By Sarah Pfeffer
Professors, students and an alumna from Sacred Heart University made their voices heard in Washington, D.C. this summer, lobbying on Capitol Hill for an end to poverty.
The SHU contingent was in Washington for an international conference hosted by RESULTS, a non-partisan advocacy organization that has been working to end poverty for nearly 40 years. The organization’s aim is to unite “everyday people” in using their voices to influence political opinions.
The RESULTS Coastal Connecticut chapter along with a group of people from SHU learned about effective grassroots advocacy and then moved on to Capitol Hill.
This was SHU’s first time attending the conference, and according to RESULTS Coastal Connecticut Chapter member Nancy Gardiner, “The Sacred Heart University students and faculty who participated in the RESULTS conference were a powerful advertisement for the school.”
Sacred Heart’s interest and involvement in the conference came about in an unusual way. Gardiner was in a local CVS pharmacy when she noticed Christina Gunther, director of Global Health Programs and the Health Science program at SHU. Specifically, Gardiner noticed her “SHU Global Health Programs” sweatshirt and began a conversation. From there, the two emailed and then met again, along with Molly Higbie, assistant director of global health programs, and Kerry Morgan, clinical assistant professor of health science. Soon, representatives of the RESULTS Coastal CT chapter visited several of SHU’s health science classes to discuss advocacy. The results were tangible: students were encouraged to call their representatives about changes being made to the SNAP food assistance program that were up for a vote, and they did. “It was an amazing experience,” Gunther said.
Interest grew on campus, and the local RESULTS chapter presented more opportunities for involvement, such as the summer conference and a yearlong fellowship offered by RESULTS called REAL Change that is open internationally to applicants. Three members of the Sacred Heart community were accepted into the fellowship program: Higbie, Hannah Phipps ’20 and Olivia Gastaldo ’19.
This was the start of a meaningful partnership. Unbeknownst to the SHU group, alumna Evelyn Avoglia ’71 also experienced this same call to action at a spring 2018 RESULTS Coastal Connecticut meeting. “[They] encouraged us to call Connecticut members of Congress right then and there. I was hooked! I have been learning ever since,” Avoglia said.
At the Conference
The power to affect change as individuals was even more evident when Avoglia and Gardiner traveled with SHU representatives to Washington, D.C., in July. Participants from all 50 states attended the RESULTS conference, alongside volunteers from several other countries such as Australia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and the United Kingdom, to name a few. Representatives from global health advocacy partner organization ACTION also participated. Global health leaders, experts on poverty and motivational speakers from around the world took the podium at the informative and empowering event, speaking on some of the most pressing current issues, including tuberculosis and systemic racial discrimination in housing.
“At the RESULTS conference, I learned how to better articulate my ideas, thoughts and knowledge through effective advocacy techniques. I also learned from firsthand interactions that every person has a unique makeup of experiences that form their own story,” said Phipps, a Thomas Moore Honors Program student and health science major with a concentration in public health. Higbie said she was excited” to be surrounded by so many people willing to work hard to make a difference.”
That energy at the conference, from beginning to end, stood out to Morgan as well. “I could tell that the speakers and attendees were highly committed to their advocacy efforts. At some conferences, energy and even attendance tends to wane a bit towards the end. I think this conference was different because it ended with lobby day. We had to stay charged to effectively deliver our message to legislators and their staff,” Morgan said.
Lobbying on Capitol Hill
On Tuesday, July 17, the well-equipped volunteers took to the Capitol, meeting with members of Congress. Individuals in SHU’s contingent all began the day differently, from Morgan being “surprisingly comfortable” because of the practice leading up to the day, to Higbie feeling “incredibly nervous to lobby on Capitol Hill for the first time.” Her nerves were eased soon enough, however. “After the first few meetings with our representatives, I felt more confident in asking for what we wanted and explaining why it was important to the people of Connecticut,” Higbie said.
The group met with representatives from the offices of Connecticut Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and also the offices of Connecticut Representatives Joe Courtney, Rosa DeLauro, Jim Himes, John Larson and Elizabeth Esty.
Morgan described lobbying as “easily my favorite part of the conference,” and Avoglia referred to it as “exhilarating, exhausting and empowering.” Gunther looks back at the experience with appreciation. “I think lobbying is a powerful experience that highlights the fact that all of us as individuals have the power and opportunity to affect change. We are fortunate in our country to have this privilege,” she said.
This realization was not lost on Phipps, who said she will strive to always be engaged in the country’s democracy and “to never stop caring about issues that affect our fundamental human rights, even if they aren’t personally affecting me at the time.”
Sacred Heart and Social Justice
Sacred Heart has experienced incredible growth from its beginnings in 1963—starting with 200 undergraduate students and now educating approximately 8,500 undergraduate and graduate students with more than 80 degree and certificate programs. Yet, consistent through all the years and changes has been the University’s commitment to serving the community and world.
As an alumna from SHU’s early years, Avoglia has seen its mission firsthand. “Sacred Heart has developed into an impressive institution of higher learning, with overseas campuses and students from all over the world,” she said. “As a student in the late ’60s in the first U.S. Catholic college to be administered by lay people (thanks to Vatican II), my horizons were [previously] more circumscribed.” But Avoglia noted that her time at Sacred Heart allowed her to “transcend the limits” of her prior faith-based educational experiences through eye-opening service opportunities. “The Campus Minister, Rev. John Giuliani, was a great model and encourager of our involvement in Bridgeport’s urban hunger (crop walks and founding of Thomas Merton House), peace and justice actions and advocacy (the Vietnam War and farmworkers’ strikes/boycotts)…Those discussions, reflections and rituals opened my mind to the societal ramifications of the mostly personal piety that was nurtured in me during my 1950s childhood.” And today, Avoglia is convinced that SHU is “light-years ahead” in terms of world citizenship.
Faculty like Gunther, Higbie and Morgan reflect this commitment by enabling students to attend events like the RESULTS conference. “This type of conference aligns with SHU’s commitment to social justice and encouragement of students, faculty and staff ‘to respect the dignity of every person, to promote the common good and to serve others, especially the poor and suffering,’” Gunther emphasized. She called the conference “a powerful lesson in democracy in action.” Morgan added that social justice is the crux of the RESULTS conference and organization, “specifically advocating for political decisions that will help end poverty both domestically and globally.” The advocacy skills developed at RESULTS are transferable to any issue of importance, Morgan also noted. Higbie relayed the value of showing students a “wide variety of viewpoints” from “people across all spectrums of life.”
Sacred Heart and RESULTS Coastal Connecticut will continue this work with SHU’s health science classes again this fall.