Gateway to Social Action


Author: Ed Cohen

The half-curtains and spider plants and ferns hanging in the front window of the low brick building give it the look of a coffee house. You actually can get a meal in there sometimes, when a group is sponsoring an open dinner to talk about race relations, for instance.

For nearly two decades, however, activity in the former WNDU television and radio studio building has mainly involved two things: connecting people with opportunities to help others and educating people about poverty and injustice.

Inspired by Gospel values and Catholic social teaching, the Center for Social Concerns strives to integrate service work with academic study. In some ways it’s the conscience of the University, calling members of every segment of the Notre Dame family to think critically about complex social problems and take action to bring about a more just and humane world.

The center has grown significantly over the years. More than 1,500 students now use it as a conduit to volunteer opportunities with 40 to 50 student service and social action groups focused on the South Bend community. Approximately 85 percent of Notre Dame undergraduates engage in community service.

About 850 students annually enroll in the center’s social concerns seminars and summer service projects. These academic offerings, usually in theology, combine thought-provoking readings and discussion of social issues with immersions to meet the people for whom the issues are a daily reality. The trips last from 48 hours to eight weeks and usually take place during semester breaks. Domestic destinations include urban homeless shelters and home construction sites in poor rural areas. Latin America has dominated the overseas opportunities with students assisting in clinics, schools and orphanages.

“Some see us as the soul of Notre Dame. That’s their perception as far as keeping Catholic social teaching alive,” says Father Don McNeill, CSC, the center’s director since it opened its doors 18 years ago.

While the University has always been involved in humanitarian causes, the center was formed to consolidate and support a host of idealistic, grassroots efforts, many of them begun by students.

At Notre Dame in 1960-61, Maryknoll Father Larry Murphy began meeting with a handful of students in Old College to discuss service opportunities outside the campus and South Bend communities. The group called itself the Council for the International Lay Apostolate. One of the participants in an early CILA summer service project to Mexico was a reserve on the varsity basketball team. As he later recalled, that trip and a subsequent one to Peru and other parts of Mexico made a great impression on him.

“I began to have a real awareness of inequality, of inequitable distribution of wealth, of cultural discrimination, and of many other conditions I had read about in books and heard about in lectures, but which until then had not sunk in in quite the same way.”

The writer of those lines went on to become a priest and the University’s 16th president, Father Edward A. Malloy, CSC.

The descendant of the CILA summer programs — the center’s International Summer Service Learning Program — this year dispatched 29 students to 18 sites in 11 countries, the largest number being in Latin American nations. Two students traveled to Cambodia to work with a Maryknoll project that provides job-skills training to victims of land mines.

Scores of other students spent this summer working on service projects in 171 U.S. cities. A special aspect of the domestic summer service projects is that they are sponsored by more than 100 local Notre Dame Alumni Clubs. The programs include alumni-student discussion of problems in the host city.

About 600 students each year participate in the center’s Social Concerns Seminars, which are one-credit immersion courses. Student interest in the seminars can exceed opportunities, at times at a rate of three applicants for every opening.

The seminar with the most participants — about 15 percent of all students enroll at least once — is The Church and Social Action, better known as the Urban Plunge. This program features a 48-hour immersion in an inner-city to observe individuals, agencies and parishes striving to meet the needs of the poor.

The center also helps faculty integrate community service into service-learning. Current examples include an anthropology course in which students serve as ombudsmen for patients in a local hospital emergency room. A psychology practicum in developmental disabilities takes students into a family home to work with a child with autism.

In an effort to give freshmen meaningful writing topics, instructors in some First-Year Composition classes are now having their students serve with local organizations as part of the course. Options include working with children at a juvenile justice facility or visiting Alzheimer’s patients in a convent.

McNeill says people who participate in service-learning programs as students teach others about social justice issues and engage people in their hometowns. A survey of participants in past summer service projects confirms that people who experience the center’s structured programs are more likely to stay involved later in life.

Barbara Frey ’78 falls into that category. With McNeill’s help, she and two fellow undergraduates organized an Urban Plunge to her hometown of Milwaukee over Christmas break as part of their involvement with CILA. Inspired by the Catholic clergy she met fighting institutional issues of racism like redlining and police brutality, she went on to do a summer service project as a community organizer in Oakland and after graduation worked in Portland as a Holy Cross Associate with another community organizing group.

During law school, she became interested in international human rights law. After graduating, in 1982, she went to Chile for six months to live and work with a Catholic human rights organization. After returning to the United States to take a job with a law firm, she became one of 12 founding members of the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee. In1985 she became the group’s first full-time director. She now teaches at the University of Minnesota.

“My exposure to social justice issues through Don McNeill and CILA literally changed my life,” she says.

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