Tiziana Dearing lent her unique perspective as a former professor, non-profit executive and current radio host to the Brandeis community on Wednesday, March 20 in an event sponsored by the Women's Studies Research Center. She was joined in discussion by Prof. Harleen Singh (WGS), a Brandeis professor of Literature and Women’s, Gender, and Sexality Studies as well as the Director of the Women Studies Research Center. Singh introduced Dearing as a “public voice for good” and a “lifelong student” of the world, while Dearing jokingly described her own career path as “Forrest Gumping” her way through life. Their discussion, while structured as a profile on Dearing’s professional career, found substance in evaluating the role of religious faith in her work and assessing the current climate of the American education system. 

The trajectory of Dearing’s career started with “going door to door with her resume” in Chicago, fresh out of college at the University of Michigan, until she landed an internship and eventually a job with the Women's Self Self Employment Project. Her passion for nonprofit work led her to earn a graduate degree in Public Policy, International Security, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, from the Kennedy School at Harvard University where she was also the Executive Director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. This established the start of her work in the Boston community as Dearing later became the first woman to serve as the President of Catholic Charities in Boston, which she said made her the “highest ranked woman in the arch-diases in Boston” between 2007 and 2010. She was also the Chief Executive Officer of Boston Rising, a nonprofit startup, before eventually working as a professor of Social Work at Boston College. At this moment in her capacious career journey, Dearing is a host of WBUR’s Radio Boston and drives productive discussions on shows such as “Phenomenal Women,” which highlights female leaders working in fields historically dominated by men. According to Dearing, her career goal is “building trust and community.” 

Pulling on the thread of Dearing’s identity as a “public voice for good,” Singh elaborated, saying that she stands for “uplifting people and moving toward a common goal,” as her voice is heard “not only amidst the topics and important conversations of the day [on the radio] but… [most importantly] when looking for spaces where people are not often heard.” Dearing believes that her role is first and foremost in service to others, which is driven in part by her religious faith. She described her faith as “her calling … to serve others and build trust and community,” which is fundamental to her work in the nonprofit sector and in the media. 

Examining “the role that faith can play, and does play in society” is incredibly nuanced, said Singh. Discussing religious faith as a motivator for Dearing’s career inspired a jump into this complex religious discourse. On the topic of faith, which Singh described as a “fraught question,” Dearing was vulnerable about her challenges with the Catholic Church while affirming the importance of values that inform her work and worldview. Dearing said that she struggled with religion most notably when she felt like “[her] Church had failed her kids … [which] made [her] look back at [herself], [her] childhood, and [herself] as a parent.” Growing up, Dearing’s family, of which she was the youngest of nine children, was extremely active not only in the Church but in Catholic charity work, which engrained in her the values of community and uplifting others.

Amidst controversy in the Catholic Church relating to sexual abuse scandals and women’s positions in ministry, and while being the highest ranking woman in the Boston archdiocese, Dearing kept those values “as her true north, even as [she] is battered about by the storm.” She made it clear that she believes that institutions themselves should never be mistaken “for the values that we think they stand for.” She finds separation between religious dogma and the values that she personally upholds in “honesty, human connection, [and] learning.”

Dearing expressed that she was grateful to talk publicly about her relationship to religion because it touched on a relevant challenge not only in her life, but in today’s world. Singh remarked that she was “struck by the role of faith” in Dearing’s work as this idea marks a significant reflection point in the world. Faith has now become “a thing that people have a political stance on … or [something that people] don’t want to talk about.” Dearing confronts this aversion to having difficult conversations; her goal as a radio host is to “set a table where different voices can come … [and encounter] different lives, perspectives, thoughts, and beliefs.” Singh and Dearing’s discussion used the event itself as a lesson in how to create necessary spaces for powerful conversation, using religious faith as an example, and Dearing believes this is critical to maintaining open discourse. 

Education was another integral part to Dearing’s story that exposed a relevant avenue for exploring the power of conversation. Singh noted that the United States “is at a crucial juncture” when it comes to education and accessibility. She asked Dearing if “especially as the humanities and the arts are being so vilified … [if she could] talk about how education … and [her personal] bedrock of educational values” have resonated in her career. Dearing cited the importance of the “formation” she experienced during her undergraduate experience studying literature and emphasized the gravity of protecting this opportunity. 

Dearing explained that with the challenges people are facing when it comes to being able to afford an education, young people are “forced into a valued propositional calculus … [and] forced into a return on investment discussion.” For Dearing, this means that the measurement of education is based on “future earning and speed to employment.” In defining education as formation, she said that “formation has to be affordable” and if this accessibility is not achieved “we will be stuck in a constant ROI [return on investment] cycle.” 

The American education system “does not deliver the same opportunities … [and] does not equalize” when it comes to students coming from low income backgrounds, elaborated Dearing. In the current social climate, education does not level the playing field as it should. The exorbitant cost of attaining a college education only serves to further the wealth gap and Dearing explained students of a lower socioeconomic status going into college do not get the same “bump” from their degrees as students of a higher socioeconomic status. Dearing’s own work in the nonprofit sector — especially at the helm of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston, as well as the former anti-poverty grant fund Boston Rising — has been relevant to these ongoing systemic issues relating to “income inequality, race and public school systems.”

In a concluding metaphor about the world’s ever growing capacity for communication and interconnectedness, Dearing compared the media with a chainsaw — “you can either cut a tree down or start the Texas chainsaw massacre … we often have competing incentives and our disinhibited incentives tend to win.” In her work, especially in her current position at WBUR Radio Boston, Dearing uses this tool for good. She cuts through the “mish mash” of current events and issues to stay true to her calling in serving others through generating productive conversation and building community. 

Singh and Dearing confirmed the power of conversation and community as they illustrated, in Dearing’s words, how “valu[ing] honesty, human connection, [and] learning” can lead people out of “the echo chamber.” Throughout the event, their conversations on religion and education opened up thought-provoking and productive dialogue. Dearing described “[going] to the career center at the University of Michigan [where] they literally did not know what [she] was talking about” when she decided she wanted to work with nonprofits, but now her passion for being a “public voice for good” is more relevant than ever. 

Giving a final testimony to her calling in serving others not just oneself, Dearing said that “we have to be better people — if you don’t make better choices based on us being better people, we will not be better people.” She avowed that in working towards a better future in any aspect of society, the goal should not just be about being a better person — it has to be about building a better community.