The frontier in our backyard

The frontier in our backyard

At a daylong immersion, nine SCU leaders learn how the University can build bridges to disadvantaged community neighbors. This piece first appeared in AJCU’s Winter/Spring 2013 Connections magazine.

The 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus four years ago called upon Jesuits to build bridges (see the Summer 2008 and Winter 2008 SCM). Inspired by the Gospel mandate to foster right relationships with God, one another, and creation, Jesuit apostolates are urged to find new frontiers and work there. Moreover, the Congregation recognizes the intellectual apostolate as a privileged place to construct these bridges between rich and poor, “establishing advocacy links of mutual support between those who hold political power and those who find it difficult to voice their interests” (GC 35 Decree 3.28).

Moved by this spirit, Santa Clara University President Michael Engh, S.J., recently worked with the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education to provide a daylong immersion. Nine University leaders, including the school’s top vice presidents, spent the day in a financially disadvantaged neighborhood in San Jose, Calif.


The Greater Washington area, as the neighborhood is known, is about 5 miles from the Santa Clara campus. It is rich in culture, talent, and parental aspirations for the hundreds of children who attend the elementary and middle schools in the area. But the community struggles with poverty, gangs that inhabit the neighborhood, and a lack of resources that many SCU students take for granted, such as cars, citizenship, or Internet access.

Santa Clara has strong ties to this neighborhood already, with a large concentration of community partners for its students’ community-based learning located there, such as elementary- or after-school programs, adult education courses, and citizenship preparation classes. The community annually selects a student from the area for a full-tuition scholarship to SCU, and the business school has sent students to explore ways to help the local business district.

“We can only do what a university can do, that’s our
best contribution.”

The Ignatian Center at Santa Clara has identified the neighborhood as a good candidate for a new Place-Based Initiative, a more-focused effort to find ways to enhance SCU students’ education while benefiting the community. “It’s very important to be a good neighbor, an active partner, and walk with people, to escape the bubble mentality that can envelop around the ivory tower,” said Fr. Engh.

The goal of the immersion was for members of the president’s staff to learn more through one-on-one contacts with people in the neighborhood. “The great goal of any immersion,” said Fr. Engh, “is to encounter people who make an impression on the heart. This is a neighborhood where most of us at the University don’t have enough familiarity or individual contacts with people.”

The day began with reflections and a tour of the neighborhood—schools including the Jesuit-sponsored Nativity middle school, businesses and social service centers, and a diocesan parish church in the area, Sacred Heart. The day also included visits to homes of community members, and visits with those who provide services like a food pantry, parenting classes, or domestic-violence prevention programs.

During the visit, SCU professor María del Socorro Castañeda-Liles ’98, who grew up in the neighborhood, told her own story of negligent primary-school teachers who tracked her for agricultural work and failed to inform her that one must apply to college—that it doesn’t happen automatically. With help from a parish priest and others, she made her way from community college to Santa Clara University, but said she felt like a poor outsider at first, too intimidated even to go to the library or student center.

Professor Castaneda-Liles talked about how important it is that we understand this, and attendees were very moved.

Fr. Engh said he was touched by the story of a Spanish-speaking mother who lives with her husband and four children in a rented garage. She had been sinking deep into depression and despair, but then she took her child to Washington Elementary and was invited to join the powerful mother’s group, where an average of 100 moms meet weekly for support, education, and advocacy.

“That really made a strong impression on me,” said Fr. Engh. “I wondered, ‘How do you raise four children in a garage? What must that be like?’”

Indeed, the mom’s group impressed many on the president’s staff. The women are so strong and determined that in the face of constant gang presence, they have donned yellow vests to clean streets and to escort their children to school—often over the objections of their husbands.

“What I found most moving was the engagement of the mothers who were trying to make a better life for their kids,” said SCU Finance Vice President Robert Warren. “It was all a very eye-opening experience for me.”

The president’s staff was also asked to walk around the neighborhood to try to find fresh produce or a healthy food choice—only to learn that the neighborhood is “a food desert.” If you want beer, peanuts, or a lotto ticket, there are plenty of little stores to purchase them from. Not so with healthy, fresh food. Everything is processed.

The neighborhood is trying to combat the problem with the La Mesa Verde program, an effort to encourage organic vegetable gardens in residents’ backyards.

We focused our visit on the strengths, not just the challenges, of the community—including the superhuman energy of some leaders like elementary-school principal Maria Evans ’81, the parents’ strong drive for education and involvement, and the entire community’s fierce resilience.

Indeed, one of the misunderstandings that people of privilege have is that these poor communities have nothing, and in fact they have a lot. We really do people a disservice if we walk in with the impression that “You’re really screwed up,” or “How can we help you?”

Our personal interactions, including a lunch with middle-school girls at the Nativity school, really drove home such lessons, as did the charm of the residents and their children. One little girl at the elementary school, Ruth, displayed the kind of confidence and potential we are all hoping to help instill in all neighborhood kids. She raised her hand to ask several polite but direct questions of principal Evans, including “Mrs. Evans, can you tell us how many people they admit to their university?” That spurred Admissions Vice President Mike Sexton to pipe up “7,570” and to rush over to hand Ruth his business card for her future use. Subsequently we have discovered that Ruth went home, laminated the card, and is keeping it in a safe place until she is a senior in high school.


Now that the immersion is over, the reflection on the best next steps has begun.

Fr. Engh said that from his perspective, “We can only do what a university can do, that’s our best contribution.”

“Years and years ago, I did community organizing in East Oakland, and one of the things I learned is you have to listen to the people in terms of what they want for their neighborhood,” he added. “The role of the organizer is to facilitate that—not to give them the agenda, not to solve their problems, but to facilitate how they come together and address issues.”

In addition to things like student tutoring or service initiatives from SCU’s engineering or education schools, Fr. Engh said that he’d like to get staff involved more in the community. Other Jesuit universities, for instance, allow for staff community days. “I’m exploring that,” he said.

Laurie Laird ’87, the director of Community-Based Learning at the Ignatian Center who planned the day’s events, said the immersion was mutually beneficial. “The community felt listened to by an important group, and our leaders were gratified to have built a stronger bridge with our neighbors.”

It is my own personal hope that Santa Clara University may learn from the Seattle University Youth Initiative and, over the next few years, promote strategic ties between SCU and the Greater Washington community of San Jose in order to advance prosperity and education, both of our own students and neighborhood students, as whole persons in whole communities.

Not only will bridges thus be forged, but we will be advancing that ever-important work of reconciliation with God, each other, and creation.

Michael C. McCarthy, S.J., is the Edmund Campion University Professor and executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University.

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