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Fostering Justice through Solidarity: The Center for Service and Community Engagement

Although meeting the social justice and community service goals of Jesuit education falls to every member of the broader SLU family, the University officially established the Center for Service and Community Engagement (CSCE) in the fall of 2009 to forge stronger and more effective learning partnerships and service opportunities between SLU and the communities that surround it. Organizationally situated in SLU’s Division of Student Development, the CSCE has grown to currently employ five full-time staff members (including a faculty director) and one part-time program coordinator, as well as several undergraduate and graduate student assistants, all dedicated to connecting students, staff, and faculty to engagement opportunities with over 500 community organizations in the St. Lxniis region. The CSCE’s overarching goals arc threefold: (1) Serve by connecting students, faculty, staff, and alumni to volunteer opportunities in the community, both locally and globally; (2) Learn by promoting community-based scholarship through campus-wide service-learning efforts and university-community research partnerships; and (3) Engage by encouraging personal and social responsibility in SLU volunteers and challenging them to become effective servant leaders and advocates of social justice.

Developing students to become advocates for social justice, beyond whatever service hour goals help to facilitate such growth, has sometimes generated tensions within the SLU community (e.g., “Occupy SLU” in 2014; see Rubio & Janak, 2017). Educating for justice can be an emotionally charged experience, leading some to express frustration with the status quo and to take political action. As we have noted, many other U.S. college campuses support academic programs and experiences designed to increase student civic learning. At SLU, as in Jesuit schools around the world, service to the community calls people to a longer-term commitment to social issues, as well as a deeper personal investment (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2012). This understanding of service calls students into meaningful relationships with the people with whom they serve and from whom they learn, ultimately drawing students into deeper moments of reflection and vocational discernment (Ray, 2016). Political advocacy and activism is a natural outlet for such meaningful relationships, especially for those who come to realize that their service may only be providing temporary solutions to ongoing problems or social issues. Students involved with CSCE programs are encouraged to understand service through a multi-dimensional lens, recognizing, as one student offered, “that outreach and advocacy must work together.”1 Another student began to see the landscape of service organizations in St. Louis and on SLU’s campus in a similarly nuanccd way, viewing some as “focusjed] on short-term needs, such as providing food to the hungry. Others, however, strive to get these people on their own two feet to take care of diemselves.” Students who recognize the balance between meeting individuals’ immediate needs and seeking longterm solutions to ongoing community' issues reflect an attitude expressed by' influential educator and activist, Paulo Freire. Like Freire, our students have taken a critical stance toward charitable acts that simply perpetuate community' needs by failing to address unjust social conditions. As Freire (2000) claimed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book that is often read on Jesuit campuses:

True generosity' consists precisely' in fighting to destroy' the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity' lies in striving so that these hands - whether of individuals or entire peoples - need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.

(p.45)

The Jesuit commitment to social justice similarly distinguishes between acts of charity and deeper acts of solidarity, or as another student working with the CSCE put it plainly: “Working at a soup kitchen is great, but

Justice in Jesuit Education 57 trying to curb hunger in your local community is more effective. If everyone follows this, the world can truly change.” Accordingly, the CSCE aims to help students move, developmentally and personally, from service rooted in a sense of charity to acts of solidarity grounded in a desire for justice.

The experience of solidarity is not easy, but it can be immensely empowering and can set students on a path to deeper investment and participation in their communities. As St. John Paul II has said, solidarity is:

not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people ... [but] a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.

(from Sollicitudo Rci Socialis, no. 38; cited in

Sullivan & Post, 2011, p. 121)

Solidarity with the rest of the human race means the practical awareness that only by working together can the human family effectively meet the challenges of worldwide hunger, ignorance, disease, and violence. Meeting these challenges does not only mean extending care to those who have been ignored or marginalized within society; it also means a commitment to change the economic, political, and social structures that enslave, dehumanize, and destroy human life and dignity (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004).

Faith and politics, as divisive as they can be, also create powerful synergies that can motivate university students (Sokol & Marie, 2019). For this reason, the CSCE has developed specific programs, such as its annual Social Justice and Advocacy Training workshop series, to help students channel their political energies in constructive ways. These workshops encourage students to examine privilege and power while they learn about the political process and how to effectively frame public policy issues. The workshops go hand-in-hand with “Advocacy Day” experiences which involve trips to the Missouri State Capitol to meet face-to-face with elected officials to discuss topics such as health care access, living wages, criminal justice reform, immigration, and food security. Finally, students may also participate in CSCE-sponsored “Policy Pods.” These are small groups of students who meet regularly to prepare for legislative advocacy with elected officials. After students analyze pending legislation and conduct research on its potential impact, they develop advocacy pitches and meet with local legislators. Pods have student leaders who help prepare and guide the group, empowering students to share their voices and perspectives through critical reflection on their own experiences.

Providing students with opportunities to lead or structure their own community service and advocacy experiences, instead of doing the planning and preparation for them, has become a priority for the CSCE. Most of the literature on service-learning and civic engagement suggests that higher levels of autonomy, responsibility, and choice positively impact volunteer experiences and outcomes (Billig, 2000; Sokol & Peterson, 2019). Moreover, self-authorship and personal agency are especially salient themes in the developmental pathways of college students (Baxter-Magolda, 2008). Although the CSCE certainly supports faculty who incorporate service into their classrooms, most community service at SLU is completed through extra-curricular and student-led experiences.

 
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