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Listen to Learn

Listen to Learn
Debbie Higgins

Students, faculty, and staff gathered for an assembly on January 29 to kick off Black History Month. The focus of the presentation was “Looking Back: Moving Forward Together.” The program traced the black history of De Smet Jesuit, included reflections from alumni Fr. Chris Schroeder, S.J.’00, and E.J. Clark ’09, and concluded with a video featuring current black students sharing their experiences.

Catalina Martinez, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, gave an overview of the black history of De Smet Jesuit, noting how enrollment of black students has grown in the past 20 years. She also shared stories about trailblazers, including Henry Autrey ’71, who holds the dual distinction of being the first black student at De Smet Jesuit and the first student to ever receive a De Smet Jesuit diploma during the school’s first graduation in 1971.  Henry Autrey is currently a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Fr. Chris Schroeder, S.J. ’00, chaplain at De Smet, shared that his class of 2000 included only two black students. “Even at 18 I was aware of the difference between the population of De Smet at that time and the broader American population,” he said. Later in his life, Fr. Schroeder’s formation as a Jesuit took him to a Lakota Indian Reservation, Pine Ridge. As he became immersed in the traditions of Pine Ridge, he found himself thinking, “I wish I had a culture.” He later realized he did in fact have a culture – “I was swimming in it. Because it was around me all the time, I didn’t recognize it.” He also realized that his black classmates at De Smet Jesuit had no choice but to swim in that same water, that same culture that was not their own.  He challenged students to consider, “What can we do to have openness to a diversity of culture? What can we do to learn from and appreciate the values and culture of all our community members? My hope for today is that we begin the process of listening and learning to bring together our many backgrounds.”

Next up, E.J. Clark ’09, a Missouri State Highway Patrolman, shared his experiences as a De Smet Jesuit student and the life lessons he took with him after graduation. He brought student volunteers to stand in front of the podium and raise their hands. “Now raise them all the way up,” he said after every student raised his hand halfway. “Our football coach did this with us and told us raising our hands all the way up was the difference between a man and a boy. As a man you know you can’t go halfway and expect to succeed.”

Takeaways from Mr. Clark’s remarks included:

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

“Being at De Smet taught me that at some point you have to take responsibility for yourself and decide if you want to be a man or not. Nobody else is going to take responsibility for your actions.”

“When someone sees you wearing the De Smet logo, understand that you represent the entire school culture in the eyes of that person, good or bad.”

“Whether they look like you or not, everyone around you has a different home experience and they bring that experience with them every day to school. Be empathetic.”

“Cross over cultural lines as unbiased as possible. Open yourself to support things you wouldn’t normally support.”

Black man stands onstage pointing at the audience while speaking.
Priest wearing his collar smiles at podium onstage.

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