who have been made to be powerless, vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed. 

We honor those who are taking a stand for Black lives. We honor those who are pushing back against xenophobia and racism. We honor those who are looking deep within to examine their privilege, identities, and unconscious bias. We honor those who are giving – whether quietly or publicly – their time, money, and resources to organizations investing in a future that is safe, healthy, and prosperous for every human being. We honor those in our St. Louis community who are working tirelessly to realize this vision. Communities that have carried the burdening impact of injustice for centuries cannot continue to carry a disproportionate load. Everyone has a responsibility to participate. Everyone has a responsibility to actively engage in the progress and vitality of their communities.  

The Gephardt Institute is committed to participating in the movement for racial justice, to stand with and to serve our Black communities, including students, colleagues, St. Louis community partners and neighbors, alumni, and friends. This is an enduring commitment. We are examining how to continue living into this commitment and recognize that racial equity work is a process that requires constant attention and course correction. Our vision for civic engagement at WashU is one that shares power with marginalized communities; acknowledges the painful history and origins of our democracy; rebuilds trust and centers the St. Louis community in community/university partnerships; makes space for dissenting perspectives; and offers outlets for learning and action rooted in empathy, humility, collaboration, and equity. We are committed to doing this necessary work in and outside of WashU classrooms and with communities in the St. Louis region – and we know that we must do more.  

Here we are, in a place of weariness. We will be in this place for a long time, and we will be in places like this in our future. Democracy is exceedingly hard work; it is also incomplete and imperfect. It is time for each of us to dig into our reserves to become engaged – or become more profoundly engaged – in addressing the deep fractures in our democracy that impede the human right to thrive.  

If ever there was a time for civic engagement, it is now. It will take all of us. I pledge to persist in my own unlearning of racism and to uphold my responsibility to advance racial equity in St. Louis, our nation, and our world. I invite and challenge you to do the same. 

Please, let me know how we at the Gephardt Institute can support your journey and your vision for a just and healthy world. We are listening.  

With humility and appreciation,

Stephanie Kurtzman
Peter G. Sortino Director