A year after Hurricane Sandy, Jaime Rodriguez helps lead Fordham students to lobby D.C. for social justice
On November 16th, 25 Fordham students and seven campus mission and ministry staff members will travel to Washington D.C. to take part in the Ignatian Family Teach-In For Justice. The conference is an annual gathering for members of the Ignatian family, Jesuit Institutions (both high schools and Universities), and the larger church. Representatives, speakers, and students come together for an entire weekend to discuss issues of social justice: to learn, to pray, to reflect, and then to lobby.
Among this year’s two-day schedule of speeches and breakout sessions, Fordham finds a familiar face in James Martin S.J., the moderator of last year’s “The Cardinal and Colbert” event, who will be making one of several keynote speeches. The presentations will talk about larger justice issues, including immigration reform, raising the minimum wage and new to this year, discussing queer identity and sexuality and their intersection with Jesuit tradition. Throughout the program, student representatives from each institution lead smaller discussions on more personal justice based initiatives.
The student leader representing Fordham will be Jaime Rodriguez, a senior at Lincoln Center and social justice leader at Fordham’s Dorothy Day Center, who will be giving a speech to the entire conference in his second year attending the Ignatian gathering. For Rodriguez, the cause was central to him, but the community he found there became even more special.
“I knew this was something I cared about, but I didn’t realize how strong of a community existed at Fordham that cared about those issues,” he said. I got to meet Rose Hill students and…got to develop authentic relationships with them and that was the biggest gift I got with Ignatian family Teach-in.”
Traveling by Ram Van, the small group fundraised money to alleviate the costs (about $250 per person) that go towards registration and hotel rooms. Last year Fordham didn’t send a delegation down in order to focus on the relief efforts needed for Hurricane Sandy.It gave Rodriguez an opportunity to lead a group of researchers to observe and serve the local New York community.
He helped lead a workshop called “Undoing Racism” with the Dorothy Day Center and Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond that discussed the conflation of race within service work. During the aftermath of the hurricane, he used that experience to lead relief efforts to forgotten boroughs, like the Rockaways, with other Lincoln Center students to donate goods and understand the impacted population’s experiences and why aid took longer to get to certain places over others.
“Every time teams returned we had a debrief about what they were seeing and who were the people really being affected by Sandy,” he said. “It was more than just Manhattan.”
He’ll be incorporating some of that research and experience into his speech, which will primarily discuss racial injustice and how power and privilege affects that kind of service work.
One student representative speaks on behalf of each Jesuit Institution at the conference and Rodriguez was encouraged by Fordham’s Dorothy Day Center to apply. He was at once excited and frightened about the prospect of speaking to a group of one thousand plus people.
“I haven’t done a speaking engagement like this and it’s terrifying,” he admitted. “Knowing someone believed in me, I was like, ‘OK, I can do this. I can probably give a good speech.’ Just to know that I had support from the Dorothy Day Center as well as other members of mission and ministry was very powerful.”
The conference’s broader theme, calling for comprehensive immigration reform also hits Rodriguez directly. Both sets of his grandparents emigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico, and at his first Igantian Teach-In, he heard moving testimonials from undocumented latino high school students, unaware of their inability to apply to college and the hardships in gaining citizenship.
“It’s my solidarity, as a Puerto Rican, as a proud hispanic of this country, I really recognize with that struggle,” he said. “I know a lot of peers of mine who are undocumented and who fight, and if I have the privilege of being born in this country, and who has a citizenship status, I should be willing to fight for my brothers and sisters who are undocumented as well.”
The final day of the trip will take them directly to Capitol Hill where students will break up into contingents to lobby their representatives. The Fordham students attending recently went through a Lobbying 101 course to prepare to meet congressmen in person. There they learned proper etiquette and practice in synthesizing arguments about immigration, like reducing border militarization and shortening the process to citizenship.
Rodriguez’s last trip netted him a meeting with an intern staffer, but this year he hopes to speak directly with New York Senator Charles Schumer to discuss more thoroughly immigration reform.
The Ignatian Solidarity Network initiated the first Family Teach-In in 1995 in Fort Benning, GA to specifically advocate for the shutdown of the School of Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. In 2009, the conference moved north in order to extend the Jesuit Mission to the legislative body.
“I know that immigration was a big issue in talks in congress in the summertime and its taken a back seat with the shutdown but this is something that needs to get back on the table,” Rodriguez said.
“The Teach-In has been a powerful experience for thousands of students and staff,” wrote Sandra Lobo-Jost, director of the Dorothy Day Center, in an email. “It has shifted the conversation with congressional representatives across the country to include a faith-based lens around immigration, environmental sustainability, and foreign policy.”
That faith-based lens is a crucial part to Rodriguez and many of his peers who attend the Teach-In.
“The political stance lacks the humanity, he said. “When we talk about immigration, we cant just talk about numbers. The faith component really gives back the humanity and dignity into the conversation.”
Regardless to whom he speaks with in congress, Rodriguez has found the Ignatian Family Teach-in fundamental to his time here at Fordham.
The friends I have made are some of the greatest people I’ve known at Fordham,” he said. I will never forget my IFT of 2011. It was just an unforgettable experience.”
“Every opportunity I’m so blessed to be able to go.”