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In Deep Water: Cristo Rey Jesuit Students Explore Water Justice in Baltimore

Before graduating from high school, seniors from the class of 2016 at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore took a deep research dive through their social justice course, examining how as a school community they can ensure that water is valued as a human right in their city. Inspired by the message of Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’, but equally troubled by the unfolding water crisis in Flint, Mich., and concerned about water access in Baltimore, students chose water as the focus for this high school capstone project. Informed by local, national and global news stories, teams of students worked over ten weeks to investigate a unique water issue in Baltimore. In addition to insightful research, this student-led project formed young men and women confident in their ability to use their intellect and passion to work for justice in their community.

The seeds for this project began during the summer of 2015, when campus ministry, service director and religion teacher Christine Gallagher began working with Travis Henschen, a colleague in the history department, to create a rigorous, student-directed, interdisciplinary project to integrate into her social justice course curriculum. When Laudato Si’ was released, both teachers were struck by Pope Francis’ words: “water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights.” They spent the summer developing the research question, rubrics for students’ final projects, and a long list of resources to direct students at the start of their project.

 

Cristo Rey Jesuit Baltimore students outside city hall after visiting an open city council session on water bills.

Students used the pastoral circle - a process which helps groups make good social decisions - as a framework for their research project. They considered water-related experiences of Baltimore residents and selected an issue based on those experiences for further research. As part of this examination of water experiences, students attended an open meeting of the city council at City Hall. They also invited a student’s mother, who works for the water department, to present on how the city cleans water, as well as Baltimore’s water concerns and ways to address them. Students delved into social analysis to better understand water issues, asking who is making water decisions, who is profiting from those decisions and who is paying for those decisions. They engaged in theological reflection with Laduato Si’ and Catholic Social Thought; students connected these faith principles with the research they were doing. Finally, after reflection on the many elements at work, students developed action plans to respond to the concerns they saw related to water in their community.

Two project teams focused on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, specifically education and clean-up efforts. One group developed an awareness raising campaign on the true conditions of the Harbor, recognizing a general lack of knowledge about pollution levels and water quality. They created a poster to display in schools, sharing pollution details discovered through Harbor clean-up efforts and the importance of keeping it clean. Another team researched a water-powered clean-up mechanism that would supplement the work of the Trash Wheel, which has helped cut down on some of the garbage that makes its way into the Harbor.


Cristo Rey Jesuit Baltimore students working in teams to research and develop solutions on a water issue.

Two other research groups looked closely at issues related to water billing in Baltimore. One team proposed developing presentations to help adults better understand their water bills, outlining the rights of city residents and how elected officials can be of assistance. The final group worked to help a neighborhood homeless shelter manage delinquent water bills and remain open. The shelter administration struggled to decipher their water bills and found little support. As part of their research, Cristo Rey students raised money to cover past water costs and developed a volunteer program for other students to assist at the shelter.

After completing their research, teams presented their findings to a panel of judges, students, faculty and parents from the Cristo Rey community. Judges included Amelia Buttress, PhD, a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health; Fr. Thomas Roach, SJ, campus minister at Loyola University of Maryland; and Erik Zygmont, reporter for The Catholic Review. Students were motivated to put forward their best work by the presence of this prestigious audience from outside the school community. The winning team of five students, who focused on the shelter in crisis because of past water bills, selected by the judges each won a $500 college scholarship.

With support from their faculty, these seniors at Cristo Rey Jesuit experienced the power of research put in action to address important issues in their community. Each research team offered a concrete example of how Cristo Rey Jesuit Baltimore can ensure that water is valued as a human right.


Cristo Rey Jesuit students inside Baltimore City Hall chambers.




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