Panel on justice calls for community action

The Global Citizens Scholars program sponsored an event titled Justice Efforts in Meadville on Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 5 p.m. in Quigley Auditorium. The aim of the event was to bring community members, who do justice work in the community, to campus to talk about their projects.

Professor of Modern and Classical Languages Laura Reeck teaches the pilot GCS program with Dave Roncolato, the director of the Office of Civic Engagement.

“The GCS program is a program that focuses on diversity, civic engagement and international learning,” Reeck said.

The program consists of 14 students who applied as freshmen. They are required to complete two hours of civic engagement a week and meet biweekly to do academic work that compliments their ongoing projects.

When I see that I’ve made a difference, that is what keeps me going.

— Patricia Prince

Jacob Gagliastri, ’19, joined the program because he was looking for a diverse group of people to do civic work with.

“I wanted to be in a group with people of all different backgrounds and who wanted to be comfortable in their own skin,” Gagliastri said.

Participants in the GCS program have done several hands-on learning projects, including a trip to Buffalo to aid refugees.

The Justice Efforts panel was originally planned exclusively for the GCS class, but Roncolato and Reek decided that it would be beneficial to open up the discussion to the whole community and student body.

“It is really educational. We want to let our student body here know what is being done in the community to build a safer, more inclusive and more just community,” Roncolato said.

Several organizations and representatives from community institutions were invited to speak about the work they do.

“The goal here was to get individuals who are connected to the college, but not employed by the college,” Roncolato said. “We wanted to hear about the broader justice issues that residents in the wider community are working on and that we are hopefully in partnership with.”

The first to present was Peter Zimmer. Zimmer is a native of Meadville and was also the Democratic candidate for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 6th Legislative District. He spoke about a range of topics that he views as problems currently facing the Meadville community.

“I ran for state legislator as a way to fight systematic blocks to education and healthcare,” Zimmer said.

Second to speak was Sonja Zelada from Stand Up for Racial Justice. Zelada, who is from Alabama, spoke of how witnessing bigotry as a child still motivates her work today.

“The system is built to favor white people, so it is important that white people fight for marginalized communities,” Zelada said. “With everything coming in these next four years, be ready to stand up for each other.”

Lynn McUmber, the executive director of the Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program and Allegheny alumna, was also invited to speak. CHAPS is a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing mental health care to those in the community.

“Our mission is to give individuals opportunities to laugh and develop higher level things like friendships, purpose and dreams. We see little miracles every day,” McUmber said.

Patricia Prince, a family advocate from Women’s Services, sat on the panel and spoke about the work she does.

“The violence we see is phenomenal,” Prince said. “When someone comes into our shelter we don’t ask, ‘Are you sure that is what happened?’”

Prince also works with the Human Trafficking Task Force, which works closely with the FBI in Pittsburgh and Erie.

“What started this is that we had a mail-order bride come into our center,” Prince said.

Crawford County is a hot-spot for human trafficking considering the plethora of large highways that intersect within the county lines, according to Prince.

Prince then closed by telling students that if they are passionate about an issue, they should pursue it.

“A full time commitment is more rewarding than any amount of money,” Prince said.

Next to speak was Ebony Baxter, a “non-traditional” student at Allegheny College, who spent most of her life in Meadville. A majority of the work Baxter does is with the Crawford County Overdose Prevention Coalition. Baxter works primarily with children.

“I don’t have a degree in sociology or psychology. I do this job because of the experiences I have lived through,” Baxter said. “I wanted to be someone who came from that life and could tell those kids, ‘I know what it’s like.’”

Sarah Roncolato, the senior pastor of the Stone United Methodist Church, was last to  present. She spoke about the soup kitchen the Stone Church has run for 32 years and her time as a Methodist clergywoman. She said she is concerned with issues regarding race and LGBTQ+ rights in the church.

She also spoke about how she works to bridge the gap between different communities in Meadville. As an example, she spoke of how there was an organized basketball game between the police and students from the local high school. She finished by reminding the students that their actions have an impact.

“When you are in the community, you represent Allegheny. You are who Allegheny is,” Sarah Roncolato said.

McUmber told the 36 students who attended the panel that giving back to the community in some way can be an uplifting experience.

“I think there is so much reward in offering your services to people and knowing it has the potential to make a difference,” McUmber said.

Prince agreed, and said,  “When I see that I’ve made a difference, that is what keeps me going.”

When speaking about the relationship between Allegheny College and the community in Meadville, Zimmer said there is untapped potential.

“There is a wealth of energy and initiative on campus that this community misses out on,” Zimmer said.

Dave Roncolato said that in addition to the potential, people must be patient.

“Justice work takes a long time,” Dave Roncolato said. “The dedication is a powerful witness to our students.”