Sheila G. Davaney ’71

Sheila G. Davaney ‘71

Written by Nataly Cifuentes ’16

Sheila Davaney Yearbook Picture 1971

Sheila G. Davaney ’71

Sheila Davaney ’71 attended Manhattanville at a pivotal time in American history. The late 60s and early 70s were times of immense social upheaval. In the midst of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, the student body engaged in the local and global controversial issues of the day, including anti-War protests around the country and sit-ins and building take-overs on campus. Davaney remembered, “We were in an environment where our understanding of the political sphere, inequality, and social injustice was very strong.”

Although Davaney was initially interested in pursuing a degree in Philosophy, the involvement of the Religion Department with the social unrest was what drove her to graduate with a degree in Religion in 1971. She is grateful for the great education she received at Manhattanville and the friendships made along the way.

After taking a year off after graduation to travel internationally, Davaney pursued her interest in religion at Harvard University. “I was shaped intellectually by the work I did at Manhattanville, especially with the Religion Department which linked hard intellectual work with a broader concern for the social sphere,” Davaney said. “I went into graduate school already trying to connect those social and political commitments with intellectual work.”

Davaney’s theology class at Harvard led her in the direction of theology and modern Western thought, which she would later teach for 27 years at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver focusing on the modern period from the Enlightenment to the present. Eventually, pragmatism, historicism and feminism caught her interest and became the concentration of her research. Davaney began writing prolifically on these topics. Some of her works include: Historicism: The Once and Future Challenge For Theology, Identity and the Politics of Scholarship in the Study of Religion (edited with José Cabezón); Pragmatic Historicism: A Theology for the Twenty-first Century; Converging on Culture: Theologians in Dialogue with Cultural Analysis and Criticism (edited with Kathryn Tanner and Delwin Brown) and Horizons in Feminist Theology (edited with Rebecca Chopp).

Davaney was also on the editorial staff of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the leading academic journal in the study of religion. Through her work on the journal, she was awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation, one of the nation’s leading foundations that works on issues of social transformation and justice. The grant focused on internationalization in the study of religion and brought scholars from all over the world to dialogue with one another. A second grant from Ford launched the online magazine, Religion Dispatches.  Religion Dispatches seeks to bring more expert voices and more progressive perspectives on religion into a media landscape that is characterized by misinformation and conservative interpretations of religion. The publication is now housed at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

As her involvement with the Ford Foundation grew, she was offered a position at the Foundation as their program officer in the Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative. Although she felt that being a professor was a wonderful career, Davaney was also interested in collaborating with the Ford Foundation to turn ideas into actions inspiring real change on the ground and in public policy.

Because the Foundation’s goal was to create a program that was more socially and politically oriented, Davaney built an initiative that focused on the intersection of faith groups and various issues that were important to the Foundation, such as immigration rights, immigration reform, and reproductive rights and justice. In addition, Davaney supported community organizing groups such as the Pico National Network, which works on issues of poverty and racial justice, and Interfaith Workers Justice, an organization focused on the intersection of faith and labor movements seeking to protect and extend the rights of low-wage workers.

In addition to supporting advocacy and activist organizations, Davaney’s work at the Ford Foundation was concerned with changing public discourse around religion due to the media’s consistent presentation of religion as exclusively conservative and hostile to progressive views and organizations. Davaney argued that this common misconception “does not reflect reality, the work on the ground, or the diversity of opinions and values in this country and around the world.” Extending the efforts that she began with Religion Dispatches, Davaney funded increased polling on religion as well as media training and media strategy efforts for more progressive groups.

Since leaving the Ford Foundation, Davaney has been a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington, DC. CAP is the nation’s leading progressive think tank, and as a senior fellow, Davaney has worked with the Faith and Progressive Policy team. Recently, Davaney finished a report titled The Progressive and Social Justice Faith Movement: Portrait and Prospects for which she is currently setting up a website.

Sheila G. Davaney '71

Sheila G. Davaney ’71

While recognizing the challenges that a career in the Academia present today (years of expensive education, few tenure track jobs, often inadequate compensation), Davaney describes being an academic as a terrific choice for her. It allowed her to bring together her various interests and commitments while still being able to balance her family life and her career. Davaney said, “I think I have been very lucky to have a very meaningful and successful career. I got to do what I wanted, and I got paid for it. I received the recognition and support of my field and was able to play a role in developing my discipline through my teaching, scholarship and participation in organizations, Boards and journals. I loved being part of my professional organizations and contributing that way. Certainly the balance between having a wonderful family and having a successful and meaningful career has made me the happiest. Moreover, in recent years, I have also gotten to contribute more directly to advocacy efforts, activist work, and the policy arena.  That, too, has been immensely gratifying.”

Davaney’s advice to current Manhattanville students is to take risks and find what is meaningful to them, because it will make a difference at the end of the day. Don’t settle for a life that doesn’t challenge you or present you with the opportunity to contribute to the wider world.

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