Engaging Students in Economic Justice

August 4, 2015—“In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, many Jesuit colleges and universities had labor schools,” explains professor of history Joseph McCartin. “They were places that educated not just the students of the schools, but workers in the community on their rights as workers. They promoted a kind of ethic of labor justice.”

And while such labor schools disappeared after the fifties, the issues that spurned them have only grown and evolved.

According to McCartin, “We’re at a point in time where we’re coming into a completely new era economically. We’re leaving the era that was dominated by large, vertically integrated, mass production organizations. We’re moving to an era that’s dominated increasingly by supply chains, by disaggregated corporations, by an emerging on-demand economy.”

Trends like these are exactly the reason that McCartin helped found the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor (KI), for which he serves as executive director, at Georgetown in 2009. An independent research, innovation, and policy center, the KI aims to influence conversations about the changing economy and the impact it has on workers and on the working poor in particular.

McCartin and KI staff members Vail Kohnert-Yount (SFS’13), Alex Taliadoros (SFS’14), and Jessica Chilin-Hernández recently shared more about their work with the College’s Elyse Rudolph.

Rudolph: The Kalmanovitz Initiative emphasizes the importance of “creative strategies and innovative public policy to improve workers lives.” Why do you think creativity and innovation are so important when tackling labor and justice issues?

Chilin-Hernández: Our demographics are changing. It’s becoming a more multi-cultural society. It’s important to know how to be creative in order to know how to engage different communities whose identities intersect with race, class, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender. So it’s very important to have creativity because without it, we can’t come up with new models to communicate with different groups of people and get them to talk to each other.

McCartin: Because we’re facing a completely different economy, we have to be really creative in the solutions that we come up with to try to address the problems that come along with that economy.

Kohnert-Yount: Engaging young people in these issues—who have energy and creativity to solve these very long-standing, intractable problems and some that are very new—is our strength.

Rudolph: What draws students to labor issues and to the KI?

McCartin: I think the real turning point was the Occupy movement several years ago, because that crystallized the conversation around inequality. It’s really engaged young people. We see a bunch of students who come at that question from a lot of different perspectives, but have been engaged by it.

Kohnert-Yount: Many of our students come and get involved with us because they’re interested in these issues for a variety of reasons. Maybe their faith tradition forms their interest in economic justice. Perhaps their mother was a hotel maid and they understand what it’s like to try to support a family on the minimum wage. Perhaps they took a class with somebody like Father Carnes, who’s very interested in engaging with these issues of inequality, and they come to us from an academic interest or perspective.

Chilin-Hernández: For some students, prior to becoming involved in KI, they’ve done a lot of service projects, where they go into the community and they provide a service. They come into the KI looking for the next step. [They ask]: “Now that we’ve provided a service, why is there a need for that service to begin with? What problem is that service trying to address that the government or policies are not addressing already?”

Taliadoros: Georgetown has always drawn a lot of really passionate activist students who come here and do a lot of great work. There used to be a big gap in knowing how to translate that into a career and a job after college. KI really draws a lot of students in now, and helps them transition into turning their passion into a fulltime career. Even though labor is our main focus, we’ll also draw students that are interested in environmental [causes], in human rights, non-violence, socioeconomic/racial justice issues, and we’ll help them in the same way we help connect kids who are interested in labor.

Rudolph: So what does student involvement with the KI look like?

McCartin: One of the most important, I think, is the Day Labor Exchange Program. Twice a week, our students go out into DC to places where immigrant day laborers congregate. They teach English as a second language. They also learn to advocate for these workers, teaching them how to file complaints, advocating on their behalf to try to get driver’s licenses. Our students have played a real leadership role there.

We’ve developed a summer organizing fellowship. [The fellows] are involved in organizing projects in the DC area for local groups. They’re already emerging as young leaders involving issues with the working poor. We’ve developed a research in action fellowship. Students are paired with organizations in the public interest where they’ve done research on issues.

We’ve also created an alternative spring break trip. Each year we take 12-15 students and we give them a deep immersion experience in what’s going on in DC in a way that they don’t normally get exposed to.

Kohnert-Yount: This is actually how I got involved with the KI and with worker justice issues when I was a sophomore. I was lucky enough to find the KI after I signed up to lead the Worker Justice Alternative Spring Break trip. When I think about the work I do to engage students, [I want] to provide an opportunity for students to deepen their commitment to these issues, to deepen their commitment to economic justice here at Georgetown and beyond Georgetown and find ways they can make this commitment to justice their life, if they so choose going forward after college. The KI definitely provided that for me when I was student. It’s a real honor to be engaged with this work for a new generation of Georgetown students.

Rudolph: What issues does the KI hope to address in the years ahead?

McCartin: We have a number of students here who are immigrants and some of them are immigrants without documentation. This is one of the places where the university has been a real leader in defending and protecting the rights of students who come from that background.

Chilin-Hernández: When it comes to undocumented students, there are some real challenges that they encounter in higher education. One of them is that staff and faculty may not understand what it’s like to be undocumented, may not understand what it’s like to come from a family of mixed status. Because of the nature of our work–the intersection of immigration and labor–we really have an academic and personal understanding of what that’s like. Students find not only comfort, but also a safe space here in the KI. This coming year, we’re hoping to continue encouraging undocumented students to be involved with our work at KI as well as to share in the responsibility of supporting undocumented students across the university.

McCartin: Another area I think we’re really excited about is we’re helping people around the country to learn how to do research about municipal finance.

Taliadoros: It’s basically labor and community coming together, working together, in a partnership and looking into some of these deeper, darker aspects of how a government is funded, how a municipal or school district is funded, and the different financial deals that are involved in that. There are things that are intrinsically kind of dull and people don’t pay attention to them, but there’s a lot of money wasted. [This issue has] picked up a lot of steam and gotten a lot of press coverage, especially with what happened in Detroit and what’s happening now with Chicago and their finances. It’s looking into these deals, looking at what the terms are and how they impact the community. How it prevents school districts and cities and states from being able to fund public services and do the things they need to do for their residents. Mapping out the financial impact of these deals has transformed a lot of campaigns around the country and hopefully will lead to some significant policy change.

McCartin: Alex has convinced me that understanding [this] is really crucial to fixing part of the problem of the way some cities are now budgeting. Until those kinds of things can be fixed, it’s hard to address a lot of issues that are hollowing out the middle class.

The other thing I would say we’re really excited about going forward is this idea of promoting the Jesuit Just Employment framework that we’ve developed here at Georgetown. Vail has taken a lot of leadership with that. She’s traveled to campuses around the country already.

Kohnert-Yount: We’ve created a model just employment policy based on the one Georgetown has. It creates a high-roads standard whereby all workers on campus receive a living wage, have the right to organize a union respected, have the right to a safe and harassment-free workplace, and other benefits in line with our Catholic and Jesuit values.

Rudolph: How do Georgetown’s values and KI’s goals interconnect?

Kohnert-Young: I know this sounds very cheesy, but there is this Aristotle quote: “The great end of life is not knowledge but action.”

McCartin: We always rely on Vail to get really deep.

Kohnert-Young: One of the things I value most about my Georgetown education and about my career here is that Georgetown is very much a place that understands that. I think the KI is one of the best examples of that philosophy, that we must put education in the service of others. It has been a great honor to be involved with the center as a student and to work here.

McCartin: At its heart this is still an educational enterprise. This is a way of looking at education in its deepest and its truest sense, as a way of understanding the world in order to make it better.

Related Information

To learn more about the Kalmanovitz Initiative, visit their blog, or connect with them on Facebook and on Twitter (@GeorgetownKILWP)