Alumnus Steve Frappier (MLA in ’06, concentration in American culture studies; BA in ’00, Russian and art history & archaeology) reflected on his background and developing role as citizen-activist at a Gephardt Institute brunch for graduating students dedicated to civic and community engagement. Frappier is Director of College Counseling at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia.
My role as a citizen-activist is only four months old. In getting to know more about the Gephardt Institute and its recent graduates, your work and what you will do to improve our world makes me prouder as an alumnus.
As seniors, you have had a four-year break from the annoying litany of: “Where are you going to college?” Now, you are being peppered with a new one: “What are you going to do with that?”
Your combinations and commitments represent WashU at its best: student-driven, faculty-mentored, and interdisciplinary. It is difficult to arrive here and not find yourself studying at least two things. I’ve also noticed that all of you are studying something that resides at the intersection of two systems – some overlapping space that you find fascinating and nourishing, for whatever reason.
When two social systems or ideologies collide, perhaps one that is in motion and one that is stationary – that newly created overlap often generates friction or revolution. We might be envisioning some diagram or flow chart, but in the real world, there are often people who reside on those frayed, intersecting edges. It takes a spirit of citizenship and Good Samaritanism to shed an encouraging light on those causes and to offer the residents of (and passersby through) those margins a sense of dignity and a pathway toward feeling included.
Since my affiliation with WashU, I have always felt that campus culture and St. Louis cultivate the skill set of understanding complex intersections. Part of why I picked St. Louis is the sense of place here. We’re on that edge of red, blue, and purple. It’s also the city and region that have served as the launch pad for Lewis & Clark, as the site of the first non-European Olympics, as a revolutionary laboratory for jazz and blues, and as a haven for refugees. Coexistence (and the attempt at it) is in St. Louis’ DNA.
“What are you going to do with that?” I, for one, was dead-set. I came to WashU in 1996 with a singular and selfish goal: to be a veejay on MTV Russia. Post-Communist popular culture was going to be huge. My advisor supported me and said, “That’s really neat – you’ll need to go abroad for junior year – and, oh, I have something to give to you. It’s an e-mail address.” I pushed back: “What is that, and why do I need one?” Even the concepts that we applied to college for just 20 years ago had nothing to do with computers or cell phones.
So this is the part when I put it all together – activism, working with young people, computers, intersections, and margins.
On January 6, I was en route to a conference in Delray Beach, Florida on education policy and inclusive community-building on college campuses. A man started firing a gun in a baggage claim area that contained about 80 people and no armed security.
I dropped to the ground and tried to stay still. The shooter fired 15 or 16 shots over the course of about 90 seconds. Five people died and eight were hospitalized. One bullet fired in my direction hit something above my head, and pieces of shrapnel embedded themselves into my right hand. I managed to look up to see if my hand was still there. Another bullet ricocheted off the wall, entered my partially open backpack, embedded itself into my laptop, pierced the interior fabric of my backpack, and rested in my side pocket for the FBI agents to discover later. The shooter was discharged from a hospital after he said he heard voices in his head but stopped hearing them after four days.
[For more on the shooting in the Fort Lauderdale airport, click here.]
With all media interviews, I immediately insisted on talking about mental health counseling. I knew not to make my first statements about guns, but about the fundamental issue at the core of this tragedy: our under-resourced mental health care system, particularly among veterans.
In February and March, I attended Counselor Legislative Days, both in Atlanta at the Georgia State Capitol and in D.C. on Capitol Hill, to advocate for a series of high school educational needs with our senators, representatives, or their aides. We started asking for more funding for counselors. The Georgia budget for the 2017-18 school year contains a line-item for a $4 million increase for school counselors.
The right for our citizens to have someone to talk with should not be limited to those who attend college and have insurance to pay for these appointments. Mental health needs start earlier and younger, and our schools need these specialists.
You’ve been citizen-activists longer than I have been, but in my wild life these past few months, I have learned many lessons:
- You have to prepare to be popular and maybe unpopular, even for pure-hearted intentions.
- If you sign your name to something, you need to embrace the potential of irreversibility.
- You have to make time for taking a break and for self-care. This is a non-negotiable.
- Always strive to add to your “Life Club” – those people with whom you can sound-out your ideas, without competition.
- Prepare for the world to be small.
- Say thank you, even if you might have already said it.
As you have applied to college or graduate school, you and the adults in your lives have probably said: “Oh, you should do this – because it’ll look good for college.” But once you’re on your feet – once you stop climbing to that first step or two, the questions change. The question of “Should do I X or Y or Z?” might become a very different paradigm. The more powerful question to ponder is: “What if I don’t?”
“Will I have the opportunity to affect positive change, or not?” You might look around, and realize that you are humbly and uniquely equipped to be one to catalyze something within a specific place and moment. Prepare to listen to your conscience and do something. And alongside the necessary times you have to ask yourself “Should I do this?” do not hesitate to ask yourself, with clarity of conscience, “What if I don’t?”