Northwest of Philadelphia, schooled and raised

Tara Powers

Maybe not a perfect play on the ubiquitous “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song, but the musical mission statement served to motivate the group of students that participated in the Philadelphia mission service experience this past spring break.

The Philadelphia trip was unique in that it was an advocacy-based mission trip aimed at raising awareness and interacting with hotel workers in the city to find out about their experiences in the industry.

“Our service break experiences aren’t just focused around the international community but domestically and locally, and we wanted to continue that partnership,” said Nancy Lee, associate director of Campus Ministry for service break experiences.

‘Nova volunteers worked with Interfaith Worker Justice, a nonprofit organization founded in Chicago that works with religious communities on issues that affect worker justice – how to improve wages, benefits and working conditions – specifically focusing on low-wage workers. Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of IWJ, was present on the trip and helped educate the volunteers about advocacy for the poor and the ways of organizing community.

IWJ partnered with the association for Catholic Colleges and Universities to branch out from the traditional direct service experience, such as serving in soup kitchens, and create a new service experience focused on advocacy and issues of justice for workers.

ACCU originally approached Villanova with the goal of assembling a group of students from a variety of Catholic colleges in the Philadelphia area. But when there was no response from other colleges, ACCU decided to go ahead with just Villanova students.

But a service trip 20 minutes down the road? Most service break experiences Villanova runs go to places like Honduras and Peru, or at least Chicago and the Bronx.

“It was a local site, and we want to stay connected to the local community,” Lee said. “We were also hoping to work with a volunteer site that was local so the students could continue their service and advocacy once they came back to Villanova.”

Similar to other service trips, the 11 volunteers attended different educational presentations throughout the day on Catholic social teaching, immigration and justice issues. In the afternoons they went into the Philadelphia community and interviewed hotel workers in the area, including foodservice workers and housekeeping staff.

UNITE HERE, a local labor union for several major industry sectors including hotel and foodservice workers, trained the group on how to interview workers and what kinds of questions to ask.

The group asked workers about their rights and some of the challenges they face. The workers they interviewed were usually not part of unions, so the volunteers explored unjust working conditions, gaining a deeper understanding of the differences between working conditions for union and non-union workers.

“It’s difficult to just walk up to strangers and start a conversation, especially about their working conditions,” Lee said. “[The group] realized the difficulty in fighting for labor justice issues and kind of how complex they can be when you’re dealing with so many different constituencies like hotel managers and unions and employees.”

“I think they were empowered, which is an incredible process for me to watch,” said Stephanie Edwards, a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working with IWJ who was also in Philadelphia with the group. “I think people don’t realize their own power. You’re taught for so long to follow the rules – to sit down, shut up and accept what’s given to you.”

Students conducted interviews at six downtown Philadelphia hotels that are non-union sites, including the Four Seasons, where they met one worker named Martin.

“It turns into this 45-minute conversation of him just pouring his heart out, and we find out he went to St. Joe’s, was a teacher making great money for a long time and decided to switch careers because he always enjoyed cooking,” said junior Sam Silverman, the trip’s student leader.

The group ran into Martin again the next day, and he showed up at their prayer vigil later that night.

“He had chosen to go back into this career and had been beaten down by it,” Edwards said. “This is someone who was very well-educated and had been given incredible opportunities but is back in a situation where there is no respect or justice in the workplace.”

During the week, the students also visited a local union hall downtown and attended a panel discussion on why unions matter for hotel workers. A quick tour introduced them to some of the historical labor sites in Philadelphia as well.

Senior Mary-Kate Crane and sophomore Patrick O’Connell spoke with AFL-CIO representative Janet Ryder on “Labor to Neighbor,” a program on local radio station WURD 900 AM. The two discussed the changing role of youth activism, as well as why they as students were interested in exploring labor issues in their own backyard.

Part of the mission the group hoped to accomplish was opening a discussion with the managers of the Philadelphia hotels to shed light on some of issues with which workers presented them. According to Edwards, although a peaceful and interesting conversation began in the lobby of a local hotel, the front desk had already alerted local police, and the potentially fruitful discussion ended.

No group members were arrested, but the experience served to emphasize the persistent obstacles posed by advocacy work, according to Edwards.

“I feel like I have learned so much about how to organize and the logistics that go into being an advocate for the poor instead of just doing direct service,” Crane said. “You have to know the right people to approach about the problem, you have to stay well informed of the situation and you have to be willing to speak up in front of a crowd to give a voice to the powerless.”

“It was a very successful week in challenging ourselves, putting ourselves in others’ shoes and, in Villanova terms, ‘transforming our hearts and minds,’ ” Silverman said. “But the heart can’t feel what the mind hasn’t seen.”