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Seattle University


Champion for Justice

Written by Mike Thee
February 12, 2013

Jeanette Rodriguez, professor of theology and religious studies, has been named the 2013 James B. McGoldrick Fellow, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., announced last month.

"Named for Father James McGoldrick, a legendary Jesuit who was known for his genuine care for students, the fellowship is awarded to faculty members who exemplify the values of Jesuit education and the spirit of Father McGoldrick," Father Sundborg, wrote. "Jeanette Rodriguez is precisely that kind of professor. She brings a great intellect and passion to her teaching, scholarship and service. Teaching in Arts and Sciences and the School of Theology and Ministry, she inspires her students not only to master the coursework, but to put their knowledge to use in building a more just and humane world."

Internationally known for her scholarship on Latin American theology and religion, gender and cultural diversity, Rodriguez has published and presented prolifically. She has held a number of key leadership positions and been honored with several awards and recognitions, including the Distinguished Teaching Award from Seattle University as part of the university's 2010 Alumni Awards.

At SU, she has been chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, held the Wismer Chair and Pigott McCone Chair and founded the Center for the Study of Justice in Society.

The Commons:  How did you find out that you were chosen as the 2013 McGoldrick Fellow and what was your reaction to the news?

Jeanette Rodriguez:  Father Sundborg sent me an e-mail that said, "Let's talk," and I went, "Uh-oh, what did I do this time?" (Laughs) So I went to his office. I was really surprised. It was the last thing I imagined him telling me. I feel honored, because when I think of Father McGoldrick, the first thing that comes to mind is that he's the Jesuit who made it possible for women to enter college by admitting them. I have an affinity for him based on that alone. He was also a Jesuit who spoke to everyone, from the gardener, to the president, treating all with great respect. He cared about the students and was available to them. I share his ethos. SU is an important community to me, and I'd like to think that, after 22 years of being here, people know me.

On the day the announcement came out that I received the fellowship, I received 56 e-mails from across the university, it made me feel that maybe I have had an impact. But I also thought that, as much as I got the award, really, a lot of faculty and staff here have the McGoldrick spirit. I know so many colleagues, faculty and staff, who care about students and work tirelessly with them. Any number of them could have been recipient of this award, and I think it is because we nurture one other. I'm very mindful of and grateful for my colleagues.

Jeanette Rodriguez, left, is pictured here with Sister Fabiola de la Torre Castro who hosts the SU delegation Rodriguez takes to Mexico every December.

The Commons:  Looking back on all that you've accomplished thus far, what are you most proud of?

Jeanette Rodriguez:  First of all, I'd have to say I'm really proud of our students. As Father (Peter Hans) Kolvenbach (former Superior General of the Jesuits) said, it's not so much what they get--the takeaways in terms of content/knowledge--but who they become. I've had the grace to mentor, be with and accompany these students. And that's why the alumni award I got in 2010 was so important to me. It was like, "Oh yeah, they remember me." At the ceremony, Father Sundborg asked me to speak, and I said, "In Mexican culture, there are three types of death: one is when you stop breathing, the second is when they put you in the ground and the third is when they forget you. As I said to the alums, 'So thank you for not forgetting me!'" (Laughs) But where our students choose to work and how they choose to live is something I always feel proud of.

Another thing I've been proud of is the founding of the Center for the Study of Justice in Society, which provides a medium by which faculty can create a conceptual space to deal with complex social issues across disciplines.

Another accomplishment I am proud of occurred when I was the Wismer Chair. In conjunction with committed faculty, staff and students, we put together an ELLA Conference--ELLA means "her" or "she" in Spanish, and stands for Educating Latinas Leading America. Originally, I wanted to gather Latina college students and encourage them to continue, but what happened instead is 144 high school girls from five different states came to campus for the weekend. Faculty contributed their time, and students shared their dorms. We had a faculty member volunteer to give a talk to parents in Spanish so they would feel less anxious about sending their girls to college, and Father Sundborg was supportive. It was unexpected. And I was so moved to see the university come together like that.

There was also a time when we as a university understood the need to and committed to diversify. Again there was a cluster of faculty and staff us who stepped up to do the work; it's nice to see the fruits of that work as we now have a very highly diverse, gifted faculty.

The Commons:  If you were talking to someone who wasn't familiar with Seattle University, how would you describe this place?

Jeanette Rodriguez:  I would say that it's very student-centered, progressive and justice-oriented. When I was chair (of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies) and recruiting new faculty, I remember saying to them that we want your energy and your creativity--if you have an idea, that this is the kind of place where, more likely than not, you can make it happen. Now you might not get all the financial support you need for it, but you can have the conceptual space, the colleagues to tap into, student involvement. So yes, the university is small enough to be able to do all that stuff--you don't get lost--and yet big enough to have a variety of resources across disciplines.

The Commons:  What's up ahead for you?

Jeanette Rodriguez:  I just launched my last kid out of college so I'm at a place in my life where I do need to think about where I want to put my energies.

I keep reinventing myself in terms of coursework. As a liberation theologian, my specialty is Latin American liberation theology. I also have a background in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and now that I'm not chair and can go back to full-time teaching, I have reinvented that course, so that's not just the Holocaust, but the Holocaust in a Christian world. We are challenged by examine the boundaries of moral obligation. In preparation for this I have attended teacher training at the Holocaust Center here in Washington and I've been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. as a fellow and a participant in the seminars, so I see myself continuing that kind of work.

The other research project I'm working on is with a particular Native American community. I belong to the American Indian Institute, and every year we go to a different reservation to learn from the elders, and in the course of that, I met a clan mother of the Iroquois people and have been able to get into the community, which is unusual. So I'm writing a book that is tentatively titled When the Clan Mothers Stand: The Rebuilding of a Nation. It's a contemporary example of the work I've done on cultural memory on how a people are resilient enough to survive to survive after 500 years of assault. This research is hard because it involves ethnographic work, so the McGoldrick Fellow (which includes a one-quarter sabbatical) came at a great time because now I can take the time to go back to the res to finish the manuscript

The Commons:  Let's say you had a day or days without any responsibilities--what would you do?

Jeanette Rodriguez:  I love to hike. It's aesthetically beautiful here in the state of Washington. I appreciate time to think, time to be, and to do that in the midst of the cathedral of creation, the beautiful Pacific Northwest. The other thing is my family. My family is not here, and so when I do have time off, I try to re-connect with my family. I have seven brothers and sisters and we're all very close.

The Commons:  Is there anything about you that SU's faculty and staff might not know?

Jeanette Rodriguez:  Well, I think a lot of people know this, but I'm a sugar addict. I'm like the police detective in the movie "The Closer"--she always has candy in her drawer. I always have something in my purse, my drawer, whatever.

The Commons:  What's your "go-to" candy?

Jeanette Rodriguez:  Hmm, let's see…I like Sour Skittles.

The Commons:  If you weren't a professor, what line of work do you think you might have chosen?

Jeanette Rodriguez:  If you were to ask anyone that question about me, they would probably say politician, but I would not say that. I'm aware that because of my life experiences, I have become strategic and know how systems work, but I'm not attracted to politics in any way. You know how when you talk to your friends, sometimes you ask them what they played as when they were kids? I think from a very young age, I knew I was a teacher. I love the world of ideas and love the world of books, so I guess if I wasn't teaching, I'd probably want to be a writer but for sure one that not only acquires knowledge but produces it.