The Trust Factor

May 14, 2021

Spring 2021 Issue of Wellesley magazine

Wellesley Spring 2021 magazine cover

Over this past year, we’ve experienced what I’ve come to call the triple pandemic: COVID-19, structural racism, widening disparities of wealth. All of these have taken center stage both at Wellesley and beyond.

Yet, throughout these crises runs another, equally significant: a crisis in trust that risks derailing our best efforts to move forward.

I was reminded of this yet again when I sat down with Harvard’s Danielle Allen, a political theorist whose work is helping us rethink how to strengthen the skills of citizenship and build a healthier democracy. This public conversation, which marked the culmination of our Wintersession January Project, was titled “What’s Next? Democracy After 2020.”

Again and again, we circled back to the critical role of trust—to the fact that trust is foundational to healthy communities, from campuses to workplaces, from neighborhoods to nations. To cite just one momentous example, our success in fighting the pandemic will hinge on whether citizens trust their government. Simply put, trust is essential to human flourishing.

We see that clearly here at Wellesley, where our vision for inclusive excellence calls on us to build a community where everyone feels valued, seen, and heard. Where everyone belongs.

“We’re not born with a chip for creating inclusive spaces,” says Inés Maturana Sendoya, associate dean of students for inclusion and engagement. “It’s a skill like any other—like knowing how to do calculus or riding a bike.”

That’s why trust-building is at the heart of some of the most important work we are doing today. Just as our students learn the core skills of scholarship and critical thinking, so they are learning—and honing—the trust-boosting skills of listening and empathy.

Recent events have given rise to a new hunger for this sort of learning. We’ve seen an overwhelming response to the new Inclusion Initiative, sponsored by our Office of Intercultural Education. “I wanted to be part of the change,” says Karen Alvarez Julian ’21, explaining her decision to become a peer facilitator. “If not me, then who?”

Last fall, a cohort of 16 paid student facilitators led 28 workshops for more than 400 students in groups ranging from Wellesley crew to Shakespeare Society, and demand has only grown. The workshops offer a supportive and structured place for conversations about hard issues related to identity, including racism, class, gender and sexual orientation, immigration status, and disability/ability. (You can learn more about this in “Conversations for Change.”)

Our trust-building work also extends to faculty and staff. By the time you read this, roughly 100 will have gone through an intensive seven-day program called the Change Agents Initiative, designed to foster diversity and inclusion throughout our campus (both real and virtual). Through sharing—and hearing—each other’s experiences, participants come to appreciate perspectives very different from their own. Vulnerability gives rise to empathy and, ultimately, to trust. “It’s a life-changing and transformative experience,” says Professor of Chemistry Megan Núñez, who spearheads the program in her role as dean of faculty affairs.

So much depends on our capacity to listen, a truth that increasingly pervades everything we do. This was evident at Tanner 2020, the 20th anniversary of our annual Tanner Conference, ever a highlight of the Wellesley year. As always, last October’s conference celebrated the relationship between the liberal arts classroom and student engagement with the larger world. Student presenters shared moving stories of growth and change they experienced through internships, study abroad, civic participation, and other experiences. But this time, we also celebrated the act of listening. Through a partnership with StoryCorps, students could record conversations with each other, sharing reflections on this year of learning like no other. You’ll be able to listen to some of these recordings on the Wellesley website. (A big thanks to StoryCorps CEO Robin Sparkman ’91 for making this possible.)

How to foster mutual trust in a time of polarization? Few questions are more challenging—or more important. This makes me especially proud to see the progress Wellesley is making. Every crisis that we face is made worse by the crisis in trust. The trust-building skills we learn today will call forth a better tomorrow.