By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU
Please note: This essay is re-published here with permission from the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education (original source: ConversationsMagazine.org).
As tensions run high before the November election, you may find yourself having to navigate conversations with people whose politics you strongly oppose.
If so, welcome to my day job.
As an advocate for all U.S. Jesuit colleges and universities, I am charged with engaging members of Congress on both sides of the aisle about things that matter to the institutions I represent. This means I regularly find myself in conversations with people who don’t embrace or support the policies that I’m responsible for promoting. From increasing the federal investment in student financial aid, to protecting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, to just laying out the distinctive value of Jesuit higher education for someone who may not understand, it is a formidable task.
But armed with facts and conviction, and with an Ignatian toolkit for meeting the challenges of disagreeing agreeably, I stand ever ready to engage with others as constructively as I can.
Among the tools in my kit is the very Jesuit notion of being a contemplative in action. I slow down, give the conversation my full focus, and approach my interlocutors as valued partners in an exchange of ideas. Taking the time to stop and reflect with them, and consider other perspectives, I find we’re both engaged in a deeper, more fruitful dialogue.
Because I work with public servants—people who, like me, seek to serve the common good—I’m also committed to applying the “Ignatian presupposition” in our exchanges. This means following St. Ignatius’ straightforward advice to be “more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” It requires that I listen thoughtfully—always seeking to exhibit a generosity of spirit, disagreeing with respect and humility when necessary.
Finally, I’ve also added to my Ignatian toolkit an ecumenical note borrowed from a piece by Rev. Jim Wallis in Sojourners Magazine: “It is in our common moral values that we can find underlying areas of agreement.” This means that, as I make my way from one meeting to the next, I work to identify points of agreement or shared perspectives at which I might start the next conversation.
Do these tools always work? Honestly, no. Still, the more I use them, the more I feel like I’m doing my small part to contribute constructively to American democracy.
Democracy is fertilized through prolonged, honest, respectful exchange. And a healthy democracy requires us, in the words of the late John Lewis, a moral compass of the U.S. House of Representatives, “to take a long hard look and just believe that if you’re consistent, you will succeed.” In the end, democracy is the everyday work of caring, engaging, agreeing and disagreeing, learning and holding firm to a commitment to a better world. And it only works if we all keep at it.
The run-up to this year’s election will put many of us to the test, but our Ignatian toolkit is handy. If we use it, those fraught conversations might just become opportunities to embody the best of democratic engagement, and show signs of hope for the future of our democracy.