SLU students join D.C. teach-in

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SLU students join D.C. teach-in

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Event gives them the tools to catalyze change

On Saturday, Nov. 7, 20 students from Saint Louis University arrived in Washington D.C. to take part in the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in order to learn more about social justice issues, and then advocate for those issues in front of members of Congress. These students are now bringing the lessons they have learned about social justice and reform to SLU and are making real change at the university, as well as the world.

The Teach-In began in 1996 as a way to remember and protest the deaths of Jesuits who were killed at the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador in 1989. The Salvadoran soldiers who were responsible for these deaths received their training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Since then, the Teach-In has developed from this protest into a weekend meant to educate young people about issues concerning U.S. policy in Central America, immigration reform and environmental protection. This year, there was also a special emphasis on criminal justice reform and the death penalty.

“Advocating is such a tangible way to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves,” said Abbie Amico, a senior at SLU and one of the research-team leaders. Amico and the other students who made up the leadership team – Hannah Vestal, Lija Siliunas and Timmy Pazderka – were tasked with picking the delegation that would be representing SLU at the conference, as well as heading up research teams and helping these teams prepare for their presentations in front of their respective members of Congress.

Following keynote speakers and breakout sessions, Monday’s ‘day of advocacy’ allowed students to meet their respective members of congress or their policy advisers, and bring attention to the bills and acts regarding all of these social issues on which the Teach-In focused.

“We would have a meeting with one or two of their staff members and we would sit down and they would just let us talk. They were so respectful, so genuine,” said Siliunas. She continued, “What they said last year, and I think what I felt was reinforced this year, was that they appreciate people coming with no other motivations than their convictions.”

Each member of the leadership team was in charge of their own research team and promoted their justice issue. Amico advocated for foreign policy in Central America, Vestal talked about environment justice, Siliunas spoke on immigration reform and Pazderka presented on criminal justice reform.

These pairings were not random. At least for Amico, Vestal and Siliunas, they had been advocating for these issues since they had participated in last year’s Teach-In, and they were all inspired to continue that work at SLU.

“They pushed us to continue it and realize it’s not like a weekend thing, it’s a life thing,” said Vestal. Indeed, Vestal has put this into action by founding the student organization Billikens for Clean Water, which aims to educate SLU students about the water crisis and work to end it. This year, Vestal will host an immersion trip to Honduras as part of her clean water program.

Upon returning to SLU after the Teach-In, Amico organized a three-day fast and vigil in order to connect the memory of those who died in El Salvador back in 1989 with the current injustices that was happening in St. Louis at the time.

Siliuanas was also inspired by the Teach-In to alter the course of her goals in life. After interning with the International Institute of St. Louis, helping with local immigration issues, Siliuanas wants to pursue a career as a lawyer, advocate and activist for immigration reform.

“Once we knew about it, I think all of us just felt a responsibility and a drive to tell people about it and to address it at a systemic level,” said Siliuanas about continuing advocacy after returning from the Teach-In, and returning to D.C. this year as a research-team leader. She continued, “We do service, and there was just one thing I didn’t want to put a band aid on, I just wanted to try and get at the root of things.”

This year, the group advocated for bills like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which should be passed by the end of this year. They advocated against immigration reform bills that did not meet their expectations of change.

“There wasn’t a bill that we thought addressed the needs of immigrants, like providing unaccompanied minors with legal counsel. That would be great,” said Siliuanas. “But there’s nothing like that, so we just advocated against things like the ‘Secure Our Borders First’ act, which is building a militarized wall with drones along the border.”

The group expects this year’s delegation to initiate change through founding organizations that aim to educate students on these issues.

“I’m positive we’re going to see things happen for the rest of the semester, like people initiating programs,” said Siliuanas. Dan Curtin, a member of SLU’s delegation in D.C. has already organized an event to take place next week. The event will be a presentation and dialogue on just employment and fair wages on campus.

“We just went to a presentation this weekend and they’ve already created an event, I’m so excited,” said Amico, expressing the group’s hope to continue their social justice work.

However, while the group has accomplished some of their goals and still continue to advocate, Vestal shared that there were challenges and emotions during their trip to D.C. which concered the fact that social justice issues are seemingly endless and the always present need to advocate for them.

“I think we were overwhelmed by the fact that there are so many social justice issues and there is only one small group, and I think everyone in that room has done some amazing thingsbut you do feel like you’ve never done enough because there are always people hurting, there are always people suffering,” said Vestal. She cited Oscar Romero acknowledging that, although these issues are immense, their work is still purposeful. She said, “so I think it’s really important to remember that we are planting seeds and we can’t do it all, but we can do something.”