From Students to Labor Activists: Program Gives Interns Social Justice Experience

By Guntzel, Jeff | National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

From Students to Labor Activists: Program Gives Interns Social Justice Experience


Guntzel, Jeff, National Catholic Reporter


At the end of a long table in a brightly lit meeting room in Chicago, Maureen Sullivan sits with a Latino worker and his family. Across from them two staffers from the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, a nationwide network seeking to organize the religious community around labor issues, question the man on difficulties he has been having with his employer. He is worried he might lose his job.

Sullivan, a 20-year-old American Studies major at Georgetown University in Washington, is interpreting. She has spent much of the last two months in meetings like this. Along with seven others from Catholic colleges and universities around the country, Sullivan spent her summer vacation this year participating in the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice Catholic Social Teaching Internship.

Now in its third year, the program places students with interfaith groups around the country where they work as advocates for low-wage workers.

The students, who receive college credit for participating in the eight-week program, begin their internships with a weeklong orientation in Chicago, home of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice national office. The orientation includes an introduction to Catholic social teaching, theological discussions and a comprehensive, if brief, crash course in organizing and labor history.

The orientation, said Sullivan, was "my first introduction to labor law, labor history and all of that."

But for Sullivan and others like her in the program, finding a place in the world of labor organizing was not a big stretch.

"Almost all of them have already done all kinds of outreach," said Sr. Barbara Pfarr, a School Sister of Notre Dame who coordinates the interfaith committee's program. "They've done their summer programs in Appalachia, they've done their spring break in Haiti. They're on the social justice committees in their own schools. So they're all highly involved in these activities already.

"All the things that we've been talking about forever in social justice circles, things like systemic change, building community among diverse people, leadership development, the dignity of the person, combating poverty--all of those things we always talk about and just kind of dance around--the labor community has an agenda for," Pfarr said.

And no time is wasted introducing the eager students to that agenda.

"Our first day we had an action," recalled Eden Laurin, a communications major at Chicago's Vincentian-sponsored DePaul University. "They sent us to the Congress Hotel. We were on the picket line. I went home to my mom and said, 'You'll never believe this.'"

Laurin, 20, spent part of her internship working on a 10-week course for low-wage workers looking to enter into the world of skilled labor but unable to pass union apprenticeship tests without some assistance. At the beginning, she was nervous. "I'd done stuff with social justice but nothing hands on, where we are actually talking to people and making phone calls and meeting them," she said.

The special empowerment the Catholic Social Teaching interns receive is no accident, said Pfarr. "It's very intentional. I've worked at places before where we were always looking for interns and volunteers and new young organizers and we couldn't find anybody. Here we're tripping over young people because they do get responsibility right away."

Stephanie Alaimo, 18, a design major who just finished her first year at DePaul, recalls that instant responsibility with an "I can laugh about this now" sort of smile. "My first day it was like, 'Here, make these calls!'" she said.

"We give them a big dose of experience," said Pfarr.

Part of that experience is crossing paths with people many of the interns may have remained isolated from without the intervention of an organization like interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

Alaimo, who learned of the committee through a Spanish language program that had her teaching courses in English as a Second Language to small groups, spent her internship as a worker advocate handling dozens of cases. …

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