CILSA Celebrates 20 Years of Student Transformation

CILSA inspires students to work toward social justice and civic engagement—at home and abroad.

By Craig Lazzeretti / Photography by MIchael Conlon

If not for the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA), Yusuf Nessary ’13 likely wouldn’t be running a nonprofit out of Houston that builds water well systems, schools, and sustainable farming initiatives in Africa and the Middle East. Ryan Villegas ’18 doubts he would be teaching middle school students Latin in Arizona. And Tiffany Hickey ’10 might have found herself in a career far different from fighting for affordable housing rights as a Bay Area public interest attorney. 

They are just three among the thousands of Saint Mary’s College students whose lives have been transformed over the past 20 years by CILSA’s far-reaching efforts in the areas of social justice and civic engagement—efforts that have brought to life the words of Saint John Baptist de La Salle: “To touch the hearts of your students is the greatest miracle you can perform.” 

CILSA has inspired alumni such as Villegas, Nessary, and Hickey to find their passion in affecting the lives of others, whether in an American classroom, a Rwandan village, or an affordable housing unit in San Francisco.

“They taught me how to find my vocation,” said Villegas, who was inspired to teach through his CILSA experiences, including work with formerly homeless youths at the Alameda Point Collaborative (APC) and with the Jumpstart preschool program in Oakland. “I found that the dynamic of mentorship was something that I loved, and it was something that I was totally new to.”

The institute, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, encompasses a broad range of community engagement and social justice initiatives that affect nearly 30 percent of undergraduate students each year. CILSA’s work includes the educational programs Jumpstart and Monument Corps for Middle School Success, MICAH Summer Fellowship, Public Service Internship, Engaged Learning Facilitators, and centralized support and training for faculty and students in community engagement courses. The approach is grounded in the image of head, heart, and hands. During the 2018–19 academic year, CILSA engaged 935 students over 58,655 hours.

For Nessary, a child of Afghan refugees, CILSA fundamentally altered his career ambition after he entered Saint Mary’s as a pre-med student.

 “The most prestigious role you can have as a child of an immigrant refugee is becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” said Nessary, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Instead, after volunteering through Jumpstart and taking a CILSA–taught January Term class in Rwanda, he changed his major to sociology. Today, Nessary runs Zam Zam Water, a nonprofit he founded five years ago. In that time, it has created over 90 water projects on two continents, helped cultivate 450 farms, and built four schools. 

 “When I started with Jumpstart, I knew I wanted to end up in the nonprofit sector,” Nessary said. “I could see myself in those children.”

Hickey found her inspiration through a variety of CILSA roles, which included working with an advocacy project in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district run by students at UC Hastings College of the Law. Today, her law career focuses on tenants’ rights and subsidized housing issues for Bay Area Legal Aid.

“CILSA really got me out working with people and talking with people, and learning about their lives and experiences in a way you can’t get from a textbook,” she said. “That’s when I really got to understand the historical justice issues in the Bay Area, as well as talking to people about what their needs were and their wants were, and what their communities saw as solutions, and how I could possibly fit into those solutions in some way.”

Like Villegas, Nessary, and Hickey before them, current Saint Mary’s students utilize CILSA to explore what ultimately will inspire their vocation and purpose. Sophomore Jemiya Jacob ’22 recently completed the eight-week MICAH (Mulvaney Immersion Communities for Action and Humility) Summer Fellowship, another of CILSA’s signature programs. A joint initiative between Saint Mary’s and the University of San Diego, MICAH allows fellows to live among the community members they serve, working together either in the Bay Area or Tijuana, Mexico.

Jacob lived at the Alameda Point Collaborative, where she gained an appreciation for the complexities of homelessness, and worked at the Oakland community-
organizing nonprofit Genesis, where she discovered the role of restorative justice in addressing crime, something she had never seen in her hometown of New Orleans. 

“I didn’t know what restorative justice was until I got to Genesis,” said Jacob, who is majoring in Justice, Community, and Leadership. “I’m also trying to figure out how I want to impact my home when I get back from college. I really feel that restorative justice is the way to go, and Genesis helped me to see that.

“I think one of my biggest takeaways is how we can relate to one another and how we can come together to make our society a better place.”

Doug Biggs and Brandy Muniz, Alameda Point Collaborative’s executive director and director of fund development, respectively, credit their 15-year collaboration with CILSA for much of the growth and success of the collaborative—from establishing the community’s urban farm to constructing greenhouses to developing its volunteer-management programs.

“We’re hosting the most families we’ve ever had, fundraising the most money we ever have,” Muniz said. “That’s been directly from their work,” specifically the MICAH fellows and AmeriCorps VISTA members that have come via CILSA. Biggs adds, “We’re able to see a lot more youth going to college; we’re seeing them do better in school…. It’s a direct result of working with MICAHs and other Saint Mary’s students.”

As CILSA staff and their associates are quick to point out, the benefits of working with communities such as APC have flowed both ways. A cornerstone of CILSA’s philosophy is to approach community engagement as a double benefit: for students and for the communities in which they serve.

Truyen Tran, Jumpstart’s senior director of programming, can vouch for the results. Jumpstart has been a CILSA signature program for nearly 15 years. While preschoolers from high-poverty families gain early literacy and social-​emotional skills, the Saint Mary’s students find inspiration in the resilience of the children, she said.

“When people ask what is the magic of Jumpstart, it is really that bond between the members and children they work with,” she said. “There’s a real reciprocity they’re able to develop in their relationship with the children over the year.”

It’s a sentiment that aligns perfectly with the verse from the Book of Micah (6:8) that lies at the heart of all that CILSA does. “And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

For CILSA Director Jennifer M. Pigza, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly means faculty, staff, and students must ask hard questions as they build relationships with communities. 

“CILSA’s vision is that we are working toward the day when all people collaborate to enact justice, inclusion, and sustainability in all aspects of life. To work toward this vision with integrity, we need to approach internal and external partners with deep listening and wide-awakeness to the ways that power and oppression affect the work,” she said. 

Perhaps that’s one reason the word help is nonexistent at Zam Zam Water. “Service is about a two-way street; it’s about a conversation,” Nessary said. “That’s the one aspect I learned the most about at CILSA and use to this very day.”

While CILSA’s work is easily evidenced in the transformation of students in its signature programs, most Saint Mary’s students experience CILSA through its support of community engagement courses and the evolution of Saint Mary’s curriculum. Eight years ago, the undergraduate faculty voted for community engagement to become a component of the required Core Curriculum. Since that time, CILSA staff and student leaders have provided essential support to faculty, community partners, and students in courses where academic learning is linked to community-based activities. CILSA leads faculty development, coordinates partnerships with nonprofit organizations and schools, and centralizes administrative functions associated with liability.

CILSA has helped make it possible for Political Science Professor Patrizia Longo to teach the Politics of Food Justice by having students work with a nonprofit that harvests excess fruit. It has helped Chemistry Professor Steve Bachofer work with students to conduct soil and lead testing at APC to ensure the land is safe for families. With the support of CILSA, 35 faculty members taught 52 courses with community engagement components in 2018–19. These collaborations with faculty have exponential effects on both the curriculum and those who teach it. Bachofer has built on the soil and lead paint testing work that CILSA helped facilitate to create an urban environmental class from “the ground up.”

Longo was one of the first faculty members to incorporate community engagement into her coursework, partnering with organizations in areas such as gender politics, restorative justice, and economic justice. She said CILSA has been invaluable in helping her to foster and sustain such partnerships. “It was a dream come true,” she said. “I finally had the resources to do something more in-depth and valuable.”

Through long-standing collaborations with CILSA and its own faculty’s inspiration, the Justice, Community, and Leadership Program claims community engagement as a central focus of the major—for which it has earned national recognition. Department Chair and former Chair of the Faculty Senate Monica Fitzgerald shared that working with CILSA and teaching with community engagement “has totally transformed my teaching and the way I think about student learning.” 

That’s a far cry from 1999, when Saint Mary’s had only a few professors teaching courses that incorporated service learning, said Vice President of Mission Frances Sweeney, who was pivotal in CILSA’s creation. “It continues to grow and stay true to its purpose of deepening and widening this culture of equity and justice and service,” she said. 

For students and faculty alike, CILSA’s legacy may be best summed up by the lasting impact it leaves on not only their views of the world but their role in shaping it.

As Hickey explained: “Once you peek behind the curtain, you can’t really go back.”