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History of What Matters to Me and Why

What Matters to Me and Why is a creative solution to an important and sometimes unrecognized problem in the university setting.

“Somehow, intellectual life gets separated from personal and spiritual issues,” reflects founder Quintus Jett. “The idea [behind What Matters to Me and Why] came up in a conversation with Rev. Floyd Thompkins while I was president of the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA): to bring in professors to talk about these aspects.”

The series started in the spring of 1994 with the name “Soul to Soul,” and then it was renamed “What Matters to Me and Why” when it restarted the next fall. Members of the university faculty or staff are invited to speak at the forum. The featured guest spends about twenty minutes addressing the subject of “What Matters to Me and Why,” and then the floor is opened to an informal dialogue for the remainder of the hour. From the beginning, there has been a focus on building a broad base for the program.

“Quintus Jett, founder of WMMW, remembers, “We wanted to reach out to all groups. We didn’t want people to see it as just a ‘Black thing.’ On the original committee we had the presidents of the Black Graduate Student Association (which originally funded us), the Asian-American Graduate Student Association, the Graduate Women’s Network, and the Graduate Student Association, and we invited a diverse group of speakers.”

The broad range of backgrounds of the first four speakers set the tone for the rest of the series. The first group included Dr. Francis Conley from the medical school, who was involved with a sexual harassment lawsuit at the time. She was followed by a guest associated more with the “university establishment,” Dean of Research Charles Kruger. Then came Dean of Students Michael Jackson, who is African-American and was an undergrad at Stanford. Fourth was David Palumbo-Liu, a proponent of Asian studies, who was involved with a hunger strike for that cause.

Jett continues, “But it is also very important to point out that except for Francis Conley, the other speakers didn’t focus on the public issues they were facing at the time. What I remember about Kruger was his talking about walking his daughter to school everyday for several years, as a way to spend time with her. Dean Michael Jackson talked about his experience as the first non-Caucasian student in a prestigious prep school. And, as everyone who was there for Palumbo-Liu’s speech will agree, he will be remembered for his ‘have a baby’ advice when someone asked him what graduate students could do to help them focus in grad school. He went on to explain that having a ‘baby’ or something else that gives you immense gratification, helps the student to maintain a healthy attitude.”

“Another speaker was Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth control pill. He read some of his poetry, and talked about being a scientist and an artist, and … talked about his daughter, who committed suicide twenty years ago. In the question and answer period someone asked him about his daughter. There was a deep silence; you could still feel the pain, after twenty years.”

The experience can be as powerful for the speakers as for the audience. One says: “I felt better about myself because of presenting. I was happy that the reaction was so favorable – I wasn’t sure it would be at all. There’s a spirit of both accepting and inquiring that I like; accepting in that there’s tolerance of difference, inquiring in that there’s a real searching for what matters and why.” An audience member adds: “The setting generates momentum for a discussion of values … and it encourages people to understand others. When I’m listening I suspend my own perspective in order to really hear the presenter.”

The series has touched people even beyond the confines of the university. It has brought Stanford alumni back onto campus, and introduced local residents to another side of Stanford. According to a fan letter from New Mexico:

“The series has added a great deal to the intellectual integrity of the Stanford community, in my opinion.”

Jett concludes: “Ultimately, something like this survives on just the feeling it creates. For me, it was something that was worth taking a risk on.”

Related article:
"'A dialogue about values' 'What matters' breaks barriers" - Stanford Daily, May 17, 1995

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