January 15 presents the opportunity to reflect on the service and life of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was a man grounded in faith, service, and love. A civil rights activist rooted in his Christian beliefs, Dr. King used the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight against racial inequality and injustice, and advocate for an entire people. Reflecting on the life of Dr. King is the perfect way to enter into the liturgical season of Lent, a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent offers the opportunity to give ourselves in service, which can be done by tending to the physical, mental, or spiritual needs of others. Across the country, students from Catholic colleges and universities are following in the footsteps of Dr. King — and responding to the Lenten call of almsgiving — by creating programs that benefit the most vulnerable of society.
Students at Seton Hill University are taking action and promoting fair trade through their online business, Gray Hemlock. According to co-founder Fitzgerald “Fitz” Robertson, Gray Hemlock is “the online marketplace for the most affordable women’s fair trade jewelry in all the world.” Robertson created Gray Hemlock in December 2016 with fellow student Halie Torris as a way to sell affordable jewelry. In January 2017, Robertson and Torris watched “The True Cost,” a documentary that “highlights some of the negative working conditions in which people in the manufacturing system work,” according to the students. After watching this film, they realized that Gray Hemlock could have contributed in a small way to the system shown in the film. As a result, the two students reinvented their business as an effort that supports humanity. They decided they would partner only with organizations that could guarantee that their products were made “with fair wages, proper working conditions, and no child labor,” according to Robertson. It is also essential that artisan groups that partner with Gray Hemlock benefit from the profits. This is done by showing images to consumers that allow them to recognize that there are real people making all of the jewelry, people with families and struggles. There are also opportunities for artisans to take courses on topics such as financial literacy and healthful eating.
Seton Hill has been a campus that has given Robertson and Torris the opportunity to flourish as business partners. The two students credit their professors for helping them “inside and outside of the classroom” by providing coursework relevant to their interests in fair trade and by providing advice and resources. Gray Hemlock has also been a great platform to inform others about the importance of fair trade. Torris notes that “most people don’t know [what fair trade is] unless it’s explained on a basic level,” which is why the two students have started a conversation about fair trade through their business, which is rooted in service, love, and advocacy.
Students from St. Edward’s University are also taking the act of serving others into their own hands by advocating for those in vulnerable situations. Students Carlos Alpuche, Ricardo Apanco-Sarabia, Gloria Perez, and Joseph Ramirez are co-founders of YOUnite, a nonprofit that helps immigrant students understand their rights. These four students had the idea to create YOUnite when they attended Austin’s LevelUp Institute and were instructed to create a start-up to help solve a social problem. YOUnite was originally founded to be a “web-based toolbox for immigrants looking to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)” protection. The students sought to make the application process “approachable, accessible, easy, and become the ‘TurboTax’ of DACA,” according to Ramirez.
The vision of YOUnite took a turn with the election of Donald Trump and the changing of national policy regarding DACA. According to the founders of YOUnite, they knew they needed to show students at St. Edward’s that “no matter what our political stance, we will stand together to find solutions.” In the months that followed, the students channeled their energy into a campus group that would meet the immediate needs of immigrants. They created “Monarchs on the Hilltop” in order to assist undocumented families on and off campus through a variety of services and resources. Ramirez notes that “Monarchs on the Hilltop” will “talk to leaders from the Diocese of Austin and Catholic Charities Austin to inform them of [Monarchs’] efforts regarding food access for students and how they hope the two groups could hopefully support them.” St. Edward’s has been an ideal campus for these students to serve the immigrant community because of its mission of social justice and advocacy.
St. Catherine’s and St. Thomas joint School of Social Work professor Katharine Hill incorporates voting registration and engagement into her classes to empower clients to have a voice.” Photo by Mark Brown.
Professors at of St. Thomas are empowering students to advocate in the classroom and combine study and service. Katharine Hill, associate professor at St. Katherine’s and St. Thomas joint school of social work, has begun to “ as noted by St. Catherine’s and St.Thomas news article. Hill explains, “As social workers, we talk about needing to advocate for social policies that will help our clients. But we never talk about the fact that the people who make these decisions are elected officials, and that social workers should be a part of that.” By working directly with both policymakers and those experiencing homelessness, students are able to visualize their goal of enacting social change. They are given tools in the classroom that help analyze which populations are less likely to vote and why, and also the benefits that come from voting. Hill adds, “A lot of students had not thought about voting. But by the end of the semester, they felt a sense of power that comes with voting and understood how voting also recognizes their clients’ humanity.”
The second time Hill incorporated this project into her classroom was during the 2016 presidential election. Students visited the Salvation Army and The Link, a Minnesota nonprofit that supports young homeless people and families. “Students helped register individuals there to vote,” Hill explains, “and passed out information about local and state ballot items and how to get to polling places on Election Day.” Hill notes the sense of empowerment that students felt by telling people their voice matters. In the end, students registered 400 individuals to vote and came away empowered by the visible change they were making. Hill says the course “fits with the larger Catholic framework to value every person and community for the common good.” In the future Hill hopes to act as a resource and contact for other colleges and universities that seek to incorporate voting and voter engagement into their curricula.
It is empowering to reflect on the variety of ways that Catholic colleges and universities are taking activism and advocacy in their own hands. Students and faculty are seeing a need and are taking action to alleviate this need. These campuses are also continuing the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. in unique ways that are centered on his mission of peace and equality. Entering into the season of Lent offers us the perfect opportunity to reflect on how we are serving the least of our neighbors and serving God to our fullest extent possible.