Post-Election Grieving And Reconciliation On A Utah College Campus

As an anthropology and religious studies professor who has spent my entire life championing diversity, I was shocked and stunned by this election. When I arrived on my university campus yesterday, it was in order to lead a discussion with the 95 undergraduate students in my “Peoples of Latin America” class and I had no idea where to begin. You see, I’m from Utah, where Trump won the vote in my county and my state by more than a two-to-one margin. Our topic this week is immigration, and I was thinking about Trump’s “wall” as well as the divisive rhetoric of the last 18 months. Still in a daze about how to process what I was feeling, I was at a loss about how to appropriately share my outrage with my students—many of whom have never left the comfort of their highly conservative, devoutly Mormon, Utah homes.

Demographics are, of course, changing in Utah. Twenty years ago, Latinos and Hispanics made up less than three percent of our local city and county population. Now, more than 30% of graduating high school students in my community are of Hispanic origin. Many more of the students in my Peoples of Latin America class are also Latino and Hispanic than when I first started teaching this class two decades ago. Changing tuition policies at our public university have lately attracted a surge of students from nearby states like Arizona, Nevada and California.

In my Latin America class, the subject matter of the course also attracts diversity. There are significant numbers of caramel-skinned students from cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix as well as from countries like El Salvador and Colombia in this particular class. But, we are still Utah—one of the reddest states in the nation. Marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose, religious pluralism and even equal pay for equal work are all problematic issues in my state.

And, I was feeling dizzy and sick to my stomach as I drove to work. Like many, I had stayed glued to the television until Trump’s acceptance speech, which came long after midnight. I hadn’t slept much after that. So, when I arrived on campus, I was exhausted. I walked over to our university student services building to get coffee and some eggs.

As I did, I began to notice that everyone I passed on the sidewalk looked like they were in shock too. It felt like the zombie-apocalypse had come to my campus. As I continued to walk, I began to realize that I wasn’t alone. My liberal politics notwithstanding, the looks on the faces that I saw—and the hushed cell-phone conversations I was overhearing—made me realize that just about everyone was both stunned and very, very scared.

So, when I returned to my office I began putting some thoughts together that might capture what I was feeling in order to open a space for healing in this deeply divided setting. I shared these with my students as I began the lecture and then opened the floor for some reflection. Some students resisted entering into the conversation, but many others seemed to welcome it. One Latina student—born in Mexico—said, “I’m worried that now people will feel it’s more OK to hate than they did before. I think we need to fight against that.” Another said, “the election makes me wonder how we are going to be seen by people and governments beyond our borders. Because so many of us in this classroom are from other places originally, or travel to these on missions for their church, I think we need to be ambassadors. We need to let people around the world know that the U.S. they are hearing about isn’t us.” Yet another said, “as a member of the younger generation I feel hopeless. I feel like all of you older people have just abandoned us.” A fourth student said, “I was feeling terrible when I came to class today. I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I’m glad we are having conversations about this rather than just suffering in silence.”

At this point, about 15 minutes into a 50-minute class, we began focusing on the day’s lesson—stories of migration in Latin America and what this has meant to those who have had to move from their birthplaces to big cities in order to find jobs. Afterwards, several students, with tears in their eyes, approached me to thank me for opening a space to talk and feel and reflect together. Many more e-mailed me throughout the day telling me how much these words meant to them—how they have shared them with their friends and relatives and felt the mood soften as a result.

These are the words I shared. I offer them here as a step towards healing and reconciliation, from the heart of a very divided campus, in a very divided state, in a very divided nation:

Today I grieve.

I am grieving so hard that I didn’t think I would be able to stand up and teach this class today. This election has touched me personally: I am a woman. I am the mother of a differentially-abled child. I am the mother of an African American child. Many of my closest friends and relatives are LGBTQ, and immigrants, and Latinos, and Muslims, and Native Americans, and former refugees. Today, I worry about the impact of this election on behalf of all whom I love. I have spent my entire life championing diversity, because I believe it is good. Because I believe it is right. Because of who I am. Because of who I still believe we are.

Today I grieve.

Last night was such a sucker-punch for those, like me, who believed that these values were important for most Americans, across the board. The reality we woke up to this morning is one that threatens and challenges that assumption. We live in Utah. As I look out across this room this morning I know the probability that many more of you voted for Donald Trump than for Hillary Clinton. I know that we are all feeling the strain of these differences this morning. An hour ago, while buying my breakfast, I ran into a friend who voted for Trump. I told him that, quite honestly, I didn’t know if I could look him in the eyes today—because of his vote. I saw the wall that immediately came up between us when I challenged him.

And so I grieve.

But, this morning, I heard from one of my Native American friends who basically said to me, “why are you in the middle of such a pity party? Don’t you realize that this is what my people have experienced for centuries? Don’t you know that all you are losing is your whiteprivilege? Come join the fight. Stand up and brush yourself off. The world hasn’t changed, only your perception of it! The needs haven’t changed—only your stance in relation to those in need.”

And yet I grieve.

I feel shame and anger and loss and heartbreak. I feel denial and fear and shock and outrage and condemnation. But, I believe that all these emotions can be channeled to do good work, for the good of all. I believe we need the anger and the sadness. I believe we also need the joy and relief that many of you may feel because you voted for a new way of doing things and against a system that no longer functions. We need all the emotion. And we need to move beyond our divisions in order to heal. I believe we can. Because, more than anything else, as I look out across this lecture hall today, I believe that we share a common humanity that goes beyond the rhetoric of hate that threatens to divide us.

I grieve today…

and, I will look into your eyes―all of your eyes―regardless of whom you voted for. I will hold onto my belief in the goodness that I have seen in you and heard from you during the course of our time together this semester. I will hold onto the strength I have gained in my years living in Latin America where I have experienced what it is really like to live with dictators and bankrupt governments. I know that when and if governments fail, communities come together in surprising ways to help one another—no matter what. I will hold onto my trust in the vibrancy of informal economies and the creativity of those who suffer abject poverty and horrendous abuses of power. I will trust—no matter what the pundits or the politicians saythat we can find a way through these strange times together. I know that the only thing in life that doesn’t change is change itself. And I am ready to stand up, like Teddy Roosevelt once said, to give what I can, with what I have, where I am at—in a spirit of service and compassion. My deepest prayer is that you will join me, no matter what you are feeling, so that we can feel—deeply and respectfully—together, and so that we can find ourselves in the common humanity of our emotion.


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