As a Vincentian University, Saint John’s University (SJU) has long been committed to the pursuit of justice and charity, and has successfully combined the two in its three-year long partnership with the Don Bosco Workers (DBW), a Port Chester, NY based organization funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). DBW is a ground-up community organizing group that advocates for worker and economic justice.
Thanks to the leadership of Meghan Clark, Ph.D., assistant professor of Theology and Religious Studies at SJU, the campus-community partnership has blossomed into a fruitful relationship where DBW representatives visit Clark’s students in her course on Catholic Social Teaching. The representatives engage with students around issues of wage theft, local worker justice and the DBW-CCHD relationship.
This year the class presented their research on fair trade initiatives and forced labor in Brazil in SJU’s inaugural Solidarity Festival. The Festival entailed a full day of presentations, featuring DBW, the social justice artwork of Sol Aramendi, SJU Fair Trade, SJU CRS Ambassadors, and GLOBE, SJU’s academic program on microfinancing. DBW participated in a panel on wage theft, and 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.
Dr. Clark comments that the partnership flows from the Vincentian concern for charity and justice, and helps students conceptualize the answer to the Vincentian question “‘What must be done’ with respect to wage theft and exploitation of day laborers.”
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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.