Blazing a Trail Toward Inclusion and Belonging

Dear Members of the Ursuline Community,
 
I return to Ursuline with deep gratitude for the opportunity to serve the institution that launched me on a consequential and fulfilling career as an educator. After more than forty years in the Northeast, I am exhilarated by the prospect of rejoining the community. When I returned to campus this past December for the Sweetheart Induction Ceremony, little did I know at the time that I would be returning to the Academy in this new role. Shortly after the induction, Mariana Coudrain, our Annual Fund Coordinator, kindly gave me an extensive tour of the campus. Walking through the hallways and seeing that magnificent courtyard again after so many years away, filled me with nostalgia and brought back compelling memories of the four years I spent at the Academy.

In many ways, this stage of my life was deeply challenging - when I arrived at Ursuline from Colombia, I didn't speak English, and I had left all my close friends and relatives behind in a faraway country. I was a shy, awkward, pimply 12-year old trying to make sense of a brand new reality. Everything around me was foreign and puzzling, and yet, the memory that endures is the warmth and support with which I was met, and the certainty that I was surrounded by teachers - many of them dedicated, kind Sisters - and classmates who cared. Those were some of the most transformative years of my life.

I am humbled and energized by the opportunity to get to know all of you and to serve the school in the year ahead. It is clear already, however, that I arrive during one of the country's most tumultuous and challenging moments in recent history. We are wearied by a months-long pandemic and the unparalleled dislocation, suffering and anxiety it has wrought here and across the globe. We are also reeling from the loss of life of another black man, at the hands of police, and from the disturbing reaffirmation that systemic racism remains entrenched in our society, undermining a fundamental democratic value: justice for all. Racism, in all its manifestations, persists as a human rights violation, with deep roots in our past. It is with this reality in mind that I also return to my Alma Mater with a renewed, intense awareness of the most critical and urgent task facing those of us who choose the teaching life.

To educate (Latin: e, ex= out + ducare= to lead) essentially means to "to lead out," to take someone from one place to another, to actively engage our students' minds, souls and imaginations and to lead them toward more enlightened, righteous, just ways of being in the world. As a school anchored in Gospel teachings, it is the formation of our girls' character and the calibration of their moral compass that take precedence over all the other legitimate, but complementary tasks. With the development of academic skills and competencies, our aim is not exclusively to ensure the girls' success in their chosen fields of endeavor, but more fundamentally, to send them out as transformative agents of justice, hope, and optimism in the world.

Pope Francis reminds us that our religious aspirations and practices should not be limited to "the inner sanctum of personal life," and that as Catholics, it is our responsibility to address the ills and injustices of our time, to voice our opinions on issues and events impacting our society. For him, "an authentic faith - which is never comfortable or completely personal - always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it" (Evangelii Gaudium 183). So, the immediate question before us is how we will respond to this most recent manifestation of racial injustice in our midst, how we will demonstrate, not just hashtag that black lives matter. Thankfully, we have strong role models to follow.

Ursuline girls are prepared to blaze trails, just like our foundress, Angela Merici, did in her own world more than four hundred years ago. With foresight and courage, she challenged the conventional limits imposed on women of her era - marriage or the convent - and created a new way for them to lead active, independent lives in their communities, addressing the most urgent needs of others. In so doing, she significantly expanded the sphere of action and influence afforded to the women of her time. For centuries, the Ursuline Sisters have built on this powerful legacy, indiscriminately bringing their caring attention and educational expertise to generations of girls, of all races and backgrounds, across the globe.

As the first all-girls' Catholic school in the nation, our Sisters were the very first to provide classes for female African American slaves, free women of color, and Native Americans. They also provided the first center of social welfare in the Mississippi Valley and the first boarding school in Louisiana. Ursuline's trailblazing legacy has continued to hold many other firsts - the first female pharmacist, the first to contribute a book of literary merit, the first female law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, and the first African American woman to serve as Chief Judge of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court - to name a few. The Ursuline ability to be the first, identify challenges and to seek ways of addressing them with creativity and courage, to show our contemporaries how to "lead new lives," is a distinctive strain of our DNA, and one we must leverage in the face of our current crisis.

Let me briefly outline how we anticipate moving forward in the weeks and months ahead. In consultation with Jessica Kennedy Becker '89, current Chair of the Board of Trustees, I am in the process of appointing the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Task Force, comprising representatives from various constituencies - trustees, alumnae, faculty, staff, students, parents and friends - with the specific charge of developing a comprehensive strategic plan in the coming months. The overarching goal is to systematically assess all areas of school life, as well as governance and operational structures, and to determine how we can enhance our cultural competency skills, and create an ever more inclusive, welcoming community. While the members of the task force will lead the effort and ensure that we make measurable progress, all members of the community will have the opportunity to voice their perspective. I am also working quickly to identify and engage someone in our alumnae or parent base with deep, professional expertise in inclusion work who can guide us in a constructive, sensitive, yet deliberate manner.

Ursuline Academy, from its inception, has always aspired to be a community that values and affirms the differences and individuality of each and every girl. We believe that diverse perspectives fuel creative and innovative thinking and problem solving, build empathy, enrich interactions, and provide varied skills and experiences from which the entire school benefits. As a school, we consider cultural competency essential to the pursuit of excellence and success, both on campus and beyond. In this sense, inclusion work is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. Given the increasingly diverse world our girls will enter upon graduation, both in college and the workplace, we must equip them with the ability to interact meaningfully and productively with people of different backgrounds and identities.

Together we can continue to build on the strongest of foundations - 293 years (how many schools in the country can claim to be preparing for their tricentenary celebration!?) of a distinguished history, with a concise and most powerful motto - Serviam. Ursuline girls are encouraged to work hard, and to learn in order to serve. A wise educator once said that "the test of the worth of any school is the record of service of her alumni." In these troubled, unprecedented times, I cannot think of a more critical need than the disposition to serve - our families, communities, country and the world. If every Ursuline girl graduates with this aspiration, we will have accomplished our mission.

Great numbers of young people have taken to the streets, across the 50 states and around the globe, sometimes at great personal risk, to protest the pervasive racial injustice still in evidence today. They are demanding swift, significant change and questioning our commitment to address the blatant abuse of black people's human rights. Complacency and indifference are the strongest barriers to progress - to justice for all. I hope that together, as one community, we can blaze a trail toward inclusion and belonging.


Cor Unum,
Dr. Margarita O'Byrne Curtis '69
Academy President
 
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