My friend Malissa Geer curated an art show last night in tribute of her mentor, advisor, kindred spirit and surrogate mother Debra Friedman. Since Debra’s sudden and unexpected death on Jan. 26 from cancer I’ve been longing to reflect on my own sorrow. Though Debra was an extraordinary leader as the Dean of our ASU Downtown Phoenix campus and most recently the Chancellor of the University of Washington Tacoma, she was also my friend and a dear friend of Neighborhood Ministries. As Malissa and others have done in the past few months, I would also like to pay tribute to her.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what made Debra so incredible since 2006 when I first met her, the day she took a tour of downtown Phoenix low-income communities and the Neighborhood campus. Her eulogies from Seattle and Tacoma try to capture that “something”; they called Debra a dynamo of vision and action. She certainly was that. She envisioned a campus that holistically served a community, using these phrases to describe what she had in mind: “praxis” (where theory meets practice) and an “urban-serving university.” I met with a university leader from Coventry, UK (a distressed area 95 miles northwest of London) not too long ago who is championing urban serving universities and remarked that this kind of vision is so rare. Debra was a rarity, clearly. She “was constantly hunting for ways to connect with the neighbors.” It was as if she knew that the huge institution represented by an encroaching campus was capable of considering others, that it could be a good neighbor, could be a contribution and not a powerful, self-absorbed segregated entity. She allowed others to help make that a reality – others who were not otherwise engaged in informing and shaping the university.
Debra built partnerships. I’ll never forget that first walk around our campus with me, she asked questions that came from somewhere deep inside her. She was curious, insightful, surprised, appreciative and ready. We would be a partner with ASU and with Debra even after she left ASU to go back home to Tacoma and take the Chancellorship there. This move in our direction from the very first is what alerted me to Debra Friedman. Who was this professional academic, so fascinated by a grassroots faith-based non-profit? Why did our incarnational approach matter to her? What was it about us that somehow fit a criteria Debra had within her? That’s a question I’ve been asking since I first became her friend and she became mine. I am fond of the great Jewish social activist and mystic, Abraham Heschel. In his book called Man is Not Alone, he says … “Usually we regard as meaningful that which can be expressed, and as meaningless that which cannot be expressed. Yet, the equation of the meaningful and the expressible ignores a vast realm of human experience, and is refuted by our sense of the ineffable which is an awareness of an allusiveness to meaning without the ability to express it.” This helps me articulate the mystery in the relationship I have had with Debra. I believe it has to do with a shared understanding of God, what Heschel lovingly referred to as “the ineffable”. I believe that when Debra came to Neighborhood she encountered a familiarity, whether we could name it or not.
Debra desired to reach the communities ethnicities whose voice mattered first where her universities were embedded. She often spoke of the “incredible special relationship” with the communities surrounding her campuses — a relationship she nurtured. Part of the nurturing was her devotion to students, many of them poor, struggling and finding themselves as scholars for the first time, much like Malissa. Those students needed what she brought to the school. Debra supported the many students who came from Neighborhood personally. She knew them by name and even took their part when they had personal hurdles to overcome. Debra had fixed radar for the first generation college student. Their success was a marker for her university’s success. Debra believed in today’s generation. She once said, “I think this generation, in research study after research study, has demonstrated itself to be committed to improving their communities. And because of their civility with social media, they are searching for new ways to have impact.” She founded “The Spirit of Service Scholars program” which honors outstanding graduate and undergraduate students each year who will commit their future careers to federal, state and local government and nonprofit organizations in service of solving society’s most challenging problems.
Debra was an important friend and a unique leader. She influenced people and institutions. She mentored vision and mentored the next generation. She served the communities she was within and fostered empowerment simultaneously. She saw what could be in a city – our city – but she also saw us. And we saw her … that’s what we will miss, that “seeing”. Via con Dios Debra.
Debra and I prayed this traditional Jewish prayer over Malissa when we sent her off to begin her graduate program. It is my prayer now for Debra’s daughter Eliana:
May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. May God bless you and watch over you. May God shine His face toward you and show you favor. May God be favorably disposed toward you and grant you peace.