Sister Cora Marie Billings – Philadelphia’s Pioneering Black Nun

Villanova launched Black History Month on Feb 4 at 8PM in the St. Thomas of Villanova Church. Continuing our theme of great Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement, Sister Cora Marie Billings gave a talk that opened many eyes to the difficulties of pioneering change in the American Roman Catholic Church. She did so in a way that only someone with her clout, wit, and simultaneously soft-spoken and forthright manner could. Born the only child in a Black Catholic family of a desegregationist legacy, Sister Cora went on to a prosperous career in furthering the fight for freedom, desegregation, and the rights of women in America through the Catholic church, and she continues doing that work today.

Sister Cora Marie Billings was the granddaughter of John Aloysius Lee, Sr., and the first Black recipient of the Vercelli Award from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Holy Name Society, a national confraternity. He also has a cultural center named for him in West Philadelphia. He was the first Black man allowed in Philadelphia’s Catholic high school league basketball in 1902. In fact, when the league tried to exclude Lee, his teammates decided they would boycott unless he was allowed to play.

Later, Lee’s daughter and Sister Cora’s aunt, Mary Paul Lee would have a similar experience of exclusion at West Catholic High in Philadelphia, but her teammates would not rally around her. By this specific example, the life experience of Cora’s family shows the ways in which progress against individual and institutional racism happens in fits and starts, and the civil and social history of this country is more complex than we sometimes allow.

Sister Cora’s aunts were both nuns – Mary Paul Lee and Mary Agnes Lee joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, one of four orders in Pennsylvania taking Black women in the 1940s. The other orders which accepted Black sisters being the Franciscan Sisters of Mill Hill, Franciscan Handmaids of the Heart of Mary, and the Sisters of the Holy Family.

Sister Cora was candid and strong in telling her tale. She said that she has often been asked about how to maintain a relationship with a church that enslaved her ancestors. Sister Cora Marie argued that you cannot change most organizations from the outside, especially an organization like the Roman Catholic Church. She stated further that pushing the Church forward on civil issues is God’s work, and that God’s work, no matter how difficult, has to be done.

Sister Cora entered the RSM Motherhouse in Merion, PA on August 22, 1956. Her mother was fine with her decision to enter religious life; she had two sisters that were women religious, and her older brother was in the seminary until he had to leave to take care of their mom. Her father was not as excited, but he did tell her to always be the best she could be. She learned later that the only photograph he ever kept in his wallet was one of her in the old habit of the Sisters of Mercy. He was supportive and proud even though he was not explicitly encouraging.

Dr. Williams asked her about the circumstances surrounding the legacy of “being the first or the only” in so many realms of her life. Sister Cora responded half-jokingly that if she had known in her youth what she knows now, she probably would not be here. Lucky for us that she did not. She said that she was inspired by her aunts, and made her decision to enter religious life at her aunt’s going-away party. She was taught by seven different religious orders in school, and they all positively influenced her perspective on religious life. But, she said, “I don’t know that I knew or thought about all the repercussions.”

Asked about the warnings she might have experienced at the age of 17, she mentioned some peculiar circumstances. In 1956, before her entrance, she had to be interviewed three times as part of her application process, unique among her sisters.

The Sisters of Mercy were founded in Ireland in 1830, and first came to Philadelphia in 1861. Before 1945, all the Sisters of Mercy in this area were Irish, except for “fourteen or fifteen Germans.” Mother Bernard was the one to change all that – she brought in the first Italian, the first Lebanese, and the first African American sisters. In 1961, when Sister Cora was sent to Levittown, it was Mother Bernard that sent her. The Myers family were the first African Americans in Levittown in 1957; they left in 1961 after a cross was burned on their yard in March, the culmination of several years of abuse and harassment. Sister Cora moved to Levittown in August.

She taught one hundred (100) first grade students at St. Michael’s, all on her own. She never had trouble with students, declaring that racism is something children learn from adults, not something they come into the world with. She said that half of the school was physically in the area where Black families lived, in neighboring Bristol, but that there were no Black students in her classes.

A bit later in her career, Sister Cora was sent as the representative of the Sisters of Mercy to the August 1968 National Black Sisters Conference at Mount Mercy College. The conference was formed after women were excluded from the National Black Clergy Caucus which met in April of that year following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When she moved to Virginia she realized the truth of the adage that “God closes one door and opens another.” Sister Cora was the first Black nun to be a Campus Minister at Virginia State University. When the leader of her home church of St. Elizabeth’s went to the monastery, Bishop Sullivan asked Sister Cora to run a church, making her the first African American woman to lead a Catholic church in the United States (and also making her a question on jeopardy). She was one of nine women in the position, two of whom were mothers and laypeople. Sister Cora was Pastoral Coordinator at St. Elizabeth’s from 1990 to 2004. She eventually worked for the state of Virginia as Deputy Director of the Human Rights Council.

In the Q&A, Sister Cora talked about the entrance age of women to religious orders, pointing-out that Sisters of Mercy, like most of their contemporaries, will no longer allow one to join until their 20s, whereas they used to allow teens to enter in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Sister Cora also spoke to the work she is now engaged in and the current political moment in Virginia, where the governor was recently outed for a photo he took in blackface with a friend dressed as a Klan member, and the lieutenant governor also confessed to wearing blackface at a party. She said that she voted for Ralph Shearer Northram to be governor, but that she believes he needs to resign. She said that people all over the country have trouble dealing with racism, tending to state defensively “I’m not a racist.”

Sister Cora said that the longer we wait to accept and assess, the longer it will take to solve the problems of exclusion and oppression in our society. She said that people need to be honest about where they are and how they feel, and to acknowledge privilege. She said that most people have some degree of privilege in one dimension or another, expressing her own privileged position as , giving her an opportunity to do things she otherwise would not have been able to do. She recommended the book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, wherein it is written that “the oppressed become the oppressors.” Force and hierarchy are imposed and refracted.

Sister Cora said that her vision of the church moving forward, and her message for people of color and people fighting for justice is to be hopeful and to have faith. She said we must live up to that faith and that we cannot think in terms of what “they” need to do, but rather in terms of “we,” to tell ourselves that “I have to be involved” in order to make the world a better place.

This summary of the events pales in comparison to Sister Cora’s own retelling of her story, available below:

The Second Annual History Career Day

by Andrea L. Spencer (@__aerdna___)

On Friday, February 8th, 2019, the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest sponsored its second annual History Career Day.

The day began with a presentation by Emily Swafford, Director of Academic and Professional Affairs at the American Historical Association. Swafford acknowledged that it can be hard to explain what you learn in a history degree and articulate the skills you learned that can help you get a job. Swafford assuaged fears of not getting a job or not making money with statistics that the AHA collects. Swafford also focused on how to articulate the “soft skills” historians have into words and phrases employers want to hear. For example, history majors learn how change happens, how to find, process, and communicate information that is new to them, and how to make judgements and evaluations on complex issues.

After Dr. Swafford’s presentation, the Lepage Center provided lunch and an hour for attendees to informally network and she their experiences as history students–both undergraduate and graduate.

After lunch was a panel made up of 3 Villanova history alumni–Mark Kehres, Kathryn Szumanski, and Alain Duroseau–and moderated by Dr. Paul Steege. Each panelist described their career paths after Villanova and how their history degree helped them get where they are today.An audience member asked the panelists how their skills as a historian translate to their day-to-day job responsibilities. Duroseau replied that being a historian teaches you to be able to make an argument and support it convincingly, which is important in any job. Szumanski said that the most valuable skill she learned was how to put everything in context, which means learning from and understanding the past and how that informs present and future projects. Kehres believed that the most important skill he learned was clear and concise communication.

When asked specifically about applying to jobs, the panelists offered three main pieces of advice:

  1. Apply to any job within your interests. Many employers are interested in having all majors apply. They want diversity and creative thinking.
  2. Focus your job search by industry and then see how your skills apply.
  3. Know that, as a history major, you learn how to think about the world, how to problems solve, and how to communicate solutions.

The final session of the day was a workshop by Jhaakira Jacobs, the Assistant Director of Career Development at Villanova’s Career Center. Jacobs primary focused on how to write a great cover letter. Her advice was:

  • Begin with an intro paragraph about how you heard about the position. This is a good place for name-dropping any connections you have to the company.
    • Tell the reader why this organization appeals to you. Do your research, and decide if the company aligns with your values and interests.
  • In the second paragraph, pull from the transferable skills you learned in the classroom, from your research paper, and your presentations.
    • Here, you should mention 2-3 qualifications/experiences, what you took away from them, and how that is applicable to this organization.
  • In the third paragraph, you want to reiterate your interests and tell them you will follow up soon.

Jacobs also said to follow up on a job posting 2 weeks after the close date. If you are struggling to describe yourself in your cover letter, get feedback from supervisors and professors about your strengths and talents. When writing your letter, a good way to start is to pick out the key words in the post and brainstorm how you are qualified for them.

All in all, it was a successful and informative day that left attendees feeling positive about their position as job candidates after graduation. The Lepage Center always welcomes feedback on all its events, so please drop by SAC 410 or email with your comments!



If you want to learn more about getting a job as a history major, here are some sites to check out:


Histories of Democracy Pt 2: Global Perspectives – Revolutions and Empire (Roundtable and Q&A)

(All pictures taken from the Lepage Center website)

On November 12, 2018, the Lepage Center continued the conversation about perspectives on democracy, hosting scholars from across the country who study the emergence of representative government across the world. In the first part of our coverage, we recapped the introductory statements. Here we will summarize some of the cross-talk and the question-and-answer portion of the event.

To begin with, Dr. Feinberg rejected the idea of graduating to democracy, quoting Vaclav Havel – a Soviet-era dissident and then the Czech Republic’s first president. In an address to the U.S. Congress he made in 1990, he said, “as long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always remain an ideal. One may approach democracy as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but which can never fully be attained. In this sense, you too are only approaching democracy.” Democracy is a process which pushes us toward further questions of representation.

Ms. Ortashvili agreed with contesting the idea of that graduation. She said this idea fermented a lot of cynicism in post-Soviet countries where they face new issues for which they are unprepared and unwarned, and that this explains some of the regression in places like Hungary and Poland. There continues to be an aspirational character to EU and NATO membership for countries like Ukraine, but that when you receive the protections involved there remains the question of whether the grass is truly greener. The alternative, though, remains Russian dominance.

This brought Dr. Steege to ask about how possibilities are limited in the creation of and participation in a state. Dr. Gaffield pointed to a racialized concept of civilization in the nineteenth century which precluded the early-twentieth century idea of ‘modernization’ or this late twentieth/early twenty-first century idea of ‘graduation.’ Elites in major powers questioned the ability of Haiti’s population to self-govern, just as they would later question the ability of the citizens in post-colonial states and sometimes post-Soviet countries. Dr. Abugideiri addressed the issue that our inability to conceive of Islamism as something neutral or positive as opposed to collapsing it into “terrorism” excludes people from politics and creates the opportunity or space for radicalism. [1]

Dr. Feinberg pointed out our predisposition in the West to presume that democracy is what every person, place, and nation-state necessarily aspires to limits our understanding of global political plurality. There are places that have advanced and progressed without assuming American political ideals. She also said that there is an institutional inability for theoretical democracy to take emotion into account, and that a lot of conflicts arise from the emotional human urge to run over the rules of democracy to expedite individual wants. Dr. Gaffield pointed-out how the Haitian case, the common dependence on family and community socioeconomic systems was seen as hazardous to the state. The emphasis on individualism which is championed in democracy has an opportunity to be destructive because of the way it can be used to disrupt nongovernmental support systems.


Ms. Ortashvili said that the dark side of democracy is that it is a menu – all post-Soviet states claim to be democracies in the words of their constitutions, but they are all varying levels of authoritarian. They create “managed democracies” which coerce popular choice through limiting the freedom and fairness of elections as well as limiting the possible entrants. Dr. Feinberg said that the people of Czechoslovakia in 1989 wanted democracy as well as socialism – which is in stark opposition to the Western imagination which ties democracy to capitalism. Dr. Feinberg was observing that some of the cynicism in post-Soviet states toward democracy has to do with the way in which people like the citizens of the former Czechoslovakia were force-fed capitalism alongside the representative government they wanted. Much as the manipulation of the democratic menu to grant legitimacy to authoritarian states is a dark side of democracy, so is its association with economic systems which do not fulfill everyone’s needs.

Dr. Abugideiri pointed-out that government and scholarly discussions of the Middle East often address the region with a problematic lack of understanding for the diverse people, cultures, and political histories of the spaces. The upside for the people there tends to be that democracy is often understood as a utilitarian facility for creating economic opportunity. It is just not necessarily romanticized ideals.

Dr. Gaffield tied Haiti in to this story of misunderstanding by arguing that Haiti’s revolution has long been panned as a failure and deprived of meaning. Dr. Feinberg posited that the portrayal of history is relative to the agendas of governments to perpetuating a certain narrative, philosophy and ideology, something contemporary historians – and probably most people that think about society – always have in mind.

The crowd question-and-answer session began with an audience member asking about the compatibility nationalism has or lacks with democracy. Dr. Feinberg explained that the basic tension is that nationalism is inherently exclusive while democracy is ideally inclusive. She and Ms. Ortashvili both expressed the issues of ethnic tensions in diverse spaces, a common problem among imperialized or post-imperial spaces. Dr. Feinberg pointed-out that Czechs have a tendency to see democracy as an inherent cultural trait but in so doing they gloss over minorities like Hungarians and Germans in their country, and sometimes they benevolently incorporate these groups but sometimes it leads to repression. Ms. Ortashvili said that “nationalism” for her elicited thoughts of civil wars and lack of compromise. In Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia this is often a case of people living within territories of disputed national ownership for three decades. Dr. Feinberg saw it as representative of the tension between the needs of the state and the needs of the individual, and nationalism as a way to promote state needs over individual needs when using the rhetoric and practice of competition between nations.

Dr. Steege asked Dr. Abugideiri about the way that nationalism fit into the democratic dream in post-Ottoman states in the Interwar period. Dr. Abugideiri discussed the emergence of nationalism in the early twentieth century as utile for resistance to imperial power, and the curiosity of nationalists claiming secular nationalist democracy as a philosophical rallying point considering the point of contact for people of the Middle East with western democracy would have largely come in a non-democratic, imperialist expression. These people were in turn able to use western imperialism as a point of distinction for reimagining democracy.



A student in the crowd asked about the necessity of the state in democracy and the philosophical tradition of the state as a perpetuator of inequality and oppression. He asked if it were possible or advisable for the state be shorn from democracy, and what happens when it is? Dr. Abugideiri answered this by pointing to radical Islamists, some of whom do not necessarily see the world in terms of nation-states so much as a space for a Caliphate, a pan-Islamic empire. She pointed back to the idea that there might be people in the world that do not preconceive that American/Western liberal democratic ideals are something aspire to. Dr. Steege pointed to the way that non-state actors in Haiti were critical to the independence movement there, where Dr. Gaffield pointed to the myth of Haiti being completely isolated until the country was acknowledge by France.

Dr. Gaffield said that de facto recognition of the country came through legal and illegal trade with trades from other countries – naming the Dutch and Danish empires, Britain, and the United States – before the formal recognition by the French. These mercantilists were in fact also petitioning their governments to recognize the country for their own business endeavors, informally engaging in a non-political or semi-political state-building project; they were “unofficial consuls.” Dr. Feinberg concluded that, as the first president of Czechoslovakia (Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk) said, it is the duty of the true democrat not to act democratically only in parliament, but in everyday life because democracy is not just a form of government but a way of life. The onus for maintaining democracy rests with everyone, all of us whom have the responsibility of creating a truly democratic society.

Video of the event:


[1] There was a question I wanted to ask but did not have the chance to: Christianity is seen so often as essential to the American character, so why do we have a tendency to exclude Islam from the political conversation? Moreover, in Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia, is there a parallel to the hold of religion on politics? I think the ongoing Moscow-Constantinople schism speaks to this issue somewhat.

MLK Keynote: The Legacy of Dr. King and the History of Antiracism

by Kevin Fox Jr (@kevinfoxjr)

The keynote speech for Villanova’s Martin Luther King Week was given by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi last Wednesday, January 23, at the Connelly Center’s Villanova Room. Dr. Kendi is the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C. In 2016, his New York Times-bestselling book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racial Ideas in America won the National Book Award.

One major theme of the presentation was that progress against racism has not been socially ubiquitous and unchallenged; rather, its history runs parallel to a history of racism which is increasingly, insidiously masked and sophisticated. Dr. Kendi also argued that one’s actions and intentions could be racist or antiracist but not “not-a-racist;” there is no middle ground to perch oneself on.

But perhaps the most important theme was that racist thinking does not necessarily preclude racist policy. Dr. Kendi proposed that the reason why we have a racist society is not because policymakers are ignorant of the humanity of people with different ethnic backgrounds and somatic features than them. Rather, it is elite economic, political, and cultural self-interest that informs the creation of the legal rules that trap Black people in poverty and oppression.

Dr. Kendi stressed the importance of remembering that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” given at the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., was not the end of his story. In some ways it was a beginning. Dr. Kendi wants to learn and teach more about the King who was after Washington and Selma. That is the radical who was transformed into an anti-war advocate, who saw his impulse for a National Civil Rights Movement transformed into a World Human Rights Revolution.

Dr. Kendi stressed to us that this interrogation of Dr. King’s legacy required an understanding of the history of racial ideas, which is the history of Black America, and therefore America at large. He said that we are driven into complacency by accepting the ahistorical idea of a teleological march to progress because racist progress marches along with it.

Dr. Kendi inquired into the nature of ‘I’m-not-a-racism,’ clarifying that it is the denial of the existence of racism. This is not denial in a sense of fighting against racism, but a rhetorical denial which prevents action. The proponents of tactics of racial oppression have always claimed to be something other than racist.

In early modernity, enslavers relied on the Hamitic myth, claiming that Noah’s cursed son Ham was the ancestor of all Africans, and that therefore it was God’s law that we be enslaved.

When phrenology and physiognomy came about, pseudoscience was utilized to propel the idea that Africans were a lower subspecies, not quite human, and so it was not ethically or morally wrong to keep us in bondage.

Now, as mass incarceration is perpetuated by the War on Drugs and the expansion of for-profit prisons, the refrain is that the Black and Latinx people targeted by over-policing are dangerous people from dangerous neighborhoods.

In none of these instances is the system held responsible for the suffering it inflicts on people. In each case, the oppressed are considered beholden to an oppressive existence by intrinsic failures.

Either, as racists say, we are inferior people; or, as antiracists say, there are racist policies. Dr. Kendi argues that many Americans want to stand in the middle – they will accept that there are racist policies, but will shrug at them, and insist that these policies are not a sufficient impediment to warrant being challenged.

Dr. King would find this insufficient reasoning, as we all should. Dr. King believed that “when a people are mired in oppression, they realize deliverance only when they have accumulated the power to make change.” We have to accumulate that power, we have to make that change, and we must recognize these problems; as Dr. Kendi put it, the history of racism is one of denial, while that of antiracism is one of confession.

Dr. Kendi declared that Dr. King’s perspective of antiviolent protest was transformed by the civil unrest he saw from 1965 to 1967. Dr. King went to Watts in 1965 to condemn violence and was called a hypocrite. After seeing the Hough riots in Cleveland in 1966 and the Detroit Uprising in 1967 he realized he could not chide the oppressed about violence while his government was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” But when he criticized the U.S. government for the War in Vietnam and began his Poor People’s Campaign, he was met with incredulity and the questioning of his sanity. He was murdered not long after.

Dr. Kendi implored us to call for immediate equality, we need to call for more than we think is possible, and work for it until it is accomplished. We cannot despair, much as we need to not be naïve; in order to make change, we have to believe in it.

Dr. Kendi’s presentation seemed intended to provoke and inspire. I certainly felt inspired afterward. The questions were almost universally from students, but they seemed less interested in the past and the history of antiracism. They were concerned with building on Dr. King’s legacy and what to do now.

Dr. Kendi did not pretend to have all of the answers, but he put forward some possible solutions. The first question was about police shootings and how to curb them. Dr. Kendi said that police should be governed by the people that they serve: hiring, firing, and investigative power should be held in the hands of the citizens.

The transparency mechanisms currently in place should not be so easily rerouted – officers should not be able to turn body cameras off. Dr. Kendi also suggested that police should be paid better – more money should mean a higher requirement of qualifications and stricter scrutiny of who we allow to carry a guy and a badge.

In the Q&A, Dr. Kendi stated that the perception of “racist” as a “fixed category,” a tattoo which defines someone as a “bad person” has created a fear which prevents people from interrogating their actions and their privileges. Racist is a defining adjective that is not a reflection of a whole person but rather of what an individual sees and says in a given moment; it is correctible.

Dr. Kendi also responded to a question about the ability of our government to do anything besides perpetuate white supremacy. Dr. Kendi said that we are governed by power, which he defined as policymakers, and policy – the powers that have been have perpetuated racist policy, but antiracist policymakers can make antiracist policy.

Another question led Dr. Kendi to stress that people have been taught that we can only create change by educating people, and that some people that know that a system of oppression based on racial hierarchy which situates whites on top and Blacks at the bottom does not exist merely because of ignorance. While it may be possible to separate the consumers of such ideas from the ideas, it is not possible to separate their producers.

But Dr. Kendi also implored the questioner to challenge those uncomfortable with that rhetoric. Ask them to define what a racist idea is, and to define another basic concept. As Dr. Kendi put it, “a bird should be called a bird, a blue chair should be a blue chair, a racist idea should be called a racist idea.”

A student from the law school used Dr. King’s familiar quote on disappointment with the white moderate to ask how one compels that large, heterogenous, amorphous group to challenge racism. Dr. Kendi responded that those who straddle the racism-antiracism fence may believe somewhere within them that racism should change, but they are not willing to sacrifice anything to support policies which will create change. To inspire them to incite change, they have to be confronted about the ways in which their denial of racism is not based in reality and instructed in the ways that oppressive policies also affect them.

Shortly thereafter, Villanova University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD concluded the talk with a warm word of thanks to Dr. Kendi, saying that we definitely know how to talk about making a better world, but we often fail at living-up to that ambition. Father Peter told Dr. Kendi that there was room for him at Villanova if ever he gets tired of residing in the capital.

Hopefully we will see him again soon, and we will be practicing what we have been instructed. To take up the legacy of Dr. King, to make this a country worthy of his sacrifices and those of all the women and men, Black, white, and other that marched and struggled, lived and died with him, we must accept that racism has not gone quietly into the night. We must push it out of our society.

Climate Change Town Hall

by Kevin Fox Jr (@kevinfoxjr)

(Cover photo provided by Dr. Paul Rosier)

Global climate change is harder to deny every day, though some fix their mouths and policies to do it nonetheless. According to NASA, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years on record have taken place since 2001; the exception was 1998. It makes sense that the Villanova community is concerned about the phenomenon. From 1:30 PM to a little bit after 3 PM this past Friday, January 25th, Villanova University hosted a Climate Change Town Hall in the Connelly Center Cinema. The focal word of the day was “sustainability,” but it stands to reason that we could have further-investigated what that meant.

The on-stage panel was composed of thirteen members of the faculty, staff, and undergraduate student body that are concerned about the ongoing damage to the world’s climate and Villanova University’s contributions to that destruction. That people came out from all across campus – including across the tracks at the Charles Widger School of Law – showed solidarity across disciplines regarding the commitment of the university to contribute to transforming our way of life to be more sustainable. Dr. Paul Rosier of the History and Sustainability Studies Program and Dr. Jean Lutes from the English Department began with the introductions and a statement of purpose for the meeting.

Dr. Rosier pointed-out that, despite a wind power petition signed and sent to the President’s office in 2006, our university still runs on unsustainable fuel sources and, moreover, that as a Catholic University we have a collective responsibility to not destroy the planet we live on. He stressed that those with the least resources will suffer the most as we enter ever-more-disastrous periods of climate change. Dr. Lutes said that we are currently on pace to leave the world in a worse place than we found it and that the meeting was taking place to cultivate positive action, to put further weight behind an Action Proposal that has been sent to the Strategic Planning Committee because the New Strategic Plan does not account for climate change. The petition that was put forth thirteen years ago had a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050; the Action Proposal wants to move that up twenty years.

Dr. Amanda Grannas, who teaches Chemistry and is Associate Vice Provost for Research, was the first of the eleven speakers assembled to present. She spoke to the lifechanging experience of interacting with indigenous people in Barrow, Alaska, reminded us that “climate change has a real impact on real people.” Furthermore, Dr. Grannas warned us not to demonize those of our fellow Americans that are not [yet] on the same page with regard to climate change. The facts of the matter have long been obscured by the powers of a wealthy energy lobby.

Biology sophomore and chair of the Villanova Environmental Group, Alexa Schoeneborn argued that her experience has shown her that students across campus want to know the school is doing its part to combat climate change. Maeve Kavanaugh, a senior at the Villanova School of Business and member of the Student Sustainability Committee talked about the culture shock she experienced coming from California seeing, for instance, the preponderance of one-use materials at Villanova. She advocated that buildings should be metered individually for their power usage and that we should have an electric shuttle system. Kavanaugh said that the university needs to be a leader in sustainability as we are in research, scholarship, fellowship, and sports; and that sustainability should be included in every curriculum, rather than something students need to go out of the way to learn.

Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy, Associate professor of Nursing and Director of the Center for Global and Public Health, told us about her experience doing research in Finland on a Fulbright grant. They have already had a rise of two degrees Celsius and they are not prepared, despite their affluence. Dr. McDermott-Levy said that, as environmental degradation continues, the quality and nutritional value of our food is decreasing. Dr. McDermott-Levy stressed that we need a system change, that this is an issue of human spirit, and that we need to challenge ourselves and our institutions to be willing to make those changes.

Dr. Samantha Chapman from Biology said that where she does research in northern Florida, the risen temperatures have transformed former salt marshes into mangrove fields. Dr. Chapman said that we must look into the humanities to see how we can adapt; we cannot look at flora and fauna as inspiring as they can be. We need to mitigate change; to use clean energy and to educate our students and communities.

Dr. Christopher Kilby, an Economics professor from the Villanova School of Business, whose research involves the environmental impact of the World Bank’s lending policies, called on the university to invest more resources in sustainability – to focus more classes, majors and minors, research, and funding for student projects in the area. Dr. Kilby also said that Villanova needs to incentivize responsible choices – we need to find ways to discount public transportation for students, to offer cheaper parking for electric vehicles rather than offering that parking at a premium. He also argued that the selection process for the Board of Trustees should take sustainability into account.

Dennis Gallagher, the Director of Parking and Transportation, said that he was completely in favor of acquiring electric vehicles, and that in his time here the university had shrunken the fleet of old vans and moved to newer, more fuel-efficient options. Mr. Gallagher pointed-out the gains his department has made with the Nova Van OnDemand app which has gone from running all night to pick up an average of nine students between 9PM and 1AM to an efficient service providing more transportation to more people. They have gone from 32 to 800 accounts with an average of 76 people picked up each night. One change he wants to make is putting solar panels on the tops of the parking garages, and Dr. Kilby mentioned putting them on some of the new buildings being built across Lancaster. The only trouble is Radnor Township’s refusal to make an exception to the ordinance limiting the building height.

Dr. Bill Lorenz, the Director of the Sustainable Engineering Program and the Chair of the Service Learning Community, stressed that climate change is the existential threat to our species. He said that it is required of all of us to adopt an ethos of sustainable living, inclusive of social wellbeing, so that we can create “enough, for all, forever.” Dr. Lorenz declared that the school is not in a leadership position at all, even when compared to other similar schools, and that we need to base our campus-wide goals on the UN’s sustainability goals. Dr. Lorenz said that the strategic plan needs to have an interconnected methodology of material quantitative measurements rather than an isolated qualitative one made of insubstantial statements chosen for their audible appeal. He directed students, faculty, and staff to get involved by contacting Matt Ashcroft at

Dr. Barbara Wall, Professor of Philosophy and Vice President of Mission and Ministry, said that Earth is God’s gift and just as we have a responsibility to steward it we need to move beyond one-dimensional thinking to actively love it. She said also that we need to be an institution without walls and that we as individuals cannot stop at petitioning the board; we must change ourselves and the way we view the world. She stressed communicating with empathy and civility, acknowledging that we are all on different levels of understanding, passion, and education. Dr. Wall concluded that we need to think ahead seven generations, and that taking better care of the planet is not just something nice for us to do for our hypothetical grandchildren; it is an ethical responsibility. We cannot be numbed and we must practice hope.

It was encouraging to see so many people come out to talk about climate change. There was standing room only with both doors open and people in the alcove trying to pick up what they could. It was unfortunate that more students did not get to talk. The conversation from the crowd was largely dominated by faculty, though the educators were definitely the minority in the room. The bookends were the standouts.

A student opened the Q&A with a comment that a similar townhall had taken place in the same room when the decision to arm Public Safety was made. The board will ignore us if they can. He said that, if this was as important to us as it seemed to be then we needed to be willing to sacrifice something personally. His sentiment was echoed by several faculty members across the arts and sciences. We were called-upon by the panel to contact the board directly, not just through our petition but through individual emails.

Toward the end, a student asked the most sensible question anyone heard, a practical one – what are we doing to reduce food, plastic, and paper waste? The panel assured us that Tim Dietzler, the Director of Dining Hall Services, is one of the campus leaders on sustainability, and that he is all the time moving toward more plant-based foods.

I was personally left with two unanswered questions. One – how do we define sustainability? Do we mean to sustain our current way of life? Because that is not foreseeable in the long run.

The Environmental Science-specific definition of sustainability in the Random House Dictionary is “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” If the core of this university’s mission to educate, unite, and care for people in a sustainable manner, we might need to be willing to make changes beyond raising parking and doing a better job with food waste. We might need less food; we might need to stop trying to expand.

My other question is simpler and more practical: what can we do about all of the lights that are on after everyone has gone home? We need to start at the obvious steps so we can move on to the larger systemic ones.

Below is the key passage from the 2006 proposal put forth by the Villanova Environmental Group:

“This petition signifies our support for a change in the environmental policy at Villanova University. Currently we are one of the few schools of our caliber in the state of Pennsylvania that is not purchasing a percentage of our energy from wind power. Wind power is a renewable, environmentally friendly method of obtaining energy. As young scholars and potential leaders in society it is our duty to be stewards of the environment and address the pertinent issue of environmental degradation. As members of a Catholic institution we also have a responsibility to adhere to the Catholic social teachings that involve environmental issues. Our actions should reflect our values. To not participate in progressive steps by purchasing wind power deprives the Villanova community of being part of a movement of concerned global citizens.”

“Public Disclosures of Private Realities: LGBTQ History and the Archive of Everyday Life”

(by Keeley Tulio)

On November 28th, Villanova’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies hosted Visiting Assistant Professor Dr. Stephen Vider of Bryn Mawr College. Vider received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard University, focused on the politics and social practices of everyday life in the United States with attention to gender and sexuality. After receiving his doctorate at Harvard, Vider dived into several public history projects. As an Andrew W.  Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Museum of New York City, he curated the exhibition AIDs at Home: Art and Everyday Activism in 2017. Vider’s presentation “Public Disclosures of Private Realities: LGBTQ History and the Archive of Everyday Life” revolved around his work on queer domestic spaces and the source base he used to create an exhibit on domestic activism.

While previous scholarship prioritized the actions of the LGBTQ community in public spaces, Vider turned to examine domestic space. In his book Queer Belongings: Gender, Sexuality, and the American Home After World War II, Vider examines the home as the site of contact between class conflict and LGBTQ identity. A person’s sense of being part of their nation was demonstrated by performing and adopting domestic roles that developed in the 1950s. With this, members of the LGBTQ community adapted this domesticity of the home to form their own sense of belonging within American culture. The book examines the political meaning of home for the LGBTQ community in shaping this sense of belonging.

The AIDs at Home exhibit continued to examine the domestic sphere of LGTBQ in another political meaning, activism. Vider wanted to dispel the stigmas that surrounded AIDs victims and their domestic life in conversation with other contemporary exhibits that revisited the AIDs crisis. Because he believed that this new attention on the AIDs crisis continued to obscure the impact of the nonphysical and more private responses of LGBTQ activism, Vider wanted to expand on his examination of LGBTQ domesticity in connection to the New York AIDs crisis. In the domestic sphere there was a place for activism, new definitions of family, and social support. The exhibit further focused to reorient the topic of activism to focus on care in the domestic space as a critical site of queer activism. To display this, the exhibit moved thematically around four parts of domestic activism: “Caretaking,” “Housing,” “Family,” and “HIV/AIDs at Home Today.”

The “Caretaking” theme focused on the relationship of AIDs victim and caretakers, a role filled with a variety of people from friends and family to members of a caregiving program. The caretaker role served as a method of activism against the stigma with AIDs that resulted in avoidance of physical contact with AIDs victims. Loved ones, friends, and volunteers in organizations combated this stigma by their role of caretaking in the private, domestic space as evident in the photograph Kachin and Michael at Michael’s Apartment. The first part of the exhibit prominently displayed pieces of artwork, on canvas or photographs, to display the different methods of caretaking.

The second and third themes of the exhibit featured the notions of “Housing” and “Family” as activism. Housing as a form of activism was a response to the rise of homelessness among those suffering from HIV/AIDs in New York City. To illustrate this, Vider used architectural drawings and plans as well as a documentary of people displaced by the HIV/AIDs crisis. Much of the homeless crisis that arose from AIDs was due to evictions that were caused when one partner died from AIDs and the other was not named on the lease. These evictions were not reflective of how members of the LGBTQ community defined their own households and family. The theme of housing flowed directly into the notion of chosen family, the third theme of the exhibit. Family was redefined to mean chosen family instead of blood relations as a form of activism. The chosen family section also featured a short video called “Two Men and A Baby” that symbolically redefined family by following a black gay couple that was raising their nephew, a child born with AIDS whose mother passed away.

The last theme of the exhibit, “HIV/AIDs at Home Today,” moved to display how HIV & AIDs are experienced today. This ended with a short film codirected by Vider, A Place in the City: Three Stories about AIDs at Home, which followed the work of three activists in New York City that mirrored the previous themes of the exhibit. HIV and AIDs still affect people and with that there is no true end for the exhibit. The experience of HIV and AIDs at home is ongoing and therefore domestic activism, as Vider has defined it with the themes of his exhibit, continues.

AIDs at Home presents a deeply personal view of the history of AIDS in New York City with a source base that accurately reflects that personal history. Vider primarily focused his efforts on establishing what he termed an “archive of everyday life” to be the source base for the exhibit. It used pieces of archival materials and artwork to capture the history of the emotional experience of the repeated caregiving that happened for AIDs victims in domestic spaces. The exhibit features archival documents like membership lists, architectural plans, and medication lists but in relation to representational pieces of art. Putting the archive together for the exhibit involved working with a variety of people, from the artists themselves to members of LGBTQ support organizations to families of victims from the AIDs crisis. This process was not easy because many active and ongoing organizations do not keep up with archiving their papers. Similarly, families that lost a loved one to AIDS can be motivated by grief to get rid of the victim’s belongings and papers.

“Public Disclosures of Private Realities” offered insights in new methods of examining LGBTQ history. Vider wanted the audience to rethink how everyday history is created, to rethink where history happens or how history happens or when. This reorientation of how everyday history is created can lead to a reexamination of the narratives of history. For Vider this meant the change of examining the AIDs crisis as a medical narrative of great change to a domestic narrative that shows the continuity of everyday life. The presentation and Vider left the audience with an encouragement to look at the narratives of history and reexamine them in a new light or with different sources.

Histories of Democracy Pt 2 – Global Perspectives: Revolutions and Empires (Opening Statements)

(All photos from the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest website)

On November 12, the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest had the second part of its Histories of Democracy event, in Driscoll Hall Auditorium. Moderated by Dr. Paul Steege, the Lepage Center’s Faculty Director, the panel featured our own Dr. Hibba Abugideiri, who specializes in the experience of women in medicine in early-20th century Egypt specifically and imperialism and nationalism in the Middle East more broadly; Dr. Melissa Feinberg from Rutgers, who studies communism and post communism, especially in the former Czechoslovakia, as well as emotion in politics and the history of feminism; Dr. Julia Gaffield from Georgia State, who focuses on the Haitian Revolution and the history of early Haitian democracy; and Maia Ortashvili, who works on democracy in the former Soviet Union as the Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program for the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Dr. Steege started-off the talk by discussing the 100th anniversary of German democracy, with the establishment of the Weimar Republic on Nov. 9, 1918, followed four years later by Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, and commemorated seventy-one years later with the Fall of the Berlin Wall. He stoked the introductions by asking the panel and the audience to consider democracy as an evolving, contested process; not just something exported from the United States, but something imported or synthesized contextually.

With that, he turned to Dr. Gaffield, to preview what Haiti can teach us about democracy. She said that she uses her research to analyze democratic innovation at the state and local level in Haiti, rather than just looking at despotism and totalitarianism in the nineteenth and twentieth century. She raised the philosophical quandary of an ongoing struggle at the center of democracy – the state against the nation – and explained that the essential composure of the republic is found in the contest between group and individual needs. Dr. Gaffield argued that the Haitian conception of the border certainly has relevance to contemporary US conversations about democracy. Haitian restrictions on white land ownership, as well as the porousness of the border which encouraged the migration of dispossessed people, send contrasting messages when held against the idea of who belongs in this historical moment.


Dr. Gaffield argued that Haiti stands out because it was the second independent state in the hemisphere, but it was the first where abolition was the driving force for independence. Abolition in Haiti unfortunately did not equate to freedom the way that individuals had hoped for. The needs of the state to protect the lives of the property of the citizenry stressed the creation and maintenance of capital through an export economy. In order to secure freedom in the sense of abolition, there was a restriction of freedom as the independence of human beings over their own movement and choices.

Dr. Feinberg said that her research focused on the interwar period in Czechslovakia … Democracy in Czechslovakia was not killed by Nazi Germany but was instead killed by authoritarian/authoritative democracy which wanted to cohabitate with Nazi Germany while still holding onto democracy as part of its heritage – it was “democracy only in name.” In 1918, the Czechslovakian government formally equate women with men to symbolize equality and progress and move away from the Hapsburg dynasty. Women’s suffrage passes the legislature unanimously and the legislature states that “the law shall not recognize privilege of sex,” but institutionalized patriarchal sexism and discrimination does not have to be written down in order for the status quo to be maintained.


Dr. Steege used this part of the discussion as a pivot into Dr. Abugideiri’s opening statement – asking who is allowed to be involved in the discussion. Dr. Abugideiri went on to ask discuss gender and citizenship in the Middle East. The Middle East itself is not an objective geographic entity – it is one shaped by external forces, global development, and internal disputes. She pointed out that the early twentieth century saw the fruits of the labors of democracy in Europe, specifically Great Britain and France, resulted in opposition by those states to the forces of democracy in other places, especially the Middle East. The Cold War saw the entrenchment and institutionalization of authoritarianism in Middle Eastern powers, including radical attempts at democratization in Iran and Egypt, and a constitutional crisis in Egypt in the interwar period.

The rise of the U.S. as the sole superpower was refracted throughout the Middle East as U.S. interest in oil, Israel, and arms sales created complexities and contradictions – the U.S. helped prop-up authoritarian regimes in both Iran and Egypt. Islamism emerged as a political force in the 1930s, initially it was anti-authoritarian while attempting to create theocracy, whereas in the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first it has been conceived of as more strict and conservative. Dr. Abugideiri argued that the U.S. does not support the liberals or the radicals in the Middle East, that after the Arab Spring our government has supported new authoritarians. Perhaps this is because the order they impose serves economic interests in this country. In any case, Dr. Aubgideiri concluded by discussing how the interaction of global and internal dynamics has complicated the question of citizenship in the Middle East, noting especially that the introduction of women into the democratic process further complicates it because of the ways the state wants to regulate women’s bodies and labor for the state’s productive ends.

Dr. Steege saw this as an apt point to bring in Maia Ortashvili to discuss moments of emerging democracy in the failure of empire, the opportunity of democratic expansion in post-Soviet settings, and to question the waning of the window of opportunity for the spread of democracy. Ms. Ortashvili said that there are basically three categories in the post-soviet nation-states, with the political spectrum from democracy to authoritarianism visible on a map on a west-to-east axis. The farthest west, including the former Czechoslovakia, “graduate” to democracy by fulfilling the expectations of the European Union and NATO in government reform, setting a standard for Black Sea countries to follow. On the opposite side of the spectrum are Russia, Belarus, and Central Asian countries which borrowed some parts of the democratic prescriptions they received from the West, but are primarily authoritarian.

She named Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, “sometimes Armenia,” and formerly Azerbaijan as among the “hybrid democracies” with philosophical and institutional underpinnings in both camps. This leaves the region in a “bipolar” situation where nations are largely either associated with the EU or Russia and Russian influence. Dr. Steege’s introduction to Ms. Ortashvili included mentioning Francis Fukuyama’s concept of an ‘end of history,’ where the end of the Cold War would see the transition into a world system where competition is solely over markets. Ms. Ortashvili called-back to that at the end of her closing remarks, noting that the end of history came decades ago for many of these countries which had established democratic republics in the early twentieth century which were forcefully annexed by the USSR in the 1930s.

In part 2.2, we will look at the general discussion and question-and-answer session of the event. The video and audio can be found here, at the Lepage Center Site.