Inquiring minds and open hearts: Wake Forest and public engagement

For several decades now, scholars have warned us about a disturbing trend. We Americans are losing touch with each other. In 1985, Robert Bellah and his co-authors from sociology and philosophy concluded that we had allowed our individualism, so helpful in some respects, to inhibit us from expressing our sense of shared values. If the trend continued, they cautioned us, we would lose not only our compassion for one another, but the very language we need to express it. Bellah and colleagues wrote wistfully of the America that had so inspired the young French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who believed that among the emerging democracies of the 19th century, the one in the hands of those plucky Americans had the best chance of enduring.

De Tocqueville observed that while the typical American reflected the individualist spirit that dominated the nineteenth century, Americans kept individualism in check: how? by their willingness to work for the community. In fact, said de Tocqueville, everywhere these colonials found an obstacle, they organized a citizens’ group to take care of it. They were independent people, he wrote, but they valued freedom so much that they would support each other and collaborate to protect it. The trait that impressed de Tocqueville most was the mores of these new republicans, which he called their “habits of the heart.” The habits of the heart of these Americans, thought de Tocqueville, connected them to each other and to a wider community.

Over one hundred years later, the authors who warned us of worrisome trends took de Tocqueville’s phrase for the title of their work, “Habits of The Heart: Individualism And Commitment In American Life.” They admonished that we must find a way to transcend our individualism and rediscover the language to express our common values. Otherwise, our isolation would leave us unfulfilled as individuals and would imperil our democracy.

Ten years after that, a political scientist, Robert Putnam, reached a similar conclusion. He observed glumly, using a sports metaphor as the title of his book, that we Americans were “Bowling Alone.” While we frequented bowling alleys as much as ever, more and more of us were going not to participate in bowling leagues, but to bowl by ourselves. As a consequence, we were losing our social capital: the connections created by social networks and the bonds associated with them.

These dark conclusions began to emerge in other studies. As professional organizations surveyed their memberships, they confirmed what scholars noted about society generally — that their members felt disconnected from each other and from their communities. In the legal profession, for example, lawyers reported a deteriorating quality of life, with alarming rates of depression and substance abuse. In response, the ABA and state bar associations commissioned Quality of Life Task Forces to see what could be done about it.

Part of the response by the ABA and its state counterparts brings us to what we celebrate today: the inauguration of the Institute of Public Engagement of Wake Forest University. The ABA and state bars responded to bad mental health among lawyers by increasing attention on the lawyer’s pro bono publico obligation — that is, the lawyer’s obligation — “for the good of the public” — to provide unpaid legal services. For reasons other than the declining well-being among lawyers, the profession needed to focus on the lawyer’s pro bono obligation. In this country we address only about 20% of the legal issues of poor people, a shocking statistic by international standards. But in part, the need for better mental health in the legal profession increased the focus on the lawyer’s pro bono obligation. Like the authors of “Habits Of The Heart” and “Bowling Alone”, the reformers in the legal profession knew that if lawyers helped the needy, they would be happier. Performing their public service obligations would remind them why they wanted to be lawyers in the first place. They would feel connected to each other and to their communities again, and they would be happier, more fulfilled people.

So the profession encouraged pro bono work. Governmental and private agencies began recognizing the pro bono contributions of lawyers with highly coveted awards in elaborate ceremonies before large audiences.

Why did the ABA and other organizations think that enticing lawyers to perform more pro bono work would improve their mental health? Because the leadership of these organizations had read the studies. Volunteering is strongly associated with better mental, and even better physical health. Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor who studies altruistic behavior, cites empirical studies that those “who regularly assist others besides family and friends live longer, experience less pain, stress, and depression, and have greater self-esteem.” (Rhode at 58). Sure enough, in her studies of pro bono service by lawyers, when asked the most dramatic effect of this work, lawyers overwhelmingly responded, their sense of personal well being. For similar reasons, medical and business schools have increased public service opportunities for their students, trusting that the well being the students’ experience will encourage them to provide public service throughout their professional lives.

So there are many reasons for public engagement — to address our feelings of being disconnected and to strengthen our democracy; to bond with our professions and our brother and sister members; to be happier, more fulfilled people.

At a university, however, those reasons merely begin the long list of rationales supporting public engagement. For us faculty, we know that when our academic interests involve us in the community, the interaction feeds our teaching and our scholarship, adding dimensions that no other experience provides. In 1994, my interest in family law and domestic violence led me to a meeting convened by the director of a statewide task force, who had begged a hodgepodge of academics, practicing lawyers, judges, and legislators to attend an emergency session on legal assistance for indigent victims of domestic violence. Through my teaching, I knew about the high rates of pro se representation — that is, people trying to represent themselves — in domestic violence court. So I thought I’d leave my desk long enough to support the efforts. The director talked about women, each of whom had steeled up her courage long enough to go — alone — to the courthouse to ask for a temporary restraining order. Most of these women fled from the courtroom days later when she appeared, again, by herself, to face the batterer — and the batterer’s attorney. One of those women spoke, haltingly, about why she could not follow through with the action.

As she talked, I thought of the wonderful law students I knew who would volunteer to work with lawyers to represent indigent victims. A few seats over, the director of Legal Aid in Winston Salem, Kay House, believed she could get a grant to hire a lawyer for domestic violence work, if only she could find some volunteers to enable that lawyer to take more clients. Over a lunch break and chicken sandwiches, Kay and I sketched out the plan for a domestic violence advocacy center. Before I drove the two hours back to Winston Salem, Kay had contacted Chief Judge Bill Reingold, who promised to recruit volunteer lawyers to supervise law students.

Later in the week I met with Mary Deshazer, then the director of Women’s Studies at the College. She assured me that students from Women’s Studies would love to participate in the program as one of their internships. Within months, DVAC — the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center — was up and running. For the first time in Forsyth County, domestic violence victims faced their batterers on an equal playing field, supported by their student and professional advocates. Over the years, DVAC has served hundreds of clients. We know that some of our clients have broken out of the cycle of violence — which in turn affects generations of children who won’t learn violence as a way of life.

The impact on our clients has been dramatic, but so has the impact on me. My life changed when a community volunteer in the DVAC program explained to us that she stayed in her relationship until the day her husband expressed his dislike for the butterbeans she had cooked for dinner by making her eat them, from the floor, on all fours, from a dog bowl. For years, she inspired the DVAC program, and she later won an award for public service from the NC Association of Women Attorneys. Still later, she was in this Chapel, graduating from the Wake Forest School of Divinity. She taught me more about domestic violence than all the law review articles I had ever read.

And while this public engagement has transformed me, it has affected our students even more. Before I share some of those experiences, I have to take you on a detour. I’ve learned from public engagement that you must follow where it leads: sometimes, to unexpected places. My respect for the law and love of North Carolina had focused me on the conflicting opinions issuing from the intermediate appellate court and on the hesitancy of the state’s highest appellate court to resolve the conflicts. The conflicts created pernicious problems in family law. The clearer the law is, the more quickly and inexpensively people can settle their family disputes. Conflicts in the law, on the other hand, encourage people not to settle, but to litigate their family issues, an outcome all responsible participants wish to avoid. About the same time that I noticed these conflicts phenomena, North Carolina’s Women in the Profession Committee asked me to interview Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a conference on “Women in the Judiciary.” The conference organizers filled the event with multi-media presentations of dramatic interviews with women judges who explained what a difference their being on the bench had made.

One thing led to another, and I found myself in my first political contest, running against an incumbent for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Talk about unexpected places. I traveled across the state doing what candidates do. I left my law professor’s office and found myself on the back of a convertible waving to people crowding the streets of Conover, NC, for the Old Soldiers Parade. At the Duplin County Candidate Cake Auction, I sold a carrot cake lathered in cream cheese to a raucous crowd of Democrats. And in Hertford County, I yelled into a screeching microphone so the crowd could hear what I was running for after the local firefighters’ finished singing “Heartaches by the Number.”

But back to our students. I lost that race for the NC Supreme Court, narrowly, and as I rode from Raleigh back to Wake Forest, I tried to think how I could use what I had learned on the campaign trail. I had spent a lot of my campaign time in courthouses across the state, understanding as I never had before the pride that courthouse staff take in their roles in the justice system and the pressures they feel from too many demands and too few resources. As my husband Hoppy Elliot drove, I jotted down some ideas for a course that would put students in domestic violence courts as representatives for the parties’ children. In the classroom, we would analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the roles the students were filling. With a supportive dean’s office, between November 5 — the day after the election — and January 12 — the first day of classes, the course appeared as one of the spring semester offerings; and twelve wonderful students and I explored the problems that children face in families with domestic violence.

Working with lawyers at the Children’s Law Center, the students served as guardians ad litem when parents accusing each other of domestic violence fought also about child custody. Our students investigated the custody issues and reported their findings to the judge. One of those twelve students, Rich McPherson, used the lessons of that course to become the first Wake law student to win an Albert Schweitzer fellowship. Rich will use this award to establish statewide training programs for more volunteers to help children; and he gives credit to the class for inspiring his application. Another student in that class, now graduated, just emailed me that she had started the first lawyer volunteer program for domestic violence victims in her new home county in Florida.

I feel more than a little presumptuous at this podium talking to the Wake Forest community about the benefits of public engagement. This community has the language that expresses our shared values. We have it in the phrase, “Pro Humanitate.” In the small part of this community that finds its home by the oversized Water Tower, we have law professors who have established centers for progressive reform; written the report for the Citizens Review Board, seeking justice for the wrongfully convicted; improved legal services for the elderly; worked to end the mandatory minimum sentences that we have found to be counterproductive; fought predatory lenders; and advised the Sierra Club, the AIDS Care service, and North Carolina nursing homes. Our students have helped disabled veterans; stopped foreclosures; drafted wills for heroes; and volunteered in New Orleans, Cambodia, and Nicaragua.

The College has formally recognized community service since Don Schoonmaker inspired the Alumni Council to name an award in his memory; and the winners of that award have contributed to Project Headstart, to interfaith initiatives, to the ACLU, and to the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice. Ross Kennedy Smith coached national debate champions — and ran for the local school board so he could bring the thrill of learning to students in public schools as he had to debate students around the world. Joining the College and the Medical School in public engagement, Maya Angelou founded her Center for Health Equity to combat the injustice of racial and ethnic health disparities.

The Provost’s office has its work cut out for it to compile a comprehensive list of the hundreds of programs and thousands of people I could name today. In all of these examples — named and unnamed — the people involved have something in common: the habits of the heart that de Tocqueville recognized in 1835. What de Tocqueville observed, Deborah Rhode confirmed in her empirical studies: people engaged with the public have good habits of the heart. As studies of charitable behavior tell us, the most important influence on public service is the capacity for empathy. The confirmation hearings for Justice Sotomayor have made us a little fearful of using the word “empathy,” at least in respect to judging; but empirical studies suggest that once the heart is open, the rest is easy.

I thank my students for opening my heart to connections between my academic interests and the communities where they can be put to best use. When I first started teaching, twenty-eight years ago, Hoppy Elliot and I were new parents of our first born, Michael. As a new mother and newer law professor, I was overwhelmed by my baby and by my career change. As I thought of ways to prepare myself, I remember foolishly thinking, “I’ll just have to keep my students from getting to me. If I can keep them away from my heart, I think I can handle all of this.”

That didn’t work out so well for me. I have found few things in life quite so disarming as a law student — especially a first year law student — clueless about how to think like a lawyer but eager to understand how we try to achieve justice in this country. So to my students, my deepest thanks for giving me good habits of the heart in my professional life. Thank you also to the University leadership that has established this institute to further the public engagement in which so many of you are already engaged. And to all of us fortunate enough to live under the banner of Pro Humanitate, may we bring our inquiring minds and our open hearts to the work our communities so desperately need us to do.

Categories: Provost, Uncategorized