At Fairfield University, students in the course Politics of Humanitarian Action, taught by Dr. Janie Leatherman, partnered with Scholars at Risk (SAR), an international network of higher education institutions and associations dedicated to protecting scholars and promoting academic freedom around the world, to advocate for human rights in Iran. Specifically, the students worked on the case of Dr. Mohammad Hossein Rafiee, a retired Iranian chemistry professor imprisoned in Tehran since June 2015. According to verdict records, Rafiee, who had a history of social and peace activism, was arrested without warrant and sentenced to five years in prison for “spreading propaganda against the system by giving interviews to media who are against the state.” Fairfield students traveled to New York City to meet with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights on Iran, and subsequently visited the United Nations. The students wrote a 50-page background report for SAR on Dr. Rafiee’s case and avenues for advocacy in relation to several key stakeholders.
In September 2016, Dr. Rafiee was released on medical furlough due to poor health and was allowed to recuperate at home, without guards.
“SAR is so grateful to Professor Leatherman and her students for their research and advocacy on this case,” said Clare Farne Robinson, Scholars at Risk Advocacy Director. “Their efforts were instrumental in moving Dr. Rafiee’s case forward, and specifically led to inclusion of Professor Rafiee in a recent report by UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran. But beyond that, and perhaps most important, they provided much-needed hope to his family.”
Working for human rights reflects Fairfield’s Catholic commitment to defending the dignity of the human person. The course, Politics of Humanitarian Action, provides a way to enact this commitment and serves as the launch course of a new minor in Humanitarian Action. The minor, as envisioned, provides opportunities to students for service learning and experiential learning, connecting theory learned in the classroom with the realities of the world. Read more about the Fairfield students’ work here.
Solidarity is sometimes understood as the bedrock of Catholic Social Teaching. In a 2014 address to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Pope Francis noted that “solidarity is the attitude that enables people to reach out to others and establish mutual relations on this sense of brotherhood that overcomes differences and limits, and inspires us to seek the common good together.”
One way to live this attitude is by promoting initiatives related to the dignity of work and workers’ rights, poverty alleviation, and economic justice, all themes ingrained in Catholic Social Teaching. Many Catholic colleges live solidarity through partnerships with the community to address these themes, including through relationships with groups like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic anti-poverty program.
One example of living solidarity with the local community can be found at St. John’s University (SJU) in its partnership with the Don Bosco Workers (DBW), a local “grassroots community-organizing group” funded by CCHD. The group advocates “for full and fair participation in the labor market” through the leadership of “Latino immigrant day laborers and other low-income workers.” For three years, SJU has partnered with DBW to bring an example of fighting for worker justice directly to students.
Under the leadership of Meghan Clark, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology and religious studies, the partnership has become a fruitful relationship. Each semester, DBW representatives visit Clark’s students in her course on CST. According to Clark, “DBW has shared their stories with around 150 students over four campus visits.” The visits have led to the creation of the Solidarity Festival, which flowed from a desire for “a bigger conversation,” Clark notes. In April 2016, the festival entailed a day of on-campus presentations, including one that featured DBW in a panel on wage theft, as well as a display of social justice artwork, SJU Fair Trade, SJU CRS Ambassadors, GLOBE (the university’s academic program on microfinancing), and economics students’ research on forced labor in Brazil. The day ended with a Mass for worker justice celebrated by Fr. Patrick Griffin, the director of SJU’s Vincentian Center for Church and Society.
Clark emphasizes that the partnership flows from SJU’s Vincentian identity: “The Vincentian question is ‘What must be done?’ Through conversation with DBW, students see both how the worker center asks, discerns, and pragmatically answers the question, ‘What must be done?’ with respect to wage theft and exploitation of day laborers.” The DBW-SJU partnership is a locus of real-life applications of CST.
Another example of a CCHD-campus partnership can be found at St. Thomas University in Miami, FL which works with People Acting for Community Together (PACT), a local coalition of faith-based organizations and church communities that focuses on social and economic justice. According to Darrell Arnold, Ph.D., secretary of PACT, professor of philosophy, and interim dean of the Biscayne College at the university, the organizations and their representatives hale mostly from underserved and disadvantaged areas of Miami. Through his courses, Arnold brings his ethics students on a yearly immersion trip through the university’s Center for Community Engagement to Immokalee, FL, where they spend time with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The coalition is a ground-up, “worker-based” organization known for its work in “social responsibility, human trafficking, and gender-based violence at work,” according to its website. When students go to Immokalee, they tend to “walk away shocked,” Arnold says, by the injustices endured by the community. Many students return to Immokalee and participate in activism and advocacy with the coalition.
In addition to the Immokalee immersion trips, Arnold reports that students participate in three immersion trips to Haiti, where they continue to promote worker justice, as well as fair trade initiatives. In Haiti, students have the choice to work with a fair trade coffee company, a women’s artisan group, or a solar panel project. Each of these projects and the work with PACT and the coalition are unique in that they are mutually beneficial to the students, organizations, and the communities. Arnold says that the immersion trips and the work with PACT flow from a “subculture of professors and scholars that are interested in social justice,” which helps St. Thomas engage with CST in various disciplines, so that students, faculty, and staff might more fully live their values.
At the Seattle University School of Law, students are invited to use their legal skills in solidarity with the local community. A Jesuit institution, Seattle University takes very seriously the call to promote and work toward social justice. The School of Law does so in a number of ways, such as the Frances Perkins Post-Graduate Fellowship, sponsored by the Access to Justice Institute (ATJI) and the Unemployment Law Project with support from private donors. The institute “creates opportunities for law students to work in non-profits and organizations that really do try and serve the most needy” in the local community, according to the 2015 Perkins Fellow Andrés E. Muñoz. Muñoz has been working full time for the past year at the Unemployment Law Project, a not-for-profit law firm that “represents unemployed workers for little to no cost.” He says that the not-for-profit nature of the project “allows us to really represent people who need it and who otherwise would not have an attorney by their side at their hearings.” Through the Perkins fellowship, Muñoz has been able not only to gain invaluable “legal practice that can transfer well,” but also “to provide outreach to immigrant and refugee communities.” He says the Unemployment Law Project “recognizes that those groups of people are even more disadvantaged in many ways when it comes to any aspect of the legal system. Unemployment is no exception.”
The associate director of ATJI and director of postgraduate fellowships Jennifer Werdell believes that “the school’s Jesuit identity informs our commitment to social justice.” She continues, “Our work at ATJI and where we steer students within that is largely driven by community needs.”
Muñoz echoes the organic, ground-up nature of the institute’s work in his work at the law project. He says the populations of people he serves “need a voice,” a voice that he has been amplifying for the past year. Through their work, Werdell, Muñoz, and the School of Law exemplify what it means to extend the work of a university far beyond campus to the margins of society, where the need is most intense.
These examples show that Catholic colleges and universities are no strangers to working with marginalized and disadvantaged populations. Through the work of St. John’s University with the Don Bosco Workers, St. Thomas University with PACT, and Seattle University School of Law with local non-profit organizations such as the Unemployment Law Project, Catholic higher education clearly exemplifies ways in which the Church can be in solidarity with others in the community and work together to advance the well-being of all. In so doing, Catholic higher education not only upholds the long history of Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic commitment to justice, but also the commitment to, in the words of the Holy Father, “seek the common good together.” These examples have shown what it means to truly be the body of Christ manifest.
Justine Worden is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) University offers several resources and ways for your campus to engage in Catholic Social Teaching and climate change activism. One of the most prominent ways in which CRS University fosters student and faculty engagement is through the Student Ambassador Program. By getting involved with or starting chapters at their universities and colleges, students and faculty will have the opportunity to build their leadership skills through learning about and educating their campuses on poverty and injustice around the world. Visit the CRS University website for more information on how to get involved with your university’s chapter or even start your own!
Additionally, CRS University offers the CRS Global Campus program. This is designed to promote global solidarity by forming an institutional partnership between CRS and the member colleges and universities. The partnership gives Global Campuses access to training and professional development, CRS staff and partner speakers and academic and campus resources. For more information on the program and how to get your campus involved, please visit the Global Campus program website.
Specifically related to environmental justice, CRS University has begun the “I am Climate Change” social media campaign, which is directed towards college students. In addition to instructions on how to get involved on social media, the website has a full calendar of campaign events, including rallies, advocacy trainings, and more. The campaign also offers an easy format to contact your senator and representative, with a pre-written letter urging the addressee to approve funding for President Obama’s $500 million request for the Green Climate Fund. “I am Climate Change” encourages followers to reflect upon and live by the mantra: “I am the cause. I am the solution. I am climate change” and to use the hashtag #iamclimatechange where ever possible.