The Poverty Project encompasses the campus community’s efforts to explore the everyday scandal of material poverty at home and abroad.
The Poverty Project was inspired by the work of Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, the “Father of Liberation Theology” and a lifelong champion for the rights of the world’s “poorest of the poor.” In the fall of 2009, Elmhurst College awarded Gutiérrez the Niebuhr Medal, the College’s highest honor, for his lifetime of service to humanity.
In an effort to extend the meaning of Gutiérrez’s message, The Poverty Project at Elmhurst College offered a variety of opportunities throughout the 2009-2010 academic year to confront and alleviate poverty. These included not only one-time cultural events and exhibitions, but also classroom projects and community outreach efforts that began long before The Poverty Project was born and that will continue long after the school year ends.
What we say: Lectures and forums
The Poverty Project’s lecture series opened with Jerry Kellman, a longtime grass-roots organizer in Chicago and an early mentor of Barack Obama, talking about “Compassion and Poverty in the Obama Era.” Distinguished journalist Barbara Rose led a panel of experts in a discussion on what poverty looks like, and what it means, in affluent DuPage County. The concluding Poverty Project lecture was given by internationally acclaimed author Alex Kotlowitz, who discussed “The Things They Carry: Growing Up Poor in the World’s Wealthiest Nation.”
Intrigued by the Poverty Project, Chicago Public Radio invited members of the campus community to write essays about their experiences with some aspect of poverty, for possible broadcast on the program "Eight Forty Eight." The lead essay, by President S. Alan Ray, aired on February 15. Essays also were written by Elmhurst College students Dan Zarlenga, Jessica Sullivan, Glen Gomez, and Teresa Doyle.
What we see: Film series and photo exhibits
Poverty was explored through the artist’s lens during the Poverty on the Silver Screen film series, introduced by Chicago Reader film writer Andrea Gronvall and including such films as The Grapes of Wrath and Slumdog Millionaire. The Visual Voices Project: Bhopal, India, was an exhibition of photographs taken by the children of survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide gas-leak disaster. The project was taught by Lynn Hill, an associate professor of art at Elmhurst College. Photojournalists from the Chicago Tribune captured The Faces of Need in a photo retrospective that began during the Great Depression and that continues on to today’s recession-struck neighborhoods.
What we do: Involvement
“Our service to the poor begins with the recognition that we at the College are part of a global family, whose choices—economic, environmental, and social—have an impact on the lives of everyone around us,” said Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray.
“Especially in this time of recession, we are mindful of those struggling to live and to labor with dignity.” “As a College, we will provide education around poverty as well as direct service to those in need,” Ray said. “In so doing, we will realize our core value, to act on our social responsibilities and call on others to do the same.”
Big Questions: During this college orientation program, first-year students are asked to think about their connections with the larger world, and then to act in a way that acknowledges and helps a world in need.
Service Learning: Each semester, several hundred Elmhurst College students participate in service learning opportunities locally and around the world. The service learning program allows students to receive credit for working to improve lives, often in poor and underserved communities, whether by tutoring in local schools, running recreational programs for disabled kid, or finding other ways to help clients who might not otherwise be able to afford such programs or services.
J-Term Abroad: All of the January-term classes that travel abroad feature a service-learning component that involves working with children and adults who are to some degree affected by poverty. Probably the longest-running such educational experience is run by music department Professor Judy Grimes, who takes students from every discipline, but especially music, to Jamaica to teach and support instrumental music programs in the schools.
Students: The Global Poverty Club student group shares small but significant ways for anyone to fight poverty around the world, and also has raised money and awareness for causes in Haiti, Ghana and elsewhere. The Student Government Association takes part in countless efforts to help people in need closer to home, including choosing a Charity of the Year on which to focus fundraising efforts; granting a Thing 1-2-3 Fellowship in partnership with the Northern Illinois Food Bank; or organizing a canned-food drive with the campus’ food-service provider. A number of students also spent their spring break building homes in New Orleans for Habitat through Humanity; and several nursing students provided health care and information to residents of a Cherokee community in the Appalachians.