Social Justice Entrepreneurs

Seniors Combine Christian Service with Independent Research to Address Issues of Social Justice

Like many Regians, Chris Scazzero ’18 commutes through the Metro North station at Harlem-125th Street. During his freshman year, he noticed—as most commuters do—the many homeless and needy people who line the streets, bus stations, and subway platforms of New York City. “What can I do about this?” he asked himself.

Wanting to make a positive impact, he began giving his lunch money to those in need. A dollar here, a few coins there. But his charity was adding up, and leaving him with little to use on his own needs. When he spoke to his parents about the problem, they helped Chris recognize that giving money directly to homeless people might not be making the impact he intended. While generous and empathetic, the dollar here or a few coins there might not be going to food or to clothes for a job interview, his parents explained. Chris stopped giving on his walk to school, but his heart continued breaking for those who go without.

The Senior Third Trimester at Regis offers a unique opportunity for students to pursue their interests and give back to the community. All Regis seniors perform Christian Service every Tuesday morning throughout the school year. In the third trimester, roughly half of seniors opt to spend their entire trimester doing full-time Christian Service from Monday to Friday. The other half of seniors continue with their Tuesday morning commitment and enroll is special third trimester electives.

Since the spring of 2016, small groups of seniors have pioneered a new option for third trimester work. Rather than choosing full-time service or focusing intensely on academics, these seniors pursue a program called Social Justice Entrepreneurship. They complete Christian Service work on three days of the week. During the other two days, they work on independent projects that strive to solve a problem of social justice.

Students find Christian Service sites that are related to the social justice issue they would like to address. For example, in the first year of the program, Andrew Aoyama ’16 wanted to study the refugee crisis that was international news at the time. He completed his service work at Catholic Refugee Services in downtown Manhattan and conducted his academic research here in the Regis library, poring through articles in Foreign Affairs magazine and reading monographs on international relations.

The following year, Tobi Ayeni ’17 and Brian Reyes ’17 wanted to better understand the achievement gap for students from low socioeconomic statuses. So they volunteered their time right here in the building as interns for the REACH Program. They even conducted some of their field research close to home, interviewing REACH administrators and REACH graduates as part of their study of what factors impact academic achievement for members of disenfranchised communities.

Other students have completed their Christian Service work in local schools, studying the use of technology in those schools and assessing how it can (or cannot) be maximized. Jason Cuomo ’18 notes, “The lack of digital access and fluency in the classrooms of my service site, an elementary school in Harlem, had always been very apparent to me, and I saw how it was hurting both the students and teachers. My hope is that exposing, and then tackling, this issue will minimize both the “digital divide” itself and the unjust consequences it presents to many of our nation’s students and teachers.”

Another student noticed during his walk to his service site in West Harlem how the neighborhood had a mix of high-end coffee shops and fancy apartments within blocks of depressed areas and public housing projects. His observations led him to continue his Christian Service at the same school while studying the dynamics of gentrification in the neighborhood.

Father Anthony Andreassi, CO, Director of Senior Christian Service, and Christian Mariano ’99, Assistant Principal for Student Life and Formation, collaborate to run the program. Fr. Andreassi helps students find Christian Service sites that relate to their overall project, while Mr. Mariano guides students through the academic side of the work. Mr. Mariano commented that the program helps students “identify a problem, conduct research, manage a project, and see it to the finish. These are all important life skills.”

The program also partners with STEP, the Satellite Theological Education Program in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Students take an online course through this program titled Catholic Social Teaching. This course expands the students’ background in Christian Morality studied in junior year with a specific focus on applying Catholic morality to today’s world. Online education is becoming more and more prevalent, especially in the higher education space, and this is a great opportunity for students to be exposed to a different learning format and coursework at a higher level.

“I think that the STEP class is important because it allows students to dive deep into the difference between justice and charity,” Mr. Mariano commented. “It gives meaning to the work that they are doing. It’s easy for us to have Christian service requirements. What’s good about the course and this program is that it establishes real engagement for what the students do. Their action is driven by faith. The students are really committed to what they are doing, and that’s why they get so much out of it.”

The program concludes when the students involved make presentations to the entire senior class on the final day of the Social Justice Seminars. Students share their research, reflections on their service, as well as their suggestions to how to make a positive, innovative impact in addressing their chosen issue.

When it came time to decide how to spend his senior third trimester, Chris came back to that question that had been nagging him since freshman year: “What can we do for the homeless of our city?” He spoke to friends about the idea, and ultimately gathered a team and wrote a proposal for the Social Justice Entrepreneurship option.

Chris and classmates Frank Matranga ’18 and Michal Kozlowski ’18 have partnered with WeShelter, an app that works to raise money to house the homeless. While at first the students thought they would write their own app to make localized donations to shelters, they quickly found that WeShelter was already making inroads in the same space. They contacted one of the company’s founders, and he brought them on as high school ambassadors and to help with the software development.

Ilya Lyashevsky, co-founder of WeShelter, said, “I’ve been impressed with Chris, Frank and Michal--their ideas, enthusiasm, commitment, and overall attitude. It has been a delight to work with them.” Frank, a student with a passion and talent for computer coding, has been given access to the app’s code and is helping to develop the software itself. Chris and Michal are marketing the app to other high school students, many who are eager to make an impact and obviously tech-savvy. Lyashevsky continued, “We have previously had interest from high schools in the city in having students intern with us. But our collaboration with Regis has been the most fruitful effort in this area thus far. Chris and his classmates are spearheading a drive to raise awareness of the platform at Regis and beyond, working to expand our social media presence, as well as doing some development work on the WeShelter app. We’re excited to continue working with them through the rest of this semester, and to explore the idea of making this a recurring collaboration.”

Mr. Mariano has also been impressed by the students’ professional interaction with a real 501(c)3: “They have weekly meetings with the co-founder, they’ve been given access to the underlying code, and they really are seen as partners in building the app and promoting its mission.” He has also been impressed by the students’ collaboration with one another, and the way they each use and develop individual strengths, something Chris noticed as well: “Working with Michal and Frank together been a tremendous part of the experience. We each bring a unique skill set to the table, and, put together, we’ve been able to do a lot of really great work.”

Regis High School prides itself on academic rigor and excellence, as well as a commitment to service and forming students to become Men for Others. This program is just one example of how these two core aspects of our mission go hand-in-hand.

Posted: 5/17/18