Rooted in Reality: Jesuit Social Research Institute Celebrates 10 Years of Advocacy

With offices on the campus of Loyola University New Orleans, the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) actively seeks to transform the Gulf South, including Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, through its focus on issues of race, poverty and migration. JSRI fellows aim to work at the intersections of these issues, supported by their rootedness in Catholic Social Teaching. This year, JSRI celebrates its tenth anniversary, and the staff looks forward to many more years of faith, action and solidarity.

Father Fred Kammer, SJ, a member of this province, has served as executive director and senior fellow of JSRI since 2009. Father Kammer is a lawyer and the author of Doing FaithJustice: Introduction to Catholic Social Thought.

 

Fr. Fred Kammer, SJ, Director

JSRI lives its mission through action research, education and advocacy. The manifestation of these central pillars takes many forms, but all embody the value of a faith that does justice. 

Dr. Sue Weishar, a fellow focusing on issues related to migration, has been with JSRI for eight of the organization’s 10 years. She describes work there as “a juggling act,” every day a little different. 

“Catholic Social Teaching and Jesuit values are really what animate our work here,” Weishar said. Ideals of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation are not only a natural part of the staff’s work, but a joyful one. In addition to her work at JSRI, Weishar makes it a point to connect outside the office with the people the organization is advocating for, including tutoring with Loyola students at ESL classes at a nearby parish on Sundays.

Dr. Sue Weishar, Migration Fellow

JSRI educates the broader community through regular publications. JustSouth Quarterly and Monthly, and special reports like the JustSouth Index 2017, a publication that takes stock of social justice-related indicators across the nation and in the Gulf South, push the boundaries of scholarly research, provide statistical analyses to support their advocacy, and allow the organization to disseminate its findings on a broad scale.

JSRI also conducts educational “teach-ins” pertaining to specific topics within the issues of race, poverty and migration. The teach-ins are opportunities for attendees, whether college students, parishioners or community leaders, to encounter these issues through immersive storytelling and personal testimony by those who have lived the reality. 

JSRI’s first teach-in on migration was held in January 2012, at St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Orleans. The organization’s most recent teach-in addressed hyper-incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. These events are opportunities for those who attend to learn about a topic in a meaningful, interpersonal way, and to then educate their communities by relaying their experience.

Economic policy fellow Dr. Alí Bustamante noted that, although many might maintain the separation between issues of race, poverty and migration, much work can be accomplished by examining their intersections. For Bustamante, the community of JSRI provides a forum where staff members can convene and collaborate imaginatively, though each has a different focus. Through those connections, JSRI staff subvert the hard boundaries driven between issues and strive to educate and advocate for people whose lives are directly affected by opaque policy, discrimination and predatory economics. 

Dr. Alí Bustamante, Economics Policy Fellow

The action research JSRI conducts does not end with its publication, but rather it is carried forward into community spaces, churches, courtrooms, legislators’ offices and newspapers. The fellows collaborate with groups at the national, state and local levels, draft legislation and testify for or against legislation. Additionally, JSRI sends Action Alerts to inform citizens when they might contact their public officials to advocate on specific issues.

The fellows at JSRI strive to maintain a future-focused vision. Though it may be easy to be disheartened at the overwhelming levels of need, the staff collaborates to find creative solutions, to anticipate problems and to stay focused on practical steps of progress. 

For race and racism research fellow Dr. Nicholas Mitchell, these issues are pervasive and often nebulous, and progress is subtle “until there’s a seismic shift.” Then, “Where we are going becomes paramount.” He noted the need to put the United States into proper historical context, a country just 50 years removed from Jim Crow laws, with centuries of legal slavery before that. 

Dr. Nicholas Mitchell, Race and Racism Fellow

From a legislative standpoint, Mitchell notes, “It not just a theory of white privilege, but 200 years of legislation in favor of it.” Considering this reality, working for equal justice for all is daunting. Nevertheless, Mitchell states, “The great thing about advocacy work I learned from Fr. Kammer is, as big and nebulous as these issues can get, you start fighting them at a particular place, where the lightning strikes.”

The Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) is a collaborative effort of Loyola University New Orleans and the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. You can subscribe to their free publications on their website. 




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