From November 6th through 10th, Chestnut Hill College hosted its second annual Undocuweek, a weeklong series of events designed to allow students, faculty, and staff a chance to examine and celebrate the experiences of immigrant communities. Undocuweek’s programming was made up of a variety of events each day, including a student panel on social justice, a storytelling session with the Sisters of Saint Joseph (SSJ) and the SSJ Welcome Center staff who work with asylum seekers, a letter-writing campaign to elected officials advocating for just immigration policies, as well as story-sharing on social media all week long.
In the days leading up to Undocuweek, the event’s planning committee of CHC students and staff members attended the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ) held in Washington, D.C. The Teach-In began in 1997 to honor the witness of the Jesuits and their companions who were martyred in El Salvador in 1989 for speaking out against the oppressive socio-economic structure of Salvadoran society. Since its inception, IFTJ has become the largest annual Catholic social justice gathering in the United States, bringing together high school and college students who are passionate about advocating for justice.
During the three-day conference, CHC students Allan Keller, Xiomara Nieves, Makani Thornhill, and Rachel Yonak watched presentations from keynote speakers, took part in breakout sessions, and joined over 1,000 IFTJ participants on Capitol Hill advocating for humane migration reform and care for creation. Energized by what they learned about advocacy at the Teach-In, the CHC students brought their organizing skills back to campus.
“[The planning team] all got together before and after the Teach-In and shared our input about what we wanted to talk about during Undocuweek and how to advertise it to people" explains Yonak, a double major in history and law and legal studies. "We had a really great group of people to bounce ideas off each other and collaborate with other groups on campus like La Voz Latina.”
Thornhill, a media and communication major, collected footage during the Teach-In to produce a short film that was screened at Undocuweek’s kickoff student panel. “The Teach-In sparked my curiosity and helped me figure out how to talk with intention,” says Thornhill. “I don’t always look the same or share the same ideas as people in organizing spaces, but I belong there too. As a Black person, I’ve been taught to worry about stepping on toes or being too loud, but this experience allowed me to be myself and learn how to advocate.”
The planning committee made it a priority to include different perspectives and collaboration opportunities compared to last year’s Undocuweek programming. “In its second year, Undocuweek has grown and evolved," notes Anna Ryan-Bender, director of campus ministry. "A distinction from last year to this year is a more intentional partnership with the SSJ Center for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation.”
On Wednesday, November 8, SSJs and staff from the SSJ Welcome Center shared stories of their experiences meeting asylum seekers who are sent by bus to Philadelphia from the U.S./Mexico border. Bethany Welch, Ph.D., a novice with the SSJs, provided attendees with a brief explanation of U.S. asylum policy.
“If we don’t understand the breakdown in our geopolitical and social structures that leads to migration, we won’t ever actualize systemic change,” says Welch. “Undocuweek was a perfect way to support CHC students who are beginning to advocate for change through established government systems while also helping those who are challenging the narratives portrayed in the media or heard at kitchen tables.”
Throughout the week, the event planning team also used social media to engage community members online. The La Voz Latina student club gathered a series of “Unspoken Undocuweek” narratives. These anonymous immigration stories from members of the CHC community were posted on the CHC Mission & Ministry Instagram account.
Though Undocuweek 2023 is over, a recurring theme among the student organizers is the idea that it was just a starting point for their longer-term goals of engaging and supporting the communities around them.
“After being able to go to the Teach-In and Undocuweek and getting to take part in all these service acts that I've been doing during my first semester at CHC, I’ve found a real passion for it," notes Keller, a computer science major. "I found out that I really enjoyed talking to our representatives and asking them for their help. Now when I look to the future, I want to see how I can use my skills to support other people."
These sentiments align with the goals of CHC’s Mission & Ministry team in the year ahead. Ryan-Bender expressed a desire to continue educating the campus community’s pursuit of advocacy around the issues that matter most to her students, including immigration reform and environmental justice. “We want our community to learn together what it looks like to advocate,” she says.
Although Undocuweek laid bare the difficulties faced by undocumented communities, Welch expressed optimism when reflecting on her experience working with CHC students: “I am truly hopeful for our country because of the empathy and passion I have seen in CHC students. Collaborations between the sisters, students, and faculty and staff are a wonderful way to move forward together."
- Faith Kellermeyer
Makani Thornhill's Student Documentary on the ITIJ Conference