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Students Gabriela Varela (left), 16, and Elizabeth Fajardo, 16, of Cristo Rey St Martin in Waukegan Ill. practice an advocacy meeting during a training session as part of the Young Advocates Leadership Program conference in Washington, D.C. hosted by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. Cristo Rey High School students from around the United States were invited by JRS/USA to take part in the program. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Washington, D.C.) July 14, 2014 — On an unseasonably hot evening in mid-June, 12 students from across the country arrived at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., exhausted from a day of travel. Some had ventured across the country from California, while others simply hopped on an afternoon train from New Jersey.

Elizabeth "Liz" Fajardo had traveled from her hometown of Waukegan, Ill., via Chicago and Detroit. It had been a long day, but she was eager to get started. "I wanted to take part because I want to be able to do something for the world, to make a difference," she said.

The students were here to participate in Jesuit Refugee Service/USA’s first Young Advocate Leadership Program (YALP) Conference, the culmination of a yearlong partnership between JRS/USA and Cristo Rey Network High Schools.

Launched in May 2013, YALP is an effort by JRS/USA to expand its Outreach to students who might not have the financial means to participate in advocacy and leadership programs, but who have the skills and desire to work with JRS. The Cristo Rey Network, with its mission to provide quality, Catholic, college preparatory education to young people in urban settings with limited educational opportunities, is a natural partner for this initiative.

By September 2013, the program was underway at nine of the 26 Cristo Rey Network High Schools across the country. Throughout the school year, students had various opportunities to participate in the program, including writing essays, forming social justice clubs, and ultimately raising awareness in their local communities about refugee and displacement issues.

Students at Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco, for example, organized a school-wide assembly to educate their classmates about what they had learned, specifically with regards to human trafficking. Other schools held clothing drives, invited refugees to speak about their experiences, and offered a dress-down day fundraiser. The goal was to encourage students to learn more about injustice in the world, as well as to gain experience in organizing and planning an awareness-raising or advocacy event.

This spring, JRS/USA invited each school to identify outstanding student leaders to attend the first YALP Conference. The conference included intensive advocacy and leadership training aimed at expanding upon the knowledge and experience gained by students throughout the year.

On June 16, 2014, Liz and 11 other students from the Cristo Rey schools in Birmingham, Ala., Brooklyn, N.Y., Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, and Waukegan, Ill. arrived in the District of Colombia for the two day conference.

"I got involved because I wanted to learn about refugees. I’m considering a military career, so I want to learn about other cultures," said Darius Hawkins, a student at Holy Family Cristo Rey High School in Birmingham.

Darius added, "I also wanted to visit D.C. — this is my first time, I’m the first person in my family to visit." In fact, each of the 12 students in attendance indicated that this was their first trip to the nation’s capital.

The programming started early on June 17 with an interactive presentation by Shaina Aber, National Advocacy Office Policy Director at the U.S. Jesuit Conference. Shaina asked the group to create a working definition of advocacy. Students offered suggestions, such as, "giving voice to the voiceless" and "voicing a problem in the world," before ultimately settling on "publicly supporting an idea or a problem." The students spent the remainder of the presentation learning how to create an advocacy plan.

Drawing upon a current advocacy issue, Shaina asked the students to imagine how they might advocate on behalf of Central American children arriving on the south Texas border if they were working at an organization assisting refugees in the area. Students proceeded to identify challenges, goals, targets, partners, and actions that would enable them to advocate effectively at an organizational and federal level. Although the exercise in this presentation centered on Central American migrants, the students understood that the tools provided could be used to take action on any injustice that they identified in their families or communities. 

The morning transitioned from advocacy to a conversation about faith and justice facilitated by Rachel Malinowski, a Masters candidate at Berkley Divinity School at Yale University and the Education and Outreach Intern at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Following two scripture readings, Rachel led the group in an imaginative contemplation of the "Rich Man and Lazarus" from Luke 16:19-31.

The exercise invited the students to imagine themselves as a participant in the story and to note their reactions to the surroundings. Many students expressed a feeling of empathy for the outcast, Lazarus, and concluded that it is important to give back to people in need.

"It’s not always about money, it’s about what else you can do for them," noted one of the students.

The students split into groups and identified the "Lazarus" in their own communities: marginalized people who are often overlooked, and related the injustices that those individuals face to one of the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching.

Students discussed the formerly incarcerated, perpetrators and victims of gang violence, and the people who suffer from a lack of educational opportunities. They observed how these injustices violated the tenets of "life and dignity of the human person" and the "preferential option for the poor and vulnerable." Through the exercise students were able to explore how their own faith intersects with the call to work for justice in their communities and the world.

Jenny Clarinda Hodges, a certified MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ) Master Practitioner led an afternoon session. The MBTI is an assessment to provide insight into personality preferences with the aim of promoting better self-awareness, understanding, and self-management.

Each of the students had been asked to take the survey before arriving in D.C., and the session provided an opportunity to introduce the purpose of the assessment, the different personality types and eventually to review students’ individual results. Through various activities and small group interactions, students were able to better understand their personality preferences and how that impacts their day-to-day interaction with others. The main focus of the session, however, was to help the students understand how to use their personality strengths to be a more effective leader.

"It taught me a lot … I got the same results from the Internet from the test – the same results that we took in class. It was really helpful because that means that you really know yourself," said Mark Palmer, a rising junior at Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles.

"It makes me want to be a leader even more now — in a club, or anything at our school … It makes me want to transfer the information that I learned to other leaders at school," he added.

Students stayed in dormitories at Catholic University during the conference. For the majority of students, this was the first time they had stayed overnight at a college campus. The opportunity to stay at a university and interact with fellow Cristo Rey students greatly enhanced their time at the conference.

"It's been a really good experience to meet people from different cultures, different backgrounds and experiences," said Jonathan Herrera, another rising junior at Verbum Dei High School. "I’ve really felt like I’ve met brothers and sisters from the Cristo Rey Network because I can relate to them, and we both have a good mindset of being good leaders for the future."                 

On the second morning, the students arrived at breakfast wearing suits, ready for a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with Congressional and Senate staff.

Mary Small, Assistant Director for Policy at JRS/USA, introduced students to talking points to guide their advocacy for strong assistance for refugees overseas and a robust resettlement program to welcome refugees to the U.S. Mary led an advocacy training session and shared Capitol Hill experiences with the students, letting them know how to approach their meetings and what to expect during the meetings. Armed with the talking points and training, the students split into two planning groups to practice and strategize for their scheduled visits with their representatives in Congress.

Each student had the opportunity to attend two meetings that afternoon and many derived a sense of empowerment from the experience. 

"They took us seriously," said Sherria Gibson, of Holy Family Cristo Rey High School in Birmingham. "We were not expecting to see the Representative (just his staff), it was nice that they took us seriously. We were sharing information, and they were sharing as well. The congressman from New Jersey told us he was a refugee himself, from Cuba."

"[Rep. Albio Sires] told us a little joke, so he and I shared a laugh together. That was my favorite part," she said.

"It was exciting to get to work with such passionate young people. When Congressman Sires himself came into a meeting we were expecting to be with a staff person, it was inspiring to watch the students swallow their nervousness and ask clearly and directly him if he was supportive of strong funding for refugee assistance," said Mary Small.

"This experience definitely gave us insight into all the steps it takes to pass a law for people to get help," noted Gabriela Varela, of Cristo Rey St Martin in Waukegan, Ill.

"It was the moment every trainer dreams of — getting to see how the preparation and training gave the students the knowledge and confidence they needed to engage their elected representative on an important issue. After watching them in action, I have no doubt that these young people will go on to become leaders in their communities—in fact, I know they already are," said Mary.

After the meetings, students had some free time to explore the monuments, visit the Smithsonian museums, and take pictures in front of the White House. At the end of the day, the group gathered for a final meeting debrief about the experience and JRS/USA Outreach Coordinator Erin Stabile presented each student with an official certificate to note their participation.

"During the debrief session, one of the chaperones asked if each person in the group could go around and say one word to describe his/her experience,” Erin said. "I used the word 'grateful' because it was truly a privilege to work with this amazing group of students, but one of the chaperones used the word 'hopeful' and I think that really hits the mark. I think we can all feel more confident about the future knowing that these students will be strong advocates for the marginalized in our world."

"It was a great conference. Washington, D.C. is the ideal spot to bring young student-leaders interested in working for justice out of their faith contexts," said Fr. Kevin White S.J., Mission & Identity Coordinator at JRS/USA. "I remember visiting this city when I was young. It opens up possibilities and helps you think big and beyond the familiar.  JRS/USA looks forward to continuing this important partnership with Cristo Rey schools."

JRS/USA hopes to continue YALP this coming academic year, and is looking to expand its partnership to include more Cristo Rey schools.

"Anybody who has the chance to do this, do it because you’re going to learn how to be a better leader than you are now, how to be a better communicator, how to be more efficient, more effective — to be a person that can make a change in the world," said Johnathan.

If your school is interested in participating, please email Fr. Kevin White, S.J.

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