This past November, Pope Francis wrote, “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality” (Joy in the Gospel, par. 204) In Detroit, at the end of February 2014, I saw this challenge embodied in people striving to create a more inclusive economy.
At Mercy Education Project for women and girls, Sharon talked to me about her secret: she had never told her husband or three daughters that she never graduated from high school. She fought through mental illness and worked hard to keep her family together, but she could not compete in an economy without a GED.
Sharon had a nightshift job, but could not advance unless she had a graduation certificate. It was her reading that was tripping her up. She had a learning disability and never learned how to compensate for it. As a result, she had come to dread school and the failure she associated with it.
Because of the needs of her family, Sharon came to Mercy Education and discovered that she was very capable. She entered Mercy’s welcoming community, improved her reading and math skills, and earned her GED.
The next day Sharon went to her employer with her diploma in hand and he said, “Today is your lucky day!” Just that morning, a worker had left so there was an opening on the day shift. Sharon moved into that new position with increased pay. All of her hard work was beneficial for herself, her family and her employer.
On the other side of Detroit I met Kristine, whose flashing eyes and ready smile are a magnetic attraction for anyone who walks within ten feet of her. She wrestled with dyslexia all of her life. Although her mom was a champion for her needs, it wasn’t until she was an adult and went to the Dominican Literacy Center that she received the individualized attention that she needed. At the Center, she learned how to compensate for her disability.
With her new skills and engaging personality Kristine became a part-time mentor at the Center. This eventually led to a full-time position. She is now truly at the heart of the mentoring program, encouraging and supporting other adults as they strive to gain essential skills.
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Marcella, for example, came for tutoring and said she didn’t talk to anyone until Kristine talked with her. Then she began to share her story and her struggles with reading and math. The tutoring made all of the difference for Marcella as she gained confidence in her skills. She became a mentor to adults who were new to the Center. Marcella is now proficient with computers, has enrolled in a QuickBooks programing project, and continues to serve as an individual mentor. She delights that she is now “giving back” to others.
Another woman at the Dominican Center, Elizabeth, also said that Kristine helped her as she struggled to stay off drugs and learn to read. Kristine encouraged her to create a flyer for a cleaning business that Elizabeth wanted to start. Because of that flyer, Elizabeth is now employed and celebrating her steps into the labor force. Elizabeth and her employer take pride in Elizabeth’s personal growth and the contribution she is making to the business with her improved reading and math skills.
Finally, Antonio told me that Kristine was the person who encouraged him to first come to the Center. He had always been a good kid in school, but was extremely shy and afraid to speak up when he didn’t understand what was going on, and he could not read. He got passed along from grade to grade but had severe dyslexia. Although he received his high school diploma he had been afraid to tell anyone about his struggles. Because of Dominican, Antonio now spoke to me with confidence about how much he had learned and where he was headed.
The Mercy Education Program and Dominican Center—both started and sponsored by Catholic Sisters—are geared to addressing income disparities in our nation. Through individual tutoring and small classes they are making a difference as adults wrestle with lifelong limitations. But what is often missed is that they both use some government funding to pay for their programs. They combine government money with donations, grants and volunteers—a public-private partnership that is making change happen. But it is only one step in many that are necessary to change the face of poverty in our society.
We need more centers, not fewer. We need more employment, not less. We need better wages so that work does pay. We need to restructure some of our educational programs so that students do not get lost or discouraged. All of the people I met in Detroit were invested in making a difference in their city. They were not seeking a “welfare state” – they were looking for a “just state,” and they are well on their way to making something new in their city.
Pope Francis is right. We are all needed to further the quest for the common good. That is what is happening in parts of Detroit. May it be realized in our entire nation.