Catholic universities are well-known for educating their students about the injustices that exist in the world and about the systems that sustain them. Advocacy is a unique avenue through which students can take action in order to affect those systems and make positive changes.
I had little experience with advocacy until I attended the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering (CSMG), a central gathering of Catholic social ministry leaders in the United States. As a student who has never taken a political science class, I came to CSMG with some skepticism regarding its focus on advocacy. I doubted the importance of advocacy, thinking, “Can it really make a difference in the world?” Advocacy is not a topic that the professors in my department address, and I rarely encounter it, even through my work as the Peace and Justice Intern at ACCU. After attending CSMG, I learned how advocacy and Catholic higher education can complement each other.
My view of advocacy began to change during the training for first-time advocates at CSMG. The advocacy coach, Chris West, began by explaining that advocacy has its basis in the Bible. In chapter 10 of Exodus, Moses goes to the Egyptian Pharaoh to speak on behalf of the Israelites, who were among the most vulnerable people in Egypt at that time. Likewise, in the 21st century, CSMG participants (including university students, faculty, and staff) meet with U.S. lawmakers in order to promote the needs of those who are today the most vulnerable – the poor, the hungry, immigrants, and refugees. While this biblical analogy impressed me, I remained skeptical because my voice is only one of the 11.5 million people in Ohio, my home state.
Next, however, West revealed that congresspersons draw upon three resources when making their decisions. They consider: (1) their party’s political platform, (2) their own moral compass and personal values, and (3) whatever input they receive from their constituents. Considering his last point, I realized that congresspersons have no way of knowing what their constituents want unless voters voice those opinions. Perhaps, I thought, if a congressperson was unsure or indifferent about an issue, our advocacy could result in a vote that would benefit the most vulnerable. As a student at a Catholic university, my visit potentially has even more influence because of the training I receive in effective communication, and because my voice is joined with the rest of the Church.
Information Motivates Action
After the initial advocacy training, all CSMG attendees had the chance to learn about a variety of social justice issues, including the key advocacy issues we were taking to the Hill. While listening to the plenary speakers, conversing with representatives from various Catholic social justice-oriented organizations, and attending breakout sessions, I felt as if my brain were about to explode with all of the information that it was absorbing. While I am accustomed to analyzing information in class, it was exciting to gather information that I would soon be using in a real-world situation to encourage positive change.
My favorite breakout session at CSMG was “Encountering Christ in the Heart of the World on Campus,” during which I met other college students to discuss the social justice-related activities on our respective campuses. After learning about issues that resonated with my personal experience and reflecting with other dedicated Catholic students, I felt even more inspired to take the Church’s message to the Hill.
Next, attendees broke into groups organized by state. The Ohio group designated a spokesperson (usually a college student!) for each issue we were bringing to the attention of our Congressional representatives. We practiced our statements, sharpening our skills in presenting a convincing case.
Later that week, the advocacy day arrived; our delegation hopped on the Washington Metro and trekked through the Capitol area, searching for the correct buildings. First, my Ohio delegation visited Senator Sherrod Brown. We all signed in at his office, delighted by the Ohio decorations, and met one of his staffers in a conference room. Our spokespersons took turns presenting their issues and the specific action steps we wished the Senator to take. The staffer listened attentively, explained the Senator’s involvement with those issues, and sometimes promised the Senator’s ongoing support. Next, we went to Senator Rob Portman’s office, repeating the process. After finishing the visits, I felt hope because the staffers were so attentive and engaging. I believe our visit impressed the staffers because nearly all of us were student representatives from various Ohio colleges.
While I cannot be sure about the exact outcomes of my group’s visit, I have faith that our presence influenced the staffers and will positively affect our Senators’ decisions. After this experience, I feel that I have a greater understanding of the importance of advocacy, because my individual actions will never have the same wide reach as Congressional action. Additionally, I was made aware of the special roles Catholic higher education and other Catholic organizations play in government and advocacy. Through the programming and support available on my Catholic campus, I have learned about Catholic Social Teaching and I have been formed deeply as a concerned citizen and a compassionate Catholic. My Catholic education led my fellow students and me to be effective witnesses to the Church’s social concerns on the Hill.
Before this experience, I did not understand the connection between politics and my responsibility as a person of faith. CSMG made me realize how political policies affect my brothers and sisters in Christ, and that therefore I have a responsibility to protect them through political advocacy.
Andrea Price is a graduate student at Georgetown University and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Thank you to Austin Schafer of St. Thomas More Newman Center at The Ohio State University for the picture.