Story of Justice: S. Barbara Jennings

About Change, Not Charity
by Sister Mary Flick, Justice Coordinator

Sister Barbara Jennings started her ministry as most sisters did 50 years ago, by teaching high school English and religion classes.  This could have been enough, except it was the 1970s, and everything was changing – in religious life, and in the world.  That change has led her on an ever-evolving path of ministry, with Catholic Worker and with NETWORK, as a parish administrator and as a community organizer, and now as coordinator of Midwest Coalition for Responsible Investment.  MCRI is a coalition of religious communities in the St. Louis area who work for justice by influencing the policies and practices of corporations though a variety of shareholder activities.  MCRI is a member of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in NYC (www.iccr.org). 

She reflects on her early days of justice ministry at the Catholic Worker House in Kansas City. Still teaching at St. Teresa’s Academy, she would bring the students to cook at Holy Family House, offering a meal to the residents, but little else. She now sees that service was “based on charity, not justice. When you are doing charity, you feel good, you are following the gospel,” Sister Barb says. “But you don’t change the system.”

Life next led her to work at an inner city parish in Kansas City, Church of the Risen Christ, where “I really saw a model for social justice in community organizing,” she says “I quickly learned it’s much easier to ask for charity than to ask people to participate in systemic change. 

Meantime, she was an active member of NETWORK, an organization of Catholic sisters that educates, organizes and lobbies for economic and social transformation.  It’s a group, Barb says, that serves as “a good teacher in social change at the legislative level.” In 2006, she briefly worked for NETWORK as a lobbyist, influencing legislation on the national farm bill, and setting up educational meetings in the region, offering ways for members to influence the bill. “It was so easy for me,” she recalls. “I knew so many people in Kansas City, it was easy to set up ‘Farm Bill nights.’”

In 2007, she began her work with MCRI in St. Louis. Her work involves “pulling together religious groups who can impact companies. It’s different but the same as approaching legislators,” she says. By saying it’s the same, she means. “You are in dialogue, you still have to know what the corporations are and are not doing. You have to write a good letter – and my background in English helps.” But it’s different, she says, because she sees corporations as having more influence and money than legislators. “Corporations are the real change agents in society. We fool ourselves if we don’t recognize this.  They follow the law of supply-demand.”

S. Barb’s work requires her to be a good teacher and researcher. “It’s a lot like adult education, something I learned when I taught at Avila and Fontbonne,” S. Barb says, referring to adjunct positions she has filled at the two CSJ universities in Missouri.

And there are more comparisons to her years in the classroom. “Like teaching, you give the corporate reps a little praise if they did something right. Then you push and challenge them to do more.”

Finally, like teaching, it requires a lot of preparation. She pulls together information and research for MCRI/ICCR team members before they go to a dialogue with a corporation or file a shareholder resolution. “I want MCRI team members to ask a question or make a comment, so it’s not just me doing all the talking,” she says. “This shows a company that everyone has an active knowledge and interest in what the company is doing. That’s important.”

S. Barb says it’s the little successes that keep her at her work with MCRI. In 2014, Monsanto joined the Water Accessibility to Sanitation and Health (WASH) CEO Water Mandate. WASH is a very measurable program, she says, requiring the installation of clean water and sanitation facilities at every facility or contract farm in every country where the corporation operates. “Monsanto has done a tremendous job, with 370 completed facilities.  Monsanto was the first agricultural chemical company to sign the CEO Mandate at our suggestion in 2014.                                        

“Systemic change is so hard because it costs money for a company to do the right thing – in the short term,” she says. “But in the long term, it saves money. With the WASH program, instead of protests and sick workers in India, Monsanto has healthy workers.”

One of the greatest challenges of this work, S. Barb admits, is the global reach of corporations. “We need people on the ground with concrete examples of what should be and is not being done,” she says, something not always possible when a corporation operates a continent away. “We need to hear from more religious women and men about their first hand experiences in India, Africa, and Argentina.”

All of this requires relationships, which is the way the Sisters of St. Joseph have always operated. “Our CSJ mission is the mission of systemic change, through relationships,” S. Barb says. “MCRI is built on relationships – among communities, between companies, with other organizations in the St. Louis area. Whether our focus is selecting investments or working for environmental issues, we have to develop relationships. We can’t do this work in silos. It’s about systemic change and relationships.”

S. Barb confesses that one of her greatest challenges today is seeing that this work continues. 

That’s why one of her main tasks currently is succession planning for MCRI, as the number of communities in St. Louis – and the number of community members – continue to decline.

“When we go to Monsanto, and they see gray hairs, they likely think, “’Two more years with these people and they are gone,’” she fears. “But investment companies are sending younger employees and doing the engagement work. It’s hopeful to see more young people attending to represent faith-based companies. We can put our money in investment companies that actually challenge companies to change, to improve.”

And the work of change begins and continues with hope.

10/17

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