By Mike Gabriele
The only silver lining to come from tragic events is often a hope for change in the future. Last year, in the spring of 2015, riots stemming from Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore brought the city to its knees, laying bare many issues that had long been overlooked. These problems and struggles are not unique to Baltimore. They play out every day in cities across our country, creating vast chasms between communities that are so close together geographically, and yet so far away as fellow brothers and sisters.
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore is located near the crossroads where much of this unrest took place. Students and faculty saw first-hand the effects of a city divided—blinded by anger and frustration. Jesuit scholastic, Vinny Marchionni, SJ, and Justin White, both teachers at Cristo Rey Baltimore, longed to create that silver lining of hope in the aftermath of such turmoil. And thus their vision of Cura Urbi was born.
Vinny Marchionni, SJ, addresses the Cura Urbi students during their reflection time.
Cura Urbi (Latin for Care for the City) is a 2-week program they launched this summer to help improve areas of Baltimore, but more importantly to transform high school students in their thinking around social justice. With an eager group of students from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and Loyola Blakefield, Cura Urbi combined daily research and reflections with field trips and hands-on learning.
Coordinated and led by volunteer teachers from these two Jesuit high schools, students took a break from their summer vacation to hit the classroom and take to the streets of Baltimore. Utilizing the Loyola University Maryland library as home base, they started each day researching real issues facing the city before heading downtown to witness those issues first-hand. Later, they returned to discuss their experience and investigate solutions.
Their first project examined affordable housing in Baltimore and the policies regarding housing equality. They were flabbergasted to learn that 17,000 homes sit vacant or abandoned in their city. And the longer they remain unoccupied, the more dangerous they are and the more volatile the neighborhood becomes. The students went on-site with Habitat for Humanity to see how the organization is trying to put a dent in a problem that has spiraled out of control. They learned what it takes to bring affordable housing to the working families of Baltimore.
A day with Habitat for Humanity addressing Baltimore's housing problem.
Quality education is another hurdle facing many urban areas. The Cura Urbi team studied the effects of poverty on the achievement gap and how this creates a school-to-prison-pipeline where so many inner-city youths become trapped. They visited the Baltimore Algebra Project, an organization comprised solely of teens and young adults under 25 who are committed to tutoring their peers in math, providing employment counseling and widening the opportunity for a sound education.
Another reality the students found very surprising about their city were the number of areas referred to as food deserts, neighborhoods where residents have little or no access to healthy grocery options, especially those without transportation. Cura Urbi spent an afternoon at an outreach center called Moveable Feast that provides healthy meals to Baltimore’s homebound. They helped prepare weekly meals for 141 individuals. They also visited an inner-city vegetable garden that grows produce for the surrounding community. Loyola University Maryland’s FreshCrates program also helps bring fruits and vegetables to corner stores that don’t usually carry these healthy options.
Cura Urbi helped package 141 meals for city residents with no transportation.
One particular picturesque summer morning, Cura Urbi traveled up the Patapsco River from the Baltimore Harbor, scientifically testing the water and marine life for issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding watershed. They studied how environmental matters directly impact a city’s health and economy.
Studying and experiencing these issues that hold our cities back, however, is only part of the Cura Urbi program. Being an advocate for change and leading that process is key. And where better to start than at City Hall. Thanks to city councilman, Bill Henry, a Loyola Blakefield alumnus himself, the students presented their issues, experiences and ideas to members of the Baltimore city council. Needless to say, they made quite an impression. Back at the Loyola library, Fr. Brian Linnane, SJ, president of Loyola University Maryland stopped by to offer some insights. He emboldened the students, telling them that their Jesuit education is designed to make them leaders.
Loyola Blakefield alum and city councilman, Bill Henry, invited Cura Urbi to present the issues they had researched to members of the city council.
The teachers from Cristo Rey and Loyola Blakefield who mentored the students through Cura Urbi gained some enlightening experiences themselves. They enjoyed watching the group tackle project-based learning and seeing their motivation to research solutions after witnessing the issues first-hand. Some even decided to integrate portions of what was learned into their own future curriculums.
The students themselves were indeed transformed. Their biggest takeaway was realizing that their voices are not small—that they can make a difference. They learned that many key problems needing attention are not in another part of the world, but right in their own city. They were excited to get out of their comfort zone for a couple weeks and become a part of real change for Baltimore. And as one student so aptly described, “This has given us a real sense of hope for our city.”
Students worked alongside their teachers to examine articles about housing in Baltimore.
For Vinny Marchionni, SJ, and Justin White, it was amazing to see their vision for Cura Urbi become reality. “Many people thought this program was too ambitious—hoping teenagers would advocate substantial solutions for city problems,” said Justin. “It was so inspiring to see them raise the bar and do just that.” Vinny likened the program to the Jesuit mission of Magis (doing more). “Cura Urbi is truly the Magis for our Baltimore communities,” he explained. “We encouraged the students to heed the call of the King—to ask themselves, ‘What is Jesus calling us to do for Baltimore?’”
Cura Urbi teachers and students pause after a long day outside the Loyola University Maryland library.