This year the Poverty Initiative commissioned nine young leaders who completed an intense year of study, reflection, and engagement with the struggles of the poor across the US
The Poverty Initiative Fellows Program builds the leadership capacity, skills and community partnerships of emerging religious leaders interested in moving beyond charity toward social justice. The program involves Masters-level students in a yearlong intensive program that provides training, space for theological reflection and practical community organizing experience. Below are a few pictures from this year’s commissioning as well as some of the remarks that Poverty Initiative staff members gave to recognize the achievement of each fellow.
Commissioning of Jill Beckman, by Shailly Barnes
We all immediately liked Jill when we met her, even before she accepted the fellowship position with us, there was something in her way and manner that really resonated with PI.
Over the past year, Jill has done an incredible amount of work on many of the best things we did this year – that might not be a coincidence – including, the Reels for Rights gathering in the fall, which brought together our vast network of grassroots leaders and the memorial and photo exhibit for two of our fallen leaders, Ron Casanova and Larry Gibson. I also worked with her on the Politics of Food course this Spring.
What really moved me, especially with the Cas and Larry memorial, was that Jill, without ever knowing who these people were, understood that they were widely loved and respected; in turn, she brought a degree of care and attention to the memorial that made it possible to honor their lives and work.
This attentiveness and integrity has been consistent throughout her year at PI and is reflected in her honesty and openness in listening to what people are saying and thinking about what that means for building a movement to end poverty. Jill has said that one of the things she’s taken away from this year is to always interrogate and question why we live in a world where we assume that things cannot be changed? Why do we think about ways to live with poverty instead of ways to end it?
She takes these questions seriously. In fact, the very notion that we’ve gotten to know her partner, David, and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of her latest project, shows just how seriously she’s committed to answering those questions as well as the kind of leader she is – one who is accountable to others and who, above all, knows and cherishes the value of life. Even her ability to ask these questions – and continually seek to answer them – marks the strength of her leadership. I’m honored to have worked with you this year, Jill, and look forward to what you will do in the years to come.
Commissioning of Shay O’Reilly, by Crystal Hall
Before I met Shay personally, he had already left an impression on me. Shay and I both attended the orientation for new students at Union this year. In the many rounds of introductions, Shay’s is the only one I remember vividly. He said he had recently hailed from Iowa, and been deeply involved in a housing cooperative there. I don’t remember much more of the content of what he said. What I do remember was wanting to be sure to talk to him after the event was over.
Thankfully there were many opportunities to continue the conversation as Shay became a first-year Fellow with the Poverty Initiative. We began working together on the Homeless Union History Project, a study-work project of the Poverty Scholars Program. Shay brings his investigative skills as a journalist to that collective. He unearthed a long-forgotten graphic novel describing the struggle of the homeless organizing in Tompkins Square Park right here in New York City, and has transcribed hours of interviews with leaders of the National Union of the Homeless.
Shay has not only captured the voices of leaders from our movement’s history, but has also lifted up the voices of contemporary leaders. He brought the same journalistic clarity to this year’s Poverty Initiative immersion course. He reported the struggles of Put People First, a statewide organization struggling for human rights in Pennsylvania.
Through his blog posts, he shared the stories of those he met on the road. He wrote, “The story of Wilkes-Barre is not one of despair. There is a solid determined hope, one that echoes through history in miners and reformers…Their story does not end when coal, or industry, or fracking, leaves. On this trip we will see the grim shadows of American society, but…we will also see glory in the people striving. The purpose of this course is, after all, to understand both the task ahead of us and how people rise to face it.”
This spring Shay brought this very experience in the community back onto campus right into the middle of an New Testament 101 lecture. I hope he will also find ways to bring his experiences with the Vermont Workers’ Center this summer back into the classroom. These stories represent a much-needed bridge between the campus and the community.
Shay, I commission you to the work ahead next year as a Poverty Initiative Fellow. As you so powerfully capture the stories of those you have met along the way, may you continue to make these stories your own story.