Individual Engagement – A Conscientious Choice

jameslawsonmugHave you ever thought of individual engagement as the root of activism?

Clearly, engagement is a personal choice, and although collectively we can create an environment that fosters engagement, no one is actually engaged by others.

Instead, individuals are attracted to, or find themselves employed within, organizations that to some degree foster or inhibit engagement. The individual’s response to this environment depends on the personal commitment to engagement they brought with them. This commitment is not passive, as in the passivist – but active, as in the activist.

Appropriately, the first part of the word “engagement” is an active verb – “engage.” As you look at the following definition of this word, consider the scope of the commitment you are making when you choose to be engaged:

1 a : to pledge oneself : promise

b : to make a guarantee (he engages for the honesty of his brother)

2 a : to begin and carry on an enterprise or activity (engaged in trade for many years)

b : to do or take part in something (engage in healthy activities)  c : to give attention to something; deal (failing to engage with the problem)

3  : to enter into conflict or battle

4  : to come together and interlock (the gears engaged)


As you can see, engagement is not only about the confidence you have in yourself. It is an expression of your confidence in others. It is a commitment to an enterprise, to take part. It involves coming together. It even involves, in some cases, engaging in conflict or battle.

I would like to share with you a story about an individual who made the choice to engage, and whose actions changed an institution and a nation.

The effect of his actions continues this month at a place very close to many of you.

In 1960, James Lawson was a third year student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, preparing to take his exams. James decided to engage in a cause he believed in by participating in a peaceful civil rights demonstration – a “sit-in” at a restaurant. James invited several of his fellow students to go with him.

As the astounding events that followed were recounted by one of those students recently, the response of the University was swift and fierce.

The Chancellor of Vanderbilt University demanded that the Dean of the Divinity School expel James for participating in the demonstration. The Dean pleaded James’ case – asking if James could at least be allowed to take his examinations. When he was told no, the Dean took matters into his own hands. He advised his faculty that he was resigning his position.

Following the Dean’s conscious choice to engage, all of the professors in the Divinity School became engaged. They informed their students that there would be no more class, and that they were resigning their positions. A student who was in one of those classes felt the faculty members ha had decided it was more important to set an example, than to discuss examples.

The Divinity School faculty was not alone in its conflict for long. Word of the developments spread to the Law School, whose faculty responded that they would also resign their positions if the policy of the administration was upheld. The Medical School faculty chose to support the actions of their fellow faculty members by writing a letter to the Chancellor and copying the Chairman of the Board of the University, Harold Vanderbilt, in New York. Mr.Vanderbilt flew to Nashville in his private plane, and the Chancellor retired his position.

Sadly, the Divinity School could not be saved, as many of the faculty and students had James Lawsonleft by the time the issue was resolved. However, the School eventually reopened, and James Lawson, the student whose choice to engage put his degree at risk, is a faculty member at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University today. Students of this school, from diverse cultures and backgrounds, are learning from successors of the courageous faculty of 1960, and meeting new challenges and opportunities.

Meanwhile, this week at Vanderbilt University, a town hall meeting was held to debate a new issue concerning religion. The University’s policy of inclusiveness on religion is felt by some campus organizations to be threatening to their relationship with the University. The quarterback of the Vanderbilt football team spoke passionately at the town hall meeting, which created so much interest that people were turned away at the door.

We can only wonder what James Lawson is thinking as he views these developments. We are safe in believing, though, that he would agree:

Engagement is a Choice. Each of us makes that choice consciously or unconsciously every day.


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