CILSA: 20 Years of Bringing Students and Service Together

CILSA in action

Following up on its year of honoring Saint John Baptist de La Salle’s legacy, Saint Mary’s now has the opportunity to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an organization intrinsically connected to the Lasallian mission of working for the common good—the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action, or CILSA, as it is known on campus. 

CILSA’s milestone represents a significant record of collaboration, connection, and service both at Saint Mary’s and across the broader Bay Area community. As the social justice hub on campus, CILSA works toward the day when all people collaborate to enact justice, inclusion, and sustainability in all walks of life—a mission that resonates more than ever in a world that increasingly shows a lack of empathy. Indeed, CILSA’s principles have inspired countless students to make giving back a guiding principle of their lives beyond their college careers.

The Saint Mary’s community is invited to celebrate CILSA’s 20th anniversary on Nov. 3, at an event featuring keynote speaker Professor Leo Guardado ’04, PhD, one of 20 outstanding CILSA alums who will be honored for their continual presence and engagement with the common good. Guardado will speak on what it means to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” in the face of the troubling times we live in. CILSA invites all of us to consider the ways in which we, too, can give more of ourselves and ground ourselves in what Jennifer Pigza, PhD, the director of CILSA, calls ubuntu. “The Nguni Bantu term ubuntu means ‘I am because we are.’ CILSA is because the ‘we’ of Saint Mary’s came together to make service and social justice a hallmark of our education. I’m excited to see what we accomplish next.”

Such enthusiasm was palpable on Saturday, Oct. 12, when CILSA’s principles were put into action, as current students and alumni joined together for a day of service and celebration at Alameda Point Collaborative (APC). APC is one of CILSA’s longest-standing community partners, and the event was an opportunity for the SMC community to gather together in reflection and gratitude, recognizing the multifold ways CILSA’s motto of “head, heart, and hands” has shaped their lives.

Pigza is proud of the collaborative spirit that permeates CILSA’s culture, and of the springboard that its mission has offered so many to live in ways shaped by a commitment to justice. “CILSA’s origin story is that of committed faculty, students, staff, and partners working together to build a culture of service at Saint Mary’s College,” she said. “There is no single hero here, but rather a collective invested in the hard and joyful work of cultural change. One mark of success: faculty leadership to include community engagement in the undergraduate core curriculum.” 

The Community Engagement (CE) component of SMC’s curriculum is entirely driven and shaped by CILSA. The CE experience offers students an intellectual experience that transcends the classroom, and the program’s impact on campus culture has been dramatic. Last year, 935 students performed 58, 655 hours of volunteer service in communities throughout the Bay Area through CE—a number that solidifies the remarkable impact CILSA has had on strengthening the College’s ties with Bay Area service organizations. Often, CE courses are the spark that leads students to pursue other avenues, and ultimately careers, related to social justice.

Pigza credits the strong ties CILSA students build with alums as another cornerstone of the organization’s success. “There are nearly 1,000 alumni who have invested in CILSA’s leadership and social justice,” she said—no small feat and representative of the long-standing impact CILSA has had on its students. Part of the magic of CILSA is that service learning and community engagement make up a full-circle experience, one in which everyone wins. There is no single giver and receiver—everyone gives and receives through caring about each other.

Saint Mary’s is equally pleased to be a place that invites everyone to do the difficult but ultimately joyful work of engaging in reflection, and to consider how we might give more deeply from our hearts. If you feel inspired to give from your own head, heart, and hands, visit the CILSA webpage to learn about service opportunities and engage in the Lasallian mission in a real, tangible way.