By Becky Aubut
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — The Voice of the Poor Committee for Social Justice, part of the Attleboro district council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, will be sponsoring “Making Criminal Justice Really Work: Catholic Restorative Justice and the Vincentian Re-entry Organizing Project,” on November 14 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro.
Benito Vega, the Massachusetts state coordinator for the Vincentian Re-entry Organizing Project, and Tom Dwyer, chairman of the National St. Vincent de Paul Voice of the Poor Committee, will offer personal stories and highlight Catholic social teaching on restorative criminal justice.
Dwyer became chairman of the National SVdP Voice of the Poor Committee in August and has embraced his larger role in promoting advocacy of the poor at all levels, from local, state and nationally.
“I knew partially what I was getting into,” said Dwyer. “It’s a volunteer role that can certainly be a full-time job through the various things to do, but there are a lot of great people who I’m working with. My role is to coordinate the work of the eight different regions and their leaders, and it’s also to work with a number of outside agencies on matters that affect the poor.”
He is also helping to update SVdP position papers; position papers state where the society stands and its focus on certain issues including poverty, immigration, self-sufficient wages and healthcare by referencing Catholic social teaching and keeping in mind the dignity of the people involved: “Some of those are out-of-date,” said Dwyer, “so we’re trying to work through and update as we go along.”
Dwyer is also helping put out action alerts and bulletins to members to contact federal legislators and ask them to support various bills the group thinks will benefit the poor, like supplemental nutrition program or a bill on criminal justice reform, unemployment benefits, or immigration reform; “A whole variety of things that are being debated at the national level,” said Dwyer. “We try to monitor those activities. We work with USCCB and with Catholic Charities U.S.A., and a number of interfaith groups.
“It’s hard to tell what kind of an impact we are having, but what we’re doing is raising awareness and getting the faith-based word out, and I think that’s what’s critically important. We’re raising awareness among our own Vincentians and getting the word out in general to congressmen and senators that these things matter. I think it has an impact; someone has to be speaking on behalf of the poor.”
Locally, the SVdP Voice of the Poor Committee has had some success with a number of families living in hotels in the Attleboro area. Soon they hope to work with families and help break the cycle of poverty once and for all through the “Getting Ahead” program. Vincentian parish conferences are currently working to try to identify families who could benefit from an intensive review of the circumstances of their life of poverty, how it came to be, what it means, how it affects them and how do they eventually move out of it.
“It examines everything from living environment to personal relationships,” said Dwyer, “economic situations to the community role, to barriers they’re facing — either systematic barriers or personal barriers — and there’s a facilitator who takes them through a 16-week program, a couple of hours each week, and they investigate all these circumstances of their life with the intent of moving themselves beyond that, and identifying what they need to do whether it be job training or more educational opportunities, transportation or budgeting issues.
“I think one of the things we’re looking at is trying to devise and approach in the coming election cycle the question of poverty as a major issue at all levels of the election process — federal, state and local level. With Pope Francis’ visit and the emphasis he put on reaching out to the poor and the marginalized, we’re looking to make that an issue at the races at all the levels.”
Poverty often begets criminal behavior as children are raised in an unstable environment, such as the childhood of Vega, who then embarked on a criminal lifestyle until he chose to go straight. Even then, his past cast a long shadow on his going forward, and Vega — along with Dwyer –— has been active in doing presentations throughout the area to raise awareness of the difficulties ex-offenders face when trying to turn his or her life around.
Dwyer cited the pope’s recent visit to the United States that included a visit to a prison in Philadelphia; repeated editorials in the Boston Globe for the need for change; and the fact that the president has been the issue: “[There’s] a broad, bipartisan support for change,” said Dwyer, “so it’s very timely in that respect. People realize the criminal justice system is not working effectively and is costly, so they’re looking for alternative approaches and we think the model that the bishops have talked about, the basic principles should guide our public discussion. That’s what the presentation will do.”
Diana Reeves, chairman of the Voice of the Poor Committee for Social Justice of the Attleboro district for St. Vincent de Paul, has said that being part of the committee has been “exciting and rewarding,” as she has seen the committee make inroads and raise awareness over the years.
“We’ve been a liaison between legislative action and what they are doing, and what we see of the needs from the people we serve, and a conduit to bring awareness to the people in the parishes and in the towns we serve,” she said.
Last year the group worked on trying to promote the passage of a bill to provide a safety net for homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24 by placing a mannequin around town: “That was an eye-opening experience for all of us,” said Reeves. “People were surprised we weren’t trying to get money, but trying to get them to understand and sign a petition. As a result of that happening, that bill did pass and that was very rewarding.”
Recently Voice of the Poor reps attended a rally in support of restorative justice issues through the “Jobs Not Jails” initiative, attended the hearings for the neighborhood safety bill, and personally visited the legislators in the Attleboro area to ask for their support of the legislation; “It was a three-prong effort to make a difference legislatively,” Reeves said.
“We try to keep our eyes and ears open on legislation that is impacting the people we serve,” Reeves added.
As an ex-offender, Benito and others will offer their personal stories at the presentation at La Salette, and describe their efforts to reform their lives in a system stacked against them, while Dwyer will highlight Catholic social teaching on restorative criminal justice. The presentation is free, no pre-registration is required, and will take place in the presentation hall in Welcome Center of the shrine.
“We hope that, first of all, people become aware of the difficulty ex-offenders have trying to return to society, and also the impact that things such as poverty and homelessness, a lack of family structure, have had on people going to prison,” said Dwyer.
Vega had a difficult home life and upbringing, and it’s a vicious cycle, added Dwyer: “We hope that when people come and hear the personal stories, they will see [the ex-offenders] as human, not intrinsically evil or bad people — just people who have gone astray with very understandable reasons.”
For additional information, contact: VOP@svdpattleboro.org.