Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Young People Deserve to Experience the Dignity of Work

By Joanna Arellano

The La Villita (Little Village) neighborhood, also known as “Mexico of the Midwest,” has many faces. Bustling with loud rancheras and colorful taquero stands, it is still plagued with high rates of crime and gang violence, high poverty, under-resourced schools, teen pregnancy, and the lowest green space-per-capita ratio in Chicago. Both from Mexico, my parents built their lives in La Villita. Growing up in a humble household, money was never at the center of our lives – it was at the center of our worries.

As blue-collar workers, my parents knew early on that a quality education for their daughters would be the only guarantee to escape what we were up against. My oldest sister paved the way as the first member in both my immediate and extended family to attend college, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The three remaining sisters followed in her footsteps.

My experience in college was extremely transformational and enriching. For the first time, I delved deeply into social justice with the Church, learned art as a form of therapy for the special needs community, interned with the U.S government, and learned the poetic language and culture of Brazil first-hand. Immediately after graduation, my memories and intangible experiences from college became bundled into two words – student loans.

Now, two years later, I carry my debt of over $30k on my back everywhere I go, with interest climbing higher and higher every month and year. Although I was able to find a full-time job in the midst of our poor economy, I am still paying the price by juggling a student loan debt, car loan debt, rent, groceries, etc. Numerous friends have gone back to living with their parents because they cannot make ends meet.

The psychological and spiritual impact of debt and unemployment is devastating. The dignity of work stems from our call for stewardship of the world and all in it, as a means to enter more deeply in relationship with God. If our youth are unable to experience and live out this principle vibrantly, discerning one’s vocation and purpose becomes a tumultuous challenge and mystery at a crucial age.

While I am the exception to my generation’s low-employment status, this is the reality for those with no jobs. I have seen the effects in my community, but even more so with my sister. I did not work harder than she did, nor is it her fault that she could not find a job. There is a systemic problem in our country.

We begin with understanding that our current economic circumstance is causing high youth unemployment rates, and that a substantial percent of the jobs added since 2008 are low-wage jobs. The corporatization of public higher education in some sectors is harming many students’ capacity to fully participate in the dignity of work. Too often, students entering and leaving college are viewed as dollar signs by some institutions and organizations, rather than as children of God with the unique capacity to better society through their gifts and achieving a higher education.

Catholic Social Teaching calls us to confront systemic injustices that threaten the dignity of the human person on every level – from conception to natural death. We can respond to this systemic and deeply embedded injustice by supporting local organizations and movements that address these very issues. In doing so, we begin the journey of personally taking responsibility for reorganizing the economy by pushing for laws that create fair wages and hold employers accountable for the security and dignity of their workers.

We can organize to respond as a Church to ensure that we, as a society, are not diminishing the dignity of the young person for generations to come in our country.

Our existence is not “for-profit.”

Joanna Arellano is Program Coordinator, Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Campaign for Human Development for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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