I have worked in Jesuit higher education for the entirety of my career. When I did my job search out of grad school, I kept telling my friends and mentors that I wanted to be at “an institution that was about something.” I could not for the life of me articulate what the “something” was, but after (unknowingly) applied to over a dozen Jesuit institutions across the country, I realized the Jesuit mission and identity was that something I was craving.
I often reflect on my career choice, given that I do not identify as Christian or religious. I am also a raging liberal feminist, so how is it that I find myself in Catholic higher education? It is because I so readily identify with the mission of Jesuit institutions, which is, in part, the idea of forming men and women for and with others. (Sidenote: This phrase is clearly stuck in a gender binary, one of the many areas of work to go in Jesuit higher ed.) This idea of being not just for others, but truly with them makes sense to me as a student affairs educator, and is an easy way for students – who are often grappling with extensive privilege – to understand that sometimes they need to pipe down, listen to the community, connect with marginalized populations, and put others ideas of change before their own.
This has been shown to me in a variety of ways, but none more so than in my involvement with alternative spring break trips. I was lucky enough to accompany students to Washington, D.C., Morelos, Mexico, rural West Virginia, the Navajo Nation in Arizona, and to the border of Arizona and Mexico. Each of these trips were unique, life giving, challenging, frustrating, and affirming in their own ways, but the trip that changed my view of students and social justice was my very first trip to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2009.
We were sent to D.C. only a month after President Obama had been elected and were charged with examining the issues of poverty and homelessness in the nation’s capital through a variety of lenses. We assisted at a religious homeless shelter, a secular shelter, an independent living shelter, an organization that helps clients who are homeless earn money through selling newspapers that were created and published by members of the homeless community, and also volunteered with an organization that worked with homeless children and their families.
The first day of our trip we were not scheduled for any service experiences, so we decided to see the monuments. It was a warm, unusually sunny day for late February, so the student leaders decided to have a reflection at the base of the Washington monument. The reflection started fairly low-risk with students sharing their expectations of the trip and expectations of each other. It slowly got deeper when our leaders asked us to share our experiences with people who were homeless and what our stereotypes were of this particular population.
It suddenly got very quiet. One of the members slowly built up their courage to tell their story. This member was an avid runner and often ran in the early morning hours to beat the heat of the day. One morning, only a few weeks before this trip, she recounted running past a man she had encountered many times at her service learning site at a local shelter. Like so many members of the homeless community, this gentleman struggled with mental health issues, exacerbated by living on the streets without adequate medical care or a regular routine or structure. This student recounted the man noticing her run by and then he quickly started running after her, yelling that he planned to sexually assault her since no one was around the relatively quiet morning streets of L.A.
The rest of the group immediately went silent. I was unsure what this silence meant. Through tears in her eyes, the member told the group that she was able to run fast enough to escape any harm from the man and make it back to campus. Another member gently asked if she had reported this to Campus Safety or LAPD. The group member shook her head and said she couldn’t bring herself to report the man. She said it was not the man’s fault that he was mentally unstable, living on the streets, desperate for resources, or victim of the systems that are created to perpetuate socioeconomic separations between the classes. She said she refused to report him, because he would be yet another example for law enforcement to prove that homeless people were violent, unstable, and unworthy of trust. She said that the best way she could improve the situation would be to continue to volunteer with communities in need and that the threat of violence she experienced paled in comparison to the actual violence that members of homeless communities experience every day by societies that have forgotten them or chose to ignore them.
I was dumbfounded. How was it that this 19-year-old was able to see past her own safety to the structural inequities that likely contributed to this situation? I like to think that it was at least in part due to this student’s Jesuit education. The education that taught her people were more than just problems to solve or mouths to feed, but are dynamic, multifaceted, and held multiple identities at once. A Jesuit priest once told me that service doesn’t matter. We can do all the meal handouts, or home building, or service trips me want, but if those experiences don’t shake us to our core and change how we approach the world, our own privileges, and our brokenness, then nothing will change. This student’s story changed me. What story will change you?
This post is part of our ongoing #SAtogether series on celebrating moments of success in the realm of social justice. The stories we share highlight the idea that no win is too small when it comes to bridging gaps and making a connection despite differences. For more information, please see the intro post by Sinclair Ceasar. Check out other posts in this series too!